Meet the NPF Team: Jenny Katz
Most visitors to national parks are unaware of the amount of technical work, collaboration, and funding that is required to acquire and permanently protect national park lands. This combination of detail-oriented, high-paced technical expertise needed for land conservation, mixed with the long-term, permanent results, is precisely what draws Jenny Katz to this work.
What is Your Favorite National Park Memory or Experience?
My favorite national park is Acadia National Park. My grandmother Dorothy grew up in Bar Harbor in the 1920s and 30s, the daughter of poor Jewish immigrants, running around the island as the new park was taking shape around her. The place stayed a part of her as she grew up, and my family has continued going back to visit throughout my life, enjoying the ocean views and the fields of lupines. As I’ve gotten older, my relationship to the park has grown and changed as well. In 2018 I participated in the Designing the Parks internship and spent a week at Acadia National Park meeting with staff and learning about what goes into making the site work so effortlessly. We spent a couple of days updating an inventory of the trail infrastructure – every single waterbar, culvert, and stepping stone was numbered, recorded, and its condition logged. I was shocked to learn how much happens behind the scenes to make the park so user-friendly – the care and attention that park staff and volunteers put in to ensuring that the user experience is comfortable and enjoyable while also protecting the natural landscape. That trip deepened my understanding of Acadia and allowed me a look behind the curtain to see just how much love and care goes into stewarding our shared national lands.
What Projects Do You Normally Work on at NPF?
I manage the land conservation projects at NPF. Much like the behind-the-scenes care and detail that goes into trail management, the work of land conservation is a vital, but often overlooked, component of park management. The National Park System manages 420+ units totaling more than 84 million acres, but more than 2.6 million acres within these units remain privately owned. The conservation community works diligently to acquire these parcels and convey them to the NPS. For us at NPF, our conservation projects involve directly purchasing priority properties on behalf of the National Park Service, as well as making grants to our partner organizations to acquire these important lands. My ultimate goal is to get land protected by the full weight of the National Park Service – meaning that it is protected forever. One current project I'm working on is purchasing a building in Selma, Alabama, for NPS to build a state-of-the-art visitor center and the John Lewis Leadership Center as part of the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. I’m in the process of overseeing a boundary survey, title commitment, appraisal, and environmental assessments; soon, NPF will submit an offer to acquire these city-owned properties. While the project is very specific and detail-oriented, I'm driven by the knowledge that my work will help NPS better share the stories and sacrifices of the voting rights marches and civil rights activists of the 1960’s.
My ultimate goal is to get land protected by the full weight of the National Park Service – meaning that it is protected forever.
There is also always more work to be done than people or time enough to do it, so as time allows, I support additional projects that I’m passionate about. I'm currently administering a $10 million grant to support NPS' $40 million renovation of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial to make the memorial more accessible, as well as supporting an indigenous history survey at the New England National Scenic Trail.
What Drives You to Do This Work?
One project we’re supporting is an acquisition at El Malpais National Monument in New Mexico. Our partner, the Wilderness Land Trust, is working to acquire a 3,000 acre-inholding that contains ice caves beneath a former volcano. I'm not sure what else I can say in terms of inspiration other than this: ice cave volcanoes!
On a deeper level, the concept of “land” holds so much meaning – it is the basis of how we understand our home and our interrelationship with the natural world. Modern practices encourage land to be bought, sold, developed, and mined at an alarming rate. But lands within the National Park Service operate on a different timeline. Lands conserved by NPS operate at the rate of giant sequoias growing, of glaciers moving over a plain, of historic monuments gaining a patina. Once land is owned by NPS, it is nearly impossible to strip it of its rights. The degradation and disregard of land is halted; it can now be valued, managed, and studied. I'm drawn to this slower pace, to protecting old important things, and to a deeper connection with our landscapes and cultural legacies.
How Did You Get Started in This Type of Work?
