Christina Mills, Yellowstone Outdoor Recreation Planner

NexGen Yellowstone Society for Wilderness Stewardship

Christina Mills, Yellowstone Outdoor Recreation Planner

By Ashley Balsom

This week we celebrate Yellowstone past, present, and future. On March 1st, 1872, the Yellowstone Act was passed, establishing Yellowstone as the first National Park in the world. It set a precedent for all the other National Parks around the world to follow, and today over 100 countries have established 1,200 National Parks and equivalent land reserves. Earlier this week, I was lucky enough to get to sit down with a University of Montana graduate and Outdoor Recreation Planner within the Park, Christina Mills, and talk about her job, wilderness, and of course, the Yellowstone Act:

Ashley Balsom: So what does the anniversary of the Yellowstone Act mean to you?

Christina Mills: Well as you know Yellowstone is considered the world’s first national park, and so it’s pretty special and you can certainly feel that when you work here. People come here from quite a long ways, from all over the world, not only because Yellowstone is a spectacular place, but because of what that symbolizes, the world’s first National Park. So it’s really neat, I feel lucky to work in Yellowstone every day just because of the symbol that it represents to conservation and protected areas. 

AB: Okay, yeah that also kind of answers my second question, what does Yellowstone as a park stand for, if you have any other answer for that?

CM: Sure, I think Yellowstone actually stands for a lot of things, you know the protecting public lands is certainly one of those things, but more broadly I think, Yellowstone is one of the largest, is part of one of the largest in tact ecosystems in the lower 48, and you know, in tact is certainly debatable about what that means, but we have, I guess more specifically, every sort of trophic level represented. Yellowstone is just really special because we have large carnivores, we have large migrating animals, we have thermal features, it’s just a really really unique place, and it’s biodiversity is really incredible.

AB: Okay, so what are your specific responsibilities within the park?

CM: I am an outdoor recreation planner. I work in the office of the superintendent, and we work on a variety of things that come through the park and don’t necessarily fall neatly into any other division. So I’ve been primarily working on winter use planning and planning for the controversy around winter use. We now have a winter use rule in place and a winter use rule that has not yet been litigated, and so I’ve also been dealing largely with the implementation of that rule. But I also work on a broad variety of other things, from entrance fees, I speak to school groups, I do whatever meets the superintendents office engagement. A lot of times I work with stakeholders and spend a lot of my time building relationships with the partners that work with Yellowstone and some of, for example, our business operators that operate winter use companies. I do a lot of communication with those folks. So I really do a pretty broad variety of things.

AB: What made you want to work in recreation management?

CM: Hmm, that’s a good question. I did my undergrad at the University of North Carolina, and actually beginning in high school was really interested in environmental studies, generally, just kind of the protection of the environment as a very broad topic, but continued that into college with an environmental studies degree, realized how many different fields there are to go into within environmental studies but wasn’t really sure which direction I wanted to go. But when I graduated from undergrad, I got a fellowship as a wilderness fellow with the National Parks Service, and this was the first year they did this program back in 2010, and I got to work with National Parks doing wilderness stewardship planning, wilderness character monitoring, wilderness character training for staff, and I fell in love with public lands, and I really thought that protecting public lands is quite important. So I enjoy being an outdoor recreation planner because it allows me to do a variety of things from planning to communication, to monitoring, to you know, engage with policy a little bit, on the ground implementation stuff, so I really like the breadth of outdoor recreation planning, and I’ve really grown to enjoy the protection of public lands. 

AB: In your opinion, is it more important, in a career like yours, like in recreation management, to go to graduate school and get a formal education, or is it more important to get field experience, like on the ground field experience?

