Buff Chris Lehnertz takes charge of an American icon.
Superlatives come easy at the Grand Canyon. So do spiritual feelings: For the English writer J. B. Priestley, the great cleft was no less than “a revelation.”
Now the canyon and much of the surrounding landscape — more than a million acres in all — are Chris Lehnertz’ to care for.
At the end of August, Lehnertz (EPOBio’85) became the 19th superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, one of the most famous and visited in the National Park system.
“How can I not have a smile on my face?” she said in an early September interview, just days into the job.
The first woman to oversee Grand Canyon since it was first set aside as public space more than 100 years ago, Lehnertz is at home in America’s magnificent public spaces.
In her previous job, she led Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which includes Alcatraz Island and San Francisco’s Presidio and is the second most visited National Park Service site. Earlier Lehnertz was deputy superintendent at Yellowstone. From 2010 to 2015 she oversaw the park service’s entire Pacific West Region, which covers the six westernmost states plus the South Pacific islands of Guam, Saipan and American Samoa.
Like many of her fellow superintendents, Lehnertz will also need to manage an intensifying crush of visitors. With 5.5 million last year — up 16 percent year-over-year — Grand Canyon is the second most visited park.
In those roles she’s navigated an astonishing diversity of sometimes thorny issues — including a proposal to build the country’s largest landfill on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park in southern California and a bitter battle over dog leash policies in Golden Gate. Along the way she’s established herself as an open-minded listener and skilled broker of competing interests with a knack for fostering a sense of community among park employees.
“She’s a master at working with other folks,” said Neal Desai of the National Parks Conservation Association, an independent parks advocate and watchdog. “She treats other land managers, and stakeholders who don’t even agree with what the park service is doing or proposing, with a great deal of respect.”
Lehnertz has her work cut out for her at Grand Canyon. A primary task will be improving working conditions and morale among the park’s roughly 500 employees following a federal investigation that found “evidence of a long-term pattern of sexual harassment and hostile work environment” within the park.
Somebody told me, ‘You’re the new mayor.' It’s like running a town."
“We have some important work to do on improving how we care for employees,” she said. “We know there’s been a history of sexual harassment. We are really going to have to change the organization to make sure that Grand Canyon is an inclusive, respectful work environment. Somewhere in there something went wrong. And we can’t be shy about looking at that.”
In addition to a lot of careful listening, she said, initial priorities include cultivating relationships with 11 Native American tribes long associated with the park and telling the story of climate change, an aim for the entire National Park Service.
Like many of her fellow superintendents, Lehnertz will also need to manage an intensifying crush of visitors. With 5.5 million last year — up 16 percent year-over-year — Grand Canyon is the second most visited park. The park system recorded an all-time high of 307 million.
Then there’s the everyday work of running a high-traffic tourist destination — supervising routine maintenance (“I always talk about toilets, trash and trails,” Lehnertz said), wildlife management (resident condors and bison, for instance), tending to archaeological resources, working with concessionaires and managing infrastructure upgrades. The transcanyon pipeline that supplies fresh water for thousands of park residents badly needs attention.
“Somebody told me, ‘You’re the new mayor,’” said Lehnertz, 55. “It’s like running a town.”
Lehnertz joined the park ser vice in 2007, after a full career with several state and federal agencies with a stake in natural resources, including the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), where she spent 16 years in Denver and Washington.
She found her way to the Park Service almost by accident. While at the EPA, she applied to an executive training program with the Department of Interior, which runs the Park Service, as practice for a similar EPA program. Admitted, she took a temporary assignment at Yellowstone and found her colleagues congenial. After she returned to the EPA, the Yellowstone superintendent called and said, “Hey, I’ve got a deputy superintendent position open…”
“It was like a whole world opened up to me,” Lehnertz said.
Climate change is a story we have to tell. If we don’t change the path we’re on, it will be difficult to understand where our refuge is when the climate dramatically changes.”
Born in Texas, she grew up in Colorado, mainly around Littleton, the third of four children. Her father was a geologist who loved the outdoors.
“He was always taking the family out someplace in Colorado with his geologist’s pick in one hand and his magnifying lens in the other while mom was rounding up the kids and making sure we didn’t fall off any cliffs,” she said.
Lehnertz’ first visit to a national park came at about age 5, when the family went to see the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado, she said. Since then, she’s been to about 75 of more than 400 sites in the NPS system, from Acadia National Park in Maine to American Memorial Park on Saipan. (Of the sites, 59 are formally National Parks.)
It wasn’t until her 40s that Lehnertz first visited Grand Canyon. Soon she’ll know it as well as anyone.
Grand Canyon National Park is far more than the North and South Rims, where most visitors congregate, and it’s more than the mile-deep canyon itself. The park’s nearly 2,000 square miles include forests, deserts, plains, plateaus, streams and waterfalls, as well as archaeological ruins and millennia of geological splendor.
It’s the superintendent’s job to balance preservation of irreplaceable natural resources with a mandate to make them accessible to the public, and to interpret them.
Assessing climate change’s effect on the parks and educating visitors about it is a high priority for the NPS, Lehnertz said, and will be for her. At some park sites in the Pacific, she said, visitor parking lots built just 25 or 30 years ago are now under water as often as not.
“Climate change is a story we have to tell,” she said. “If we don’t change the path we’re on, it will be difficult to understand where our refuge is when the climate dramatically changes.”
In the fall, as Lehnertz and her spouse, Shari Dagg, were still settling into the superintendent’s house near the canyon’s South Rim, Lehnertz was getting up to speed and looking far ahead. One of the many tasks before her is preparing the next strategic plan for the park, which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2019.
“That sets us up this year to think about, ‘What is the future for Grand Canyon?’”
Lehnertz will have a hand in shaping that future, a relief for Neal Desai, the parks advocate.
“In my opinion, she’s the right person at the right time for the Grand Canyon,” he said.
What might come next for Lehnertz herself — after postings at Yellowstone, Golden Gate and Grand Canyon — is hard to imagine, and a ways off.
Someday, she said, “You retire and you just spend time going for hikes in all those parks you haven’t visited yet.”
Photos courtesy Grand Canyon National Park/NPS