Dressed in buckskin period clothing one day recently, Stephanie Burkhart joined school children in learning how to make candles from tallow, write journals and start a fire from flint, part of Lewis and Clark National Historical Park’s Art of Discovery Program. It was the kind of experience she signed up for as acting superintendent of the park.
“I was just inspired by the story itself of the Corps (of Discovery) coming out and everything they had to endure,” she said.
While the National Park Service (NPS) searches for a permanent superintendent to replace David Szymanski, Burkhart will be handling oversight of the park, her first on-the-ground assignment since becoming assistant director of congressional affairs and communications for the NPS’s Pacific West Region in 2010. For the four-month transition period, she will be overseeing the park’s many ongoing projects.
She cites Szymanski’s efforts to tell a more inclusive story at the park, including the accounts of Native Americans encountering the Corps of Discovery, as something that in her temporary role she wants to see continue.
“I’m coming in to hopefully keep that going,” Burkhart said. “I think we’re focusing a lot on the telling of the story now,” she says about the next 100 years of the NPS, which will celebrate its centennial in 2016. The first 100 years has dealt more with identifying the important areas to protect, she said, adding that now the history has become just as important.
She’s thrilled to see everything that has been accomplished by the small staff at Lewis and Clark with heavy involvement of the community and regional partners such as Native American Tribes and school groups. “That’s inspiring to be in a place like that,” she said.
Her regional role spans from the Pacific Ocean to the eastern border of Nevada, encompassing 59 parks altogether. At 38 years old, her career path has shifted from science to history, nonprofit to government, ocean to forest and San Francisco to the North Coast of Oregon.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in biology, Burkhart went on to complete a master’s degree in zoology at the University of Otago in New Zealand as part of a Fulbright Scholarship. Her role there was one of conservation, looking at endangered species and fishing practices. Some of her results led to a permanent protection area.
After finishing her work there, she wanted to continue in a similar area. “I was really interested in continuing in ocean areas,” she said. She applied for a position at Pacific Whale Foundation, a nonprofit on the island of Maui in Hawaii, and became their director of research and education. While working in the nonprofit world, she found that she did a lot of advocating without getting to see the result of it.
“I wasn’t getting to see those things implemented, and I wanted to be a part of that,” she said. “Working with the government, which is on the receiving end of implementation, is where I wanted to go.”
Even though she enjoyed her period of time in the field conducting research, she needed to communicate why something was important. “I don’t believe in doing science for science’s sake,” she said. “I believe that if you’re going to do science then you need to be doing it for a purpose, and you need to make sure you can talk about that purpose in layman’s terms so everyone understands.”
to Coast Guard
From the nonprofit world she went on to the U.S. Coast Guard, where she worked to protect and conserve marine resources out of their Pacific Area of Command, which spans the Western United States to Asia and the Artic to Antarctica. She stayed at that job for about five years but was ready for something new.
From the Coast Guard to National Park Service was another kind of leap, but Burkhart doesn’t see that much difference when it comes down to it. “The two missions are about stewardship.” She also found that both are very family oriented and said they take care of their people. Her husband, Aaron Dowe, also works for the NPS in San Francisco in the facility management division.
Burkhart’s regional role with the NPS is as a congressional adviser. “I enjoy it because it’s so interesting to me how Congress makes laws and sets direction,” she said. “I think I enjoy many parts of the job that involve interacting with people.”
This isn’t her first time in Oregon. Burkhart completed a veterinarian internship at Oregon State University in Corvallis.
She said the rain can be a little much, but she’s enjoying seeing all that the park is doing.
With the dedication of Middle Village Station Camp exhibit in August, Burkhart has started to figure out what the appropriate level of staffing and what kind of special programs the park can do before her permanent replacement takes over. She also is at the park during a period of continued sprucing up.
Across the road from Netul Landing, the local Oregon Youth Authority is building fences to keep elk out of native grass species the park is trying to make flourish. On Dec. 8, there will be a volunteer planting day.
Though the park may oversee the projects, Burkhart sees the community as the engine driving them. “Almost every single project that takes place at this park is the result of a partnership,” she said.
In February she is scheduled to return to San Francisco, back to the regional office for the Park Service, but she plans on hiking the Coast Trail before that happens. If only it wouldn’t rain.
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.