CM: I think both are very important. I think graduate school taught me a lot of things. I went to graduate school at the University of Montana in the College of Forestry. I was in the Department of Society and Conservation, and graduate school taught me a lot about the fact that, I think, Natural Resource Management is largely sort of people management. By people management I mean understanding people and values, and that what you’re managing is not just an ecological system, it’s a social ecological system. And social values and ecological values are somewhat inseparable. So I really gained a lot of insight from going to grad school. But I also think that working on the ground is important too. There are a lot of folks, especially in the National Parks Service and other federal agencies, that have very accomplished careers, but those have largely been through working up the career ladder, and a lot of folks in federal land agencies started as seasonal employees, as GS-3s, GS-5s, and worked their way up, and have an incredible amount of on the ground experience, institutional knowledge about their park or protected area, and I think that is equally important. And sometimes I’ve seen tensions between folks who have built a career moving up the career ladder, and then folks that kind of come in at a higher level from graduate school, and sort of skip all the lower steps, so to speak. But I really think that both are really important, and I think you need a balance of both.

AB: I know that recreation is kind of like a new, emerging field, so what is it like to be a young professional in the field of conservation and recreation?

CM: You know, it’s actually been great. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had a lot of really strong mentors, both from the National Parks Service, from other agencies, from the University of Montana, and really from all over the National Parks Service that have really opened doors for me, and it’s really, I think my success as a young outdoor recreation planner is very very much due to folks already in the profession that have created opportunities for me. And so I think mentorship in this field is really important. 

AB: I know coming up as like a younger person, generally there’s the idea that they’re more innovative and have new ideas. Do you think that’s meshed well with like the older people that are maybe a little bit more set in their ways but they have more experience in what you’re going into?

CM: I feel really lucky in that in that I don’t feel that tension so strongly. Most of the folks that I work most closely with are actually very open, even though many of them have worked for the National Parks Service for quite some time, are very open to new and creative ideas. You know, I’ve certainly seen the struggle that you are describing in other places and other divisions and other things like that, but in my experience I’ve been really lucky that the folks that I’ve worked with are incredibly open-minded and creative. 

AB: Do you like working with Yellowstone? If you could work anywhere in the world would you still pick Yellowstone?

CM: I love working for Yellowstone right now, I think that as with any career, I think that the more types of experiences that you have the better of a professional and the better employee you become. I would not choose to work anywhere else in the world right now, but I do think that varied experiences are also very important, and so as much as I would love to stay here, I would think it's beneficial to move around and get experiences in other places, learn from other places, take lessons from other places, and things like that. So yeah I mean Yellowstone is a great place but I may or may not be here for a while. 

AB: So how do you think that your job and what you do, I mean obviously it relates to wilderness stewardship, but how would you put in your words how that relation comes about?

CM: The relationship of my job to wilderness stewardship. As you know, Yellowstone does have recommended Wilderness, a little over 2 million of our acres are recommended Wilderness, and anything that we do that affects the Wilderness is supposed to undergo a minimum requirements analysis and Parks staff try and consider Wilderness Character. Most of what I’ve been working on recently has a little bit less of a direct affect on wilderness, I certainly think that everything that happens in every division of the park is certainly related to wilderness and Wilderness Character. Most of what I’ve been working on recently are a little bit more sort of front country things, or deal with things that occur, for example, over-snow vehicle access only occurs on roads that cars can drive on, which are not part of our backcountry. So, I don’t engage with wilderness in the sort of direct, literal sense, on a day-to-day basis, but, I certainly do believe that every action or management action that one takes in a National Park does have some sort of affect on Wilderness. 

AB: In relation to Wilderness, and parks, and recreation what do think is the most valuable book that you’ve read?

CM: Hmm, that’s a very good question. The most helpful book I’ve read… In terms of Wilderness, I think one of the best books that I’ve read is Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind, I think to understand the concept of Wilderness and the sort of American idea of Wilderness, I think that’s a really really crucial book. But, more broadly, in terms of just National Parks Service lands in general, I’ve recently read Uncertain Path by Bill Tweed. He used to work for, I believe it was Sequia Kings Canyon, it really tackles with what the future of the National Parks Service will look like in an era of climate change, uncertainty, increasingly complex social and ecological environment, and I think that’s been one of the best books that I’ve read most recently that’s really made me think about the future of federal land management. 

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The Society for Wilderness Stewardship is a non-profit, charitable organization under the 501 (c)(3) section of the Internal Revenue Code.