Karla Bonilla Portillo – California Desert to Witch City: Interview with Earl Perez-Foust

Hello everyone! This time around, I want to write a blog detailing the experiences of my supervisor, Earl Perez-Foust. For anyone interested in a career with the NPS, or just curious to learn more about Earl’s journey from the California desert to Witch City (Salem, MA) read on!

Brief Bio: Earl Perez-Foust is the current Interpretive Operations Program Manager at Salem Maritime and Saugus Iron Works National Historic Sites. He has worked for the National Park Service since 2016, first as a seasonal Park Guide at Wind Cave National Park and then as a permanent employee at Badlands National Park. His experiences working for the National Park Service range from cave exploration to animal dissection to working with tribal members/partners and more. His hometown is Apple Valley, CA (coincidentally I am from this area of California too!)

And without further ado…

Earl Perez-Foust
  • Q1: Have you always known that you wanted to work for the NPS or did you have a breakthrough moment?

A: “Growing up in Apple Valley, I lived near Joshua Tree and was aware of what Park Rangers do. I also spent a lot of time out in the desert on BLM [Bureau of Land Management] land. However, I did not seriously consider becoming a Park Ranger until I began writing my Master’s thesis on a national park in the Philippines. My academic work on National Parks really interested me, and as I continued on with my M.A./Phd program I realized that I did not enjoy the academic environment. I applied to Park Service jobs as a sort of release or fantasy, but then I actually got a call from Wind Cave National Park. I was interviewed and offered a position that same evening, and I accepted it. I withdrew from my university a week later, and then set off for South Dakota! But now looking back, I am grateful that my background in academia gave me the perspective and skills needed to do things like lead an effective meeting, close-read policy work, and interact with colleagues across the Park Service.”

  • Q2: Can you think of a moment of special significance to you which took place while you were working at Wind Cave, Badlands, or here at Salem or Saugus?

A: “At Badlands, there’s a lot of interaction with tribal communities. This entails having park staff attend community organized wačípi (Pow Wow), and setting up booths for recruitment purposes and for hosting community outreach activities. At these events, there are competitions, and participants wear elaborate outfits, including dancing clothes. Children would often come up to us [NPS staff] and participate in a variety of activities. At one I attended, a small girl wearing a jingle dress came up to me. She completed an activity and earned a Junior Ranger badge, which I handed to her. She took it, pinned it on her dress, and then took a bell off of her own dress and gave it to me! I still have that bell, and remember that moment as one instance showing a meaningful two-way connection.”

Learn more about the Associated Tribes of Badlands National Park here: https://www.nps.gov/badl/associated-tribes.htm

  • Q3: What drives or motivates you in your work for the NPS?

A: “What sets us apart from other kinds of cultural organizations like museums, non-profits, or libraries is that we’re a government agency. We have a defined set of resources and responsibilities and our own institutional history. So to be the best we can be for our partners, we have to realize that we’re not them and that we have to be very good at what we do. This means that we each have to know how to navigate the bureaucracy. Personally, I am motivated to understand how something like the funding system works. For example, I am trained in a specific kind of financial assistance process called ATR [Agreements Technical Representative] and it has taught me how to find ways to get funding from the Department of the Interior through the NPS and to partner organizations while making sure we are in compliance with various laws and policies. I enjoy making this happen, as it’s almost like solving a big puzzle. I recognize that this is probably not the most exciting or romantic answer, but it’s necessary for what we do as part of a national system. Then there’s also the fun side, where you get to reach the hearts and minds of visitors.”

  • Q4: What do you hope to see for the agency in the next 10 years?

A: “I would have to say I hope the NPS improves the work already begun on RDI, or relevancy, diversity, and inclusion. If you look at its demographics of the agency over the last several decades, the National Park Service has actually gotten whiter, which—if you look at the make-up of the United States—is quite staggering. There’s a lot of complicated reasons that explain this, but part of the solution is that we have to improve recruitment (including the convoluted hiring system) and retention. We have to create working environments that are accepting and where park staff are aware of things like microaggressions and unconscious bias. We have an agency culture that may not feel welcoming to people that do not fit within certain parameters. In 10 years, I’d also like to see more investment in internships like LHIP so that we can move towards fully meeting those goals.”

  • Q5: How has your time with the NPS shaped your perspective on the government and/or natural and cultural resource stewardship?

A: “I’d say that before joining, I had a romantic notion of what working for the National Park Service would be like. That shift in perspective really started while working at Wind Cave National Park, once I learned how incredibly significant the site is for the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota people. Interpreting treaty history and stories (like the creation story associated with the place) by forging close relationships with tribes shaped my experience at Badlands. As a new employee, you don’t realize just how much you represent the very complicated and difficult history of the National Park Service. In many contexts, it is a terrible history which has not been forgotten, so you will face critical questions that you need to be prepared for.”

“Furthermore, my perspective was also shaped by my experience working in the elk management/ reduction program at Wind Cave. Chronic Wasting Disease, a contagious fatal disease caused by a prion, forced park staff to contain the outbreak among the elk at the park. It was a gory, heartbreaking, and intense experience, but it taught me what interventionary stewardship and management looks like. Experiencing and understanding these complexities instead of just focusing on the feel-good stories changed me forever.”

  • Q6: What are your favorite perks of working for the NPS?

A: “A great perk is that you gain an awareness of just how many amazing places there are! At sites like Wind Cave or Badlands, they hire two dozen or so people every year who then go off to other places. So you develop a network of people that work in cool places [all over the country]. In fact, pretty soon, I’ll be going to Zion National Park to visit a friend that I met during my time at Wind Cave!”

“A second perk is just being surrounded by people who love their jobs and are truly trying to do good. Additionally, through working here, you get to learn so much about a place that you can teach other people about it. How many jobs do you know where when other people visit you, they want to be shown where you work? I can’t think of any other jobs where it’s like that.”

“Another perk is that working for the NPS allows you to take on the responsibility of representing something so deep and complicated in both good and bad ways. Finally, my time working here has been the only time in my life where I am learning so much all the time and yet I am constantly made aware of just how much I don’t know.”

Thank you again to Earl Perez-Foust for sharing his thoughts.

Until next time, keep an eye out for more blog posts from me!

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