Alma Ripps

SCA 1983, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

Chief, National Park Service Office of Policy | Alexandria, VA

What was the most important thing you took away from your SCA experience?

It made me appreciate hot showers! Seriously, it made me realize that my love of camping and spending time in the outdoors could translate into actual employment. It helped shape what subjects I majored in during college and graduate school, and eventually drew me to a career in the National Park Service – although I did trade manual labor for policy work.  It also allowed me to work and live with people I might never have gotten to know, and opened my eyes about how different other people’s backgrounds were to my own, such as learning about cow-tipping from a young woman from rural Wisconsin!   

That’s a little-known benefit of SCA crew life.

We were a very diverse group of high school students – kids from the inner city, rural communities, and suburban areas, some of whom had never spent time in the outdoors or traveled outside their state, and we bonded with each other over the course of the program. It was hard in the beginning because you are thrown into this very intense living and working situation, sharing tents with strangers, strenuous physical labor, and being with each other 24/7. But after the first few days you start to get to know and trust each other, and realize that everyone brings to the group different, but complementary skills, and unique perspectives. There were many tears when we all had to part ways knowing realistically we would not see each other again. 

From where you sit today, what are your greatest concerns for our environment?

The greatest challenge I see in my own work is that we need to make daily decisions about managing natural, cultural and historic resources in the face of great uncertainty brought about by climate change. We may understand the larger trends towards a warmer climate and changing weather patterns, but some of the smaller changes, such as the impact of temperature fluctuations on microscopic organisms, may result in huge impacts to food production and disease, yet we will not know this until it starts occurring and then it is too late.

Where do you go to get away from it all?

Hiking with my husband and two boys in Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier are all amazing experiences that are hard to beat. Visiting Assateague Island in the fall when there is a chill in the air and the crowds are gone can be really special, too.  Really, any time in nature, somewhere you can only get to by hiking, is always special. It just seems to be the only time you can be 100% present in your surroundings. 

How do we get more people to experience and understand that?

I think the emphasis of the National Park Service on audiences beyond traditional visitors to the larger, well-known parks is very important as more and more of our population lives in and around urban areas. Programs such as the Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program, connect the National Park Service to communities where there are no national parks, where the only recreation might be in a city park or on a nearby river.  The most important goal is to just get people outside and having fun, and maybe even learning something along the way.