Christine (Chris) Lehnertz, who was named General Superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in May, is not only new to this park but also relatively new to the National Park Service (NPS). Joining the NPS just eight years ago, she continues to bring to the agency a fresh perspective and an insatiable curiosity—as her Golden Gate colleagues have quickly discovered.
"The folks here, as I've come in and gotten oriented, say that I'm 'inquisitive'—instead of saying: 'Boy, she sure asks a lot of questions!'" Chris laughs.
Gateways recently had the opportunity to turn the tables and ask Chris a few questions.
In the past four months, you've been getting to know the Golden Gate National Parks. What have you learned?
What I take away first is just what a tremendous place this is. Every park unit is special because there's something significant about it, something that the American public decided must be preserved forever—its scenery, its history, or its place in our shared culture.
And, in Golden Gate, all of those things are here—whether it's Fort Point and its amazing history of coastal defense; or it's Alcatraz, with its multi-layered history; or Muir Woods, that really is, in some ways, the heart of the whole movement for National Monuments to be established.
All the layers of preservation and conservation that you see across the country are really represented right here at Golden Gate—plus a myriad of unique visitor experiences for everyone.
Is there a particular spot in these parks that has special meaning to you?
That's a really, really tough question. It seems like every time I come to a new park site, I love it! But one place that pops up in my mind is Fort Point. I've looked out at the Golden Gate Bridge for years. And I've seen Fort Point—but had never visited before. In walking through that fort for the first time, it really strikes you that the heritage we protect there is so deep and so rich.
And you understand why the designer of the Golden Gate Bridge [Joseph Strauss] decided to build around it—so we could keep it a part of our nation's history. So, in an emotional way, Fort Point really touched a part of me that I hadn't experienced before.
What's special about being a park ranger, and being a part of the NPS?
The Park Service is in such a unique position among federal agencies. What we do really brings people together in joy and wonder. Whether it's family members, friends, or strangers coming together, there's the possibility for a deeply moving experience—inspired by the history of the United States, an amazing landscape, or a story of courage.
Being a park ranger is just such an honor, knowing that people look to us to steward these places and experiences. It's a big responsibility, but it comes with a significant expectation to perform well.
Immediately prior to coming to Golden Gate, you were Regional Director of the Pacific West region for the NPS. Can you compare and contrast your roles as Regional Director, and now Superintendent?
As a Regional Director, I learned a lot about 61 different park units—from Death Valley, which has the lowest elevation point in North America at Badwater Basin, to Sequoia/Kings Canyon, which is home to Mount Whitney, with the highest summit in the contiguous U.S. There are so many stories that we tell, from our conservation roots in John Muir to the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. Every habitat, every ecosystem, and all the different stories helped me understand the diversity of what we protect and interpret. The regional office staff are devoted to the NPS values and spend time, energy, and effort helping every one of those parks achieve the mission of the Park Service.
And while that work was very rewarding, I could never spend as much time on each of those topics as I would have liked. I love to wallow around in the details and the specifics, and Golden Gate really gives me the opportunity to do that. Now, I get to continuously work with the individual members of the Parks Conservancy, the Headland Center for the Arts, and other amazing partner groups, who know the park so well. The people who run on the trails here. The people who hike at Lands End. The people inspired to create art here. And I get to see what moves them and how they connect with the park.
What do you envision as Golden Gate's role in marking the NPS' 100th birthday in 2016?
The Centennial goal of the Park Service overall is to connect with and create the next generation of park visitors, supporters, and advocates. We're happy that we've been around for 100 years but we're really focusing on the future.
And Golden Gate, along with its partners, is a park unit that is known—across the park system—for innovations in reaching new audiences and connecting with youth. In a lot of ways, Golden Gate opened the door to that next century early on.
For 2016, we're thinking about how we can bring the Park Service experience—and those significant stories about the parks—into more communities. How do we reach people in the Mission? How do we touch the lives of people in the Bayview? How do we go into Marin City? And how do we create—right where they live—the kind of "connection to place" that you get when you're in a national park?
I think parks make us healthier—emotionally healthier, physically healthier, maybe healthier in our relationships. And taking that beyond the boundaries of the park—for everyone to experience, for everyone to benefit from—is a big part of what our future needs to look like.
You've touched on some benefits that parks bring to us. How else do they contribute to society?
People have talked about the national parks as one of the most democratic ideas in our nation's history. These places and these stories are available to everyone; they're not limited just to a few, or just to a select group. In a lot of ways, they're one of America's best ideas in terms of a civic opportunity. And in today's environment, I think the Park Service can play in a role in elevating our civic engagement with one another.
I truly believe the Park Service can find ways to facilitate conversations, to create safer and more inspiring ways to engage with one another—as part of the civic fabric, not just the historic fabric, but the civic fabric for the future.
I think the Park Service and our partners are good at telling stories that matter. And if we can help people talk to each other, in a closer community, in the most civil way, about what matters—that may be our greatest contribution.
What do you envision as the legacy of the Golden Gate National Parks?
Golden Gate was a park that wasn't made of whole cloth—like a Mt. Rainier or a Hawai'i Volcanoes, which came as large areas of land.
Golden Gate's legacy will be about how a national park was assembled from nationally significant places in the City of San Francisco, from historic military lands, from parcels of state lands. And its legacy will really be about creating a park that is for everyone—everyone in the United States, and really for everyone worldwide.
Some people might say that "they broke the mold when they made Golden Gate" because it was such a departure from the National Park Service's idea of creating scenic parks in isolated, far-flung areas. This was about bringing those national park values closer to a population—a population that shares similar values in terms of conservation, environmentalism, recreation and public participation.
But I would say we made a new mold—and I think we've seen other parks succeed in urban areas where their success wasn't ensured. It's nice to have more than one mold for establishing and protecting our nation's stories.
What are some of your other favorite national parks?
I think about one of the first parks I visited with my family when I was a little kid, and it was Mesa Verde National Park, in southwestern Colorado. Amid all the vast Anasazi ruins and the kivas you could go into and the ladders you could climb, my very favorite thing was looking at the dioramas in the museum, where they had little tiny people that were an inch tall in the village, with little tiny dogs, and little tiny skillets and little tiny fires.
And I think I remember that because it was right at my level. I was probably about three and a half feet tall, and I could look right into those dioramas and those villages and be transported back in history. And I wondered what it would be like to be a little kid, running around in those cliff dwellings.
When I think about an early connection in life to a place I didn't know was a "national park"—but to an experience that meant so much to me—I think about Mesa Verde and that old museum with the tiny people in that diorama.
You've always seen the parks from a different perspective! Since you're relatively new to the Park Service, entering in 2007, you bring relatively fresh eyes to the parks.
I came in with more experience as a visitor than as a Park Service employee, and I think that has been an opportunity to think differently about parks.
When I was a park visitor, before I worked for the National Park Service, my goal was typically to get to a park as early as I could, go for a hike, take in the scenery, and then try to beat the traffic home, like in Denver. And I didn't spend a lot of time in visitor centers. But as I become more familiar with parks as a Park Service employee, the value of our visitor contacts—for those who don't spend a lot of time in parks—has become much more important to me. I see now the tremendous significance of those personal connections—whether through a partner organization or an interpretive program or on a walk with a ranger.
An abridged version of this interview first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Gateways. To subscribe to Gateways, the quarterly newsletter of the Parks Conservancy, become a member today.
Photos by Paul Myers