Brooke Merrell, the new superintendent of Denali National Park and Preserve, is the first woman to serve in that role in the history of the 105-year-old park.
Merrell — who has been acting superintendent for nine months and has a background in transportation planning plus a law degree — takes the reins at a pivotal moment for the park as it embarks on a major project to build a bridge across the Pretty Rocks Landslide. Located roughly halfway down the road that cuts across the park, the landslide has led to closures and restrictions, an example of how climate change is affecting not only park operations but the land itself.
In an interview, Merrell talked about the future of the park, equity in outdoor leadership and how climate change is reshaping the park that’s home to the highest peak in North America.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
ADN: You’re the first woman in this role. Walk me through how that feels. What does it mean to be a woman in an outdoor or recreation leadership role like this?
Merrell: It’s an honor, really, to join the ranks of the women leaders we have here in the Alaska Region. Fifty percent of our superintendents up here are women, 50% of the regional leadership are also women.
And I’ve benefited by the mentorship of strong women leaders my entire career. So it’s just a real opportunity to be able to give back and now be a role model myself. So it’s an honor.
ADN: There’s a lot of pressure and enthusiasm to make the outdoors more accessible and equitable to more people around the country. I’m wondering, could you talk about what you’re thinking in that realm for Denali?
Merrell: We’ve got a really engaged staff on this topic here. And we’ve got a lot of opportunity to make strides in this area. And I think just looking at what we’ve been able to accomplish with effort in terms of seeing an equitable number of women in leadership roles, we know we can achieve the same results with other areas of diversity and inclusion in the National Park Service. So that will certainly be an area of emphasis for us this coming decade.
ADN: What do you think some of the biggest challenges facing the park are right now, and how do you hope to find solutions to those?
Merrell: There’s some short-term and some long-term answers to that. Short term, one of my main areas of emphasis is going to be just shoring up our workforce. Like other organizations, the pandemic has been just really hard on staff.
We’ve dealt with the same issues of shortages as people get sick and in isolation, and then on top of that, the Denali staff has worked really hard to adjust to the changes that the Pretty Rocks Landslide has had on our operations. And so I want to make sure that this staff who has worked so hard these last three years to get us through these big issues is taken care of and stood up with the training and tools that they need to be effective.
We’ve got a wonderful staff at Denali, and I’m looking forward to doing what we can to take care of them.
ADN: To follow up on the Pretty Rocks Landslide issue, how are you imagining its resolution? What does that look like in five,10, 20 years in your mind?
Merrell: We know what it looks like through 2025. We’re going to start this construction project and get a bridge across the slide, which means we’ve got two more years of this operation where most visitors will turn around before this slide, which is about halfway through our 92-mile road.
That takes some effort. It’s putting a lot of visitors on a concentrated piece of road. We’re finding this year that the visitors are happy with what they’re encountering. We’re really pleased with the reaction to how people feel about this early turnaround. And so that’s what it’ll look like through ‘25: a big construction project and this new temporary turnaround at Mile 45.
ADN: What are you hoping it looks like after 2025?
Merrell: That gets us into a harder question that will certainly take up a lot of time, which is the broader question of, what does it mean to be managing public lands in this time of rapid climate change? Especially in Alaska.
Pretty Rocks is an example of that. But it’s not our only example. And so we’ll have to do some planning and a look at our funding systems and decide what it means for the next 20, 30, 40 years in terms of our infrastructure as the climate continues to change and impact what we’ve got on the ground.
ADN: Climate change is impacting Alaska in so many different ways. I’m wondering what more specific climate change impacts you’re seeing play out in Denali, and what your plans are for some of those more specifically.
Merrell: So, we’re seeing what everyone in Alaska is seeing — that the permafrost melt and increased temperatures and increased rainfall are creating a lot of movement in the ground, and so we’ve got sinkholes and landslides at an increasing rate.
Some of the foundations of buildings are starting to move. And so a lot of it is going to be just adjusting how we build, how we improve our infrastructure, the methods that we use for a foundation of a building or where we decide to site buildings.
Another aspect is that it’s going to be more expensive to respond to these more catastrophic climate change movements on the ground. And we’re going to have to figure out how we do that and and how and whether we can maintain all of our facilities in the park.
ADN: Overall, can you talk about your vision for the park, as you look into the future?
Merrell: I have inherited some really strong management plans. We’ve got an early and groundbreaking transit system that continues to work to get people into the park without the congestion of personal vehicles.
And we’ve got one of the early backcountry management plans in the system to preserve our wilderness character, of which we have (2 million) acres here.
And so a lot of it’s going to be conducting the adaptive management processes that were wrapped into these strong management plans. They’re just in an age where it’s time to take a look and make sure that we are monitoring the right things and that these directions are working and see if there’s a need to adapt the plans that were put in place. So a lot of it is really making sure we’re on the right track with existing plans.
ADN: What do you hope people who come to the park take away from their time in Denali?
Merrell: I want people who come to Denali to come away with the importance of having these vast, wild places and these ecosystems where you can come and see grizzly bears and wolves in their natural habitat. I want them to take that inspiration home and apply it to their local parks and local national parks and understand the importance of preserving these places.
Correction: A previous version of this story included a statement from Merrell that incorrectly described how many acres of wilderness are in Denali National Park and Preserve. There are 2 million acres of designated wilderness within the park, not 600,000.