- Women weren’t allowed to work in national parks in early years.
- Kayci Cook Collins is the first woman in four generations of her family to serve in the parks.
- She and NPS are making room for other traditionally marginalized people to blaze their own trail.
America’s National Parks have been around 150 years. Kayci Cook Collins’ family has served them for nearly a century.
“The National Park Service is my family business,” said the superintendent of Mesa Verde National Park and Yucca House National Monument.
Her father, both grandfathers and great grandfather all served in the parks. While Cook Collins is the first woman to officially carry on her family’s legacy, she’s quick to call out her mom and grandmothers’ contributions.
“Although they didn’t wear the uniform, they didn’t get the paycheck, they were very, very much a part of the success of their husbands,” she said.
Women weren’t allowed to work for national parks in early days, but they’ve since risen to the very top and are making room for others.
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“I look around the organization of the Park Service and I have seen women at all levels now,” Cook Collins said. “When I was growing up and seeing role models, most of what I was seeing were men.”
Among many roles in nearly 40 years with NPS, she was the first female deputy superintendent for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and last year became the first female superintendent of Mesa Verde and Yucca House – a position held decades earlier by her grandfather Meredith Guillet.
“I had some really great women that broke trail for me,” Cook Collins said. She does the same for others. At her previous post, Flagstaff Area National Monuments, she hired the site’s first female facilities manager, a position traditionally been dominated by men.
She said her dad, John E. Cook, also promoted many women to leadership positions over his 43-year career. He also helped end decades of inequality in uniform standards for men and women across the National Park Service.
NPS has made a concerted effort in recent years to be more inclusive of various identities, in staffing and storytelling.
Celebrating Yellowstone’s 150th birthday on March 1, National Park Service Director Chuck Sams acknowledged, “Native peoples have cared for these lands since time immemorial.”
Sams is the Park Service’s first Native American director. He comes from the Umatilla Indian Reservation in northeast Oregon and is Walla Walla, Cayuse and Yankton Sioux.
“Obviously, the people that work in the National Park Service should look like the people that live in the United States of America and reflect all of those all of those differences and all of those their attitudes and the things that are important to them,” Cook Collins said, also acknowledging the Indigenous communities that predate the US
As more people from all walks of life have explored the outdoors during the pandemic, she hopes they will all be inspired to protect these spaces – including more women.
“The national parks are gifts that each generation gives to the next,” Cook Collins said.”I want women to see themselves as both the stewards that take care of that history (and) I want to see them to see themselves in that history . There’s not a National Park Service unit anywhere that doesn’t have women’s history associated with it. And when we work there and we protect that history and we share it with visitors, we’re a part of that unending chain.”
Women’s history in US national parks
- 1872 Yellowstone becomes American’s first national park.
- 1916 – The National Park Service has been established.
- 1918 – Clare Marie Hodges and Helene Wilson become the first two “rangerettes” at national parks, temporarily hired to fill opening left as men went to serve in WWI.
- 1940 – Gertrude Cooper becomes the first female superintendent in the Park Service, overseeing Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site.
- 1960 – NPS issues a written statement urging administrative leaders to disregard gender and employ the “best qualified men and women available” for uniformed positions, except park ranger roles “in which the employee is subject to be called to fight fires, take part in rescue operations , or do other strenuous or hazardous work.”
- 1964 – More jobs open to women after Title VII of the Civil Rights Act becomes law, banning employers from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
- 1977 – After decades of unequal attire standards for women, including dress and skirts ill-suited for the outdoors, John E. Cook directs there be one uniform across genders, with the option for skirts based on preference. Changes take effect in 1978.
- 2001 – Fran P. Mainella becomes the first woman to direct the National Park Service. The same year, Gale Norton becomes the first female secretary of the Interior, which oversees NPS.
- 2020 – Women hold more than 37% of permanent jobs within the National Park Service.
- 2021– Deb Haaland becomes the first Native American to serve as secretary of the Interior. She is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, which is historically tied to the lands that comprise Mesa Verde.
Source: National Park Service