GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — Chris Lehnertz is making changes, and it’s not all about geography.
A former employee of the Environmental Protection Agency, she joined the National Parks Service nine years ago and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down.
Having previously served as deputy superintendent at Yellowstone National Park, and regional director for the National Park Service’s Pacific West Region, she became superintendent for San Fransisco’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area only a few months ago in March 2016.
Lehnertz took up her post overseeing Grand Canyon National Park just last week.
Glancing around her new office, Lehnertz motions toward the artwork present in many corners of the room. She’s been looking forward to immersing herself in her new role.
“This is all about the inspiration that people draw from a place,” Lehnertz said. “This is a singular place on the planet, and it inspires art, it inspires poetry, it inspires song. It’s a place that has been carved over millions and millions of years. There’s a connection with traditional people that were here.”
But even areas steeped in beauty and inspiration have challenges, both internal and external, and Lehnertz has wasted no time delving into some of the issues at the Grand Canyon.
GCNP has one of the largest staffs of any national park in the United States, with more than 500 employees calling the park home during peak operating season. Lehnertz noted that, in a park with so many employees, a lot of them don’t have the opportunity to get to know each other, or completely understand what those who work in other areas of the park do.
“In terms of having almost 500 employees, that’s a really substantial amount of knowledge, skill and talent,” she said. “One of the challenges is making sure that we create great communication channels that go across the programs in the park. So we have biologists talking to maintenance workers, talking to public affairs and law enforcement. We have to make sure, as we move forward here, information is shared rapidly and relationships are developed in respectful ways.”
Lehnertz also is stepping in at GCNP on the heels of a revelation concerning widespread sexual harassment among park employees. An investigation by the Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General discovered several instances of male employees harassing their female counterparts, demanding sex and retaliating if the women refused. The scandal, brought to light in July of this year, led to unspecified disciplinary measures against former superintendent David Uberuaga and deputy superintendent Diane Chalfant. Uberuaga chose retirement rather than transferring to another post, while Chalfant remains deputy superintendent.
Changing a culture, especially in an area as large and varied as GCNP, is no small task. GCNP is the first park where sexual harassment prevention training has been offered by the National Park Service. Lehnertz said about 98 percent of park employees have received the training, and arrangements for the sessions are being made with the remaining few.
“This is an amazing showing of commitment and resources by the staff here,” she said. “These are training sessions that can make people uncomfortable — and they challenge us to think about the environment we create every day, both for ourselves and one another. The staff here really welcomed the opportunity.”
Understanding the needs and challenges of her staff isn’t the only thing Lehnertz will be undertaking, however.
Millions of visitors visit the Grand Canyon each year, from every state in the U.S. and every continent aside from Antartica. But Lehnertz says one of her biggest opportunities for growth lies with those who live a bit closer to home.
Reaching out to the people who have called the Grand Canyon home for centuries is also a process that Lehnertz is eager to tackle. Her first step, she said, is simply to listen to the needs and concerns of the 11 tribes in the area.
“I’m looking forward to meeting the folks who are on tribal staffs and councils and gaining an understanding of where they think our relationship is,” she said. “My sense is that we’ll continue to grow stronger in sharing our vision for the future, our understanding of the past, and how those special relationships between the park service and the tribes can be nurtured and furthered.”
While she is ready to meet the challenges remaining on the horizon, Lehnertz points to one of the most positive things she has witnessed since arriving at GCNP — the willingness of public and private entities to build strong partnerships.
“Right now, we have a search and rescue operation going on for a missing river guide,” she explained. “That’s a tragic experience, to get that call saying that someone is missing. Seeing people come together, whether it’s the private boaters, the commercial guides, all saying ‘What can we do to help?’ That’s an astounding commitment of people’s emotions and resources. They’re supportive of one another, and to me, that is a great example of the strong partnerships that already exist in this area.”
As she makes plans for building relationships and moving the park forward, Lehnertz wants to ensure that she is accessible to the park’s neighbors, whether it be the communities of Flagstaff, Williams, or one of the Native American tribes in the area.
Living near a park offers tremendous benefits, she explained, but it also comes with its fair share of inconveniences, such as parking issues and heavy traffic.
“We all live and work in a community, whether it’s in the park or near the park” she said. “We learn about community issues by talking to one another, and that’s what I want to do.”