I was born and raised on a communal village in Israel (a “kibbutz”), where all resources were shared. Though we left the kibbutz for the U.S. when I was 10, the values of communal stewardship have stayed with me and inform everything I do. I earned my undergraduate degree in animal agriculture at Rutgers University, where I focused on sustainable dairy goat farming. I then ended up in Baltimore, serving as an AmeriCorps member on a team transforming vacant lots in the city into community green spaces and parks. My love of parks, greening, and conservation fully blossomed then, and drove me to my next step: obtaining a master’s degree in forestry from the Yale School of Forestry. During forestry school, I got my first taste of working for NPS during an internship with the NPS Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation in Boston. I remember sitting in a regional meeting to celebrate all of the staff anniversaries, and seeing many staff get awards and certificates for working for 20, 30, 40 years with NPS. It was clearly a place where people loved to work, that brought like-minded people together to celebrate and protect what we all cherish. After grad school, I knew I wanted to work on behalf of our national parks and was delighted to be selected as the inaugural Traubert Fellow.
What is the Traubert Fellowship?
Bryan Traubert was a member of NPF's board for nine years and served as the board chair for 2 years, contributing much to the organization's growth and success in this century. Upon his retirement, an anonymous gift was donated in his name, to create a 2-year fellowship aimed at developing new talent for NPS’ realty office. The goal of the Traubert Fellowship was to train new talent who could take up the mantle of land conservation in national parks as experienced full-time staff retire. After a lengthy vetting process I was hired as the inaugural Traubert Fellow. I'm grateful to Bryan and his wife Penny for their work in this area, and for opening a door for me to enter this field. My fellowship is about to wrap up, and I have been hired on as a full-time staff member here at NPF, as the new Senior Manager of the Lands Program.
What is One of Your Favorite Parts of Working for NPF and What is One of the Biggest Challenges?
One of the biggest challenges is that land conservation is very technical and therefore can be hard to explain to donors, partners, and the general public. For example, a title commitment is one of the first steps in any land conservation project, but what exactly is it? If I say that according to the Land Trust Alliance, “it is a commitment to issue a title insurance policy if the proposed owner acquires the property, meets certain conditions, and pays the insurance premium," that does not necessarily inspire anyone to fund or get excited about a project. One of my main jobs is to find new ways of communicating the importance of land conservation that will inspire others as much as I am inspired.
I love traveling throughout the entire country every day. A call in the morning with Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine is followed by a call in the afternoon with Death Valley National Park in California, wrapping up the day with a presentation about Natchez National Historical Park. I feel wealthy beyond measure to live in a place with such natural and cultural treasures, and to spend so much of my working hours talking about and thinking about these places. I also love the dedication and passion that NPS staff show, going above and beyond to protect and care for the lands they manage.
What Do You Dream of for the Future of Land Management?
My dream, and that of many others, is to find new ways for NPS and Native American tribal nations to own and manage land collaboratively. Indigenous peoples have stewarded the landscapes of this continent for thousands of years, and yet have been excluded from much of those lands and from federal land management. Many tribal nations, organizations, and federal agencies, including NPS, are working to remediate this harm, and have made great strides towards inclusive and collaborative relationships, but we have a long road ahead of us.
I envision a new model of land ownership, where land is co-owned and co-managed by indigenous tribes as well as by NPS. In land conservation, we are always thinking outside the box to get land protected; let us now think outside the box to go one step further.
A recent land conservation project that we funded in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve transferred 160 acres of land to NPS, while also transferring cultural use rights to the local the Huna Tlingit people. This is a legal framework that enables ownership of various rights that come with the land.
Following successes like these, we can facilitate a whole National Park System informed, shaped, and co-managed with and by Indigenous people. We’re a long way away from that, but projects both in the U.S. and around the globe are showing us that if we are creative, collaborative, and willing to reimagine land management, it is possible to reorient towards a different future that honors indigenous land, history, and culture.
Inspired by Jenny’s passion for helping to protect and preserve lands? Help NPF continue our work to protect and preserve parks today.