A Pathway to the National Park Service
As an undergraduate, Shannon Sawyer (MLA ‘15, BED ’13) loved to study design history and cultural landscapes, but didn’t make a connection to a career with the National Park Service (NPS) until she began her graduate studies. “The summer after my second year of the MLA program, I interned at Mount Rainier National Park. That solidified it: I was hooked. Following the internship, my capstone focused on a specific site at Mt. Rainier.”
The MLA capstone requires candidates to conduct an independent design and research project defined by their own interests. Sawyer loved the studio, and used it to network and prepare for her career. “I was able to talk to many leaders not only at Mt. Rainier National Park, but the National Park Service in general. I saw the project as a means to building my career in the NPS, not as a school project.” She appreciated the time and encouragement from her committee members, as well as the challenging opportunity to pursue independent work. “I had to make decisions, even with those advising me (from committee members, to NPS staff, to community members), not agreeing on which direction I should go. I had to find my own voice and believe in it.”
Sawyer’s capstone project—21st Century Mission: Climate Change Adaptation & National Park Service Preservation—aimed to address climate change while protecting both natural and cultural resources and connecting people to those resources in a sustainable way. Through landscape preservation and site development, she investigated how heritage can be incorporated into landscape design, and what we can learn about climate change and the future of the National Park Service. Her design detailed a new entrance to the park, expansions to existing trails, habitat and education meadows with river access and heritage interpretation, and protecting and restoring the Carbon River shoreline.
After graduation, Sawyer presented her capstone to leaders in the NPS Pacific West Regional Office in Seattle, then to the management team at Mt. Rainier, and finally to the Carbon River Forum, the local community group. Following this presentation, her audiences voted to take action and are currently in the process of writing a Memorandum of Understanding to request funding from Congress. “All in all, it has been exciting to see the thoughts of the project move forward,” Sawyer said.
Two weeks after her capstone presentation, she started her NPS career based out of the Pacific West Regional Office in Seattle. The summer months focused on writing a Cultural Landscape Inventory for a trail at Crater Lake National Park. Current projects include meeting with interdisciplinary park staff about cultural landscape preservation and design work, which offers travel to different parks for about a week every month. So far, she’s taken trips to the Grand Canyon, the St. Louis Arch, Crater Lake National Park, and more. Her upcoming trips include the San Francisco parks, Hawaii, Alaska, and Nez Perce in Idaho. “It is exhilarating work,” she noted, adding that “I am also on the first ever in-depth Cultural Landscape and Climate Change project for the NPS—and I have a small leadership role, all thanks to my capstone work.”