Great Smoky Mountains National Park has more tree species in its 500,000 acre sanctuary than the whole continent of Europe. It’s the salamander capital of the world and home to over 1,000 black bears. For a bonafide tree-hugging biologist like me, being immersed in this temperate rainforest was love at first sight!

I’ve now called the Smokies home for three weeks and my love has done nothing but grow. I’ll admit, I was a little nervous about coming here (or maybe a lot!). As a transgender individual just emerging from a year of intensive therapy, cut off from work and school, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to handle such a big responsibility. But my passion for the National Park Service is too big to contain! Especially during this special centennial year, I want to do all that I can to share that passion and spark the same love for our public lands in others.

My fellow coworkers, whether they be employees, volunteers, or other interns, have been nothing but welcoming and supportive of my efforts. After all, even though we may work in different departments and come from different backgrounds, we share that same NPS mission! Just as you and I may work at different sites on opposite sides of the country, we are connected by that goal. Pretty amazing, huh?! One team, one dream! Hoo-rah! Remember, this is OUR legacy!

13350436_10209880661880316_7351454779187653052_oInspiration Point, Alum Cave Trail

So, what have I done in the last three weeks to perpetuate that idea?

I went out with the Trails Forever crew and volunteers my first full day in the park. As the name suggests, the crew’s duty is to ensure that the park trails stay in good condition so they last long into the future. We spent the day re-naturalizing social trails on one of the park’s most popular destinations – Alum Cave Trail. Social trails are unauthorized paths made by visitors off the designated trail. They can lead to significant erosion and destruction of fragile habitat. We covered these paths with leaves, branches, and rocks to make it look they never existed. We also transplanted ferns into the disturbed areas.

My next adventure was an outreach event at Jacob’s Creek Job Corps. Another intern, a volunteer, and I presented to 150 at-risk youth. Not only did we educate them about the park, but we also talked about our positions, how we found them, and how to get involved. Many of these youth are seeking opportunities to turn their lives around and develop personally and professionally. Seeing some of them get jazzed about the SCA and coming up to me afterwards to learn more was amazing!

I’ve also been involved with the Vote Your Park campaign. Created by Partners in Preservation, this initiative will award $2 million in grants to National Park units to help with preservation of historic structures. It is a contest decided by popular vote and each winning park will get up to $250,000. Here at the Smokies, we hope to use that money for restoring the observation tower at Clingmans Dome, the park’s highest point at 6,643 ft. In order to raise awareness and garner more votes, we held an Open House. We figure that everyone who staffed the event made contact with around 200 visitors, for a total around 2,000.

20160618_161911(0)Clingmans Dome

Another great opportunity that recently arose was that I was asked by the SCA to work on an article about my perceptions of the park and, as a member of the LGBTQ community, my thoughts on the recent designation of Stonewall Inn National Monument. The finished article can be found at Stonewall: A Monumental Moment. Collaborating on this project was a very new, and exciting prospect for me! I really enjoyed sharing my story and hope it has a positive impact on those it reaches.

The rest of my time here at the Smokies has involved a lot of training and exploration. I’ve taken courses on defensive driving, federal information system security awareness, and operational leadership (safety). To familiarize myself with the park, I’ve attended multiple Ranger-led programs, traveled to the different districts, and worked in one of the visitor centers. During my free time, I’ve hiked park trails, visited the resort town of Gatlinburg, and have attended staff gatherings such as riding bikes around the Cades Cove loop and white water rafting!

Honestly, after three weeks in this magical place with such amazing, supportive, and enthusiastic people, my greatest worry for my tenure as Centennial Volunteer Ambassador is my lack of cooking abilities. I’ve been told I can’t live off bags of popcorn forever. Who knew!