A life lived in National Parks, with differing perspectives

I grew up hiking and exploring eastern National Parks such as Great Falls, Shenandoah, Blue Ridge, Assateague, as well as the National Capitol Region's monuments, battlefields, and historic sites.  Trips to parks such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Mesa Verde made me fall even more deeply in love with the concept of protected areas.

It was not until I studied abroad in Kenya and met people whose homes were damaged or destroyed by elephants, whose cattle had been eaten by lions, and whose crops had been crushed and decimated by wildlife that were harbored in protected areas that I began to think more deeply about the important social and economic impact these places could have on neighboring populations.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Northern Cameroon for two and a half years I reached an even deeper understanding of the human-dimensions of protected areas. Charged with collaborating with villagers, traditional authorities, and regional government administrators to set up a National Park for ecotourism in the region I was emersed in the complexity of these spaces.  On the one hand villagers and government authorities saw the park as a positive thing--something that could potentially bring in revenue and that might supply food in times of drought or famine.  On the other hand, I watched my friends sleep in their fields in the hopes of protecting their crops from baboons leaving the park and I spoke with people whose families had been displaced in the park's creation--their land taken with no compensation. 

Seeking to continue to grapple with these complex issues, I applied to graduate school to research national parks in Cameroon.  Working with my wonderful Cameroonian counterparts to study Waza National Park was a profound experience that changed the way I thought about protected areas entirely.  I came to understand that while the creation and maintenance of protected areas was a highly fraught and problematic issue for neighboring populations, so was the dissolution of park management.  I found that a lack of management in the park allowed this deliberately unpopulated space to be used by kidnappers and thieves.

Following a desire to apply what I learned in Waza National Park to the United States National Park Service, I researched crime and law enforcement in the Pacific West Region of the National Park Service.  

I continue to enjoy wandering the slopes of Yosemite Valley, crawling through the caves at Pinnacles National Park, and exploring the cinder cones of Lassen.  I just look at these places with a different eye than I did growing up.  These are spectacular places, but complicated ones indeed.