I haven’t always had an affection for National Forests. It wasn’t a dislike of these spaces; I was just unaware that a National Forest system existed. I grew up in metro Atlanta playing video games and basketball with occasional ramblings in the woods of my neighborhood. I was oblivious to public lands, but that all changed when I was 12 and my grandpa, who I deeply loved, was diagnosed with cancer.

Papa Bear, as we affectionately referred to him, had a dying wish: to visit his buddy in the remote town of Tincup, Colorado and backpack in the surrounding Gunnison National Forest. He wanted his family to join him on the five-day trek. For me, it was a trip of many firsts: wide open vistas, towering peaks, large wildlife, carrying everything on my back, and…ahem, pooping in the woods. It was a trip that engendered a thirst for these wild and public places.

Backpacking with my family in the Gunnison National Forest. Baba (grandmother), Mom, Dad, Papabear, Luke (brother), and myself at the awkward age of 12. Photo by Jennifer Fenwick.

I spent the rest of my childhood and my first two years of college in the South. Then, much to my delight, I returned to the West in order to finish my degree at Colorado State University. While there, I spent two summers guiding students on backpacking trips in the Pike-San Isabel National Forest. My intention was to become a small animal veterinarian, but I wondered if there was a way to have a career outdoors. After graduation I moved to North Carolina to be closer to my (now) husband and became an education specialist for North Carolina State Parks. I had the joy of connecting people to their nearby public lands through naturalist and recreation programs. I loved the work, and further wondered if I could have a career in public lands. I realized it wasn’t just the outdoors but the designation of public lands that allowed people access to these incredible places.

In a twist of fate, I returned to the Gunnison area in 2018–18 years after the trip with my grandfather–to get my Master of Environmental Management at Western Colorado University. I assisted the Gunnison Ranger District with transitioning the Crested Butte area from dispersed to designated camping. Soon after, the neighboring Chaffee County was grappling with similar issues around camping management and looked to the Gunnison program as a model that they could expand beyond the Forest Service. This led to my current position with the NFF, which involves helping land agencies and municipalities in Chaffee County transition to this more sustainable way of camping.

When I pause to consider how I got here, I have to give credit to my grandparents. They planted a seed that was nourished by their adventurous spirit, love of wild spaces, and the creatures and people that inhabit them. For that, I am forever grateful and hope that appreciation is evident through my work.

Standing on the summit of Sunshine Peak (14,001 ft.) with my husband, James, and our dog, Nooma. Photo by Jennifer Fenwick.

Cover photo by Doug Masser.

National Forest Foundation