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The first step after Sanford can lead alumni to amazing places.

For Lindsey Kurnath MPP’08, that step took her into the beauty of our nation’s national parks for her work using her policy degree.  

She didn’t need any time to decide. This was the next step for Kurnath.

“The first time I ever heard about the Geneva Program at Sanford I said, that’s what I want to do.”

She enrolled in the Master of Public Policy program at Sanford and was in Geneva, Switzerland a year later. Her career has since taken her to the White House, the highest mountain in Washington, and now the southernmost shore of New York. Lindsey has literally seen environmental policy from many angles. That initial desire that led her to Sanford, is also the drive that has led her through her career thus far.

“With my master’s in public policy I wanted to go to amazing places, work with amazing people and have a lot of responsibility. So far, I’ve been able to do all three.” She is now Deputy Superintendent of Fire Island National Seashore in New York, and since graduating from Sanford in 2008 she has come to develop a unique view of environmental policy in the U.S.  

Studying Environmental Policy at Duke

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Headshot image of woman in park ranger uniform.
Lindsey Kurnath MPP'08
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Lindsey was into the details, even before she was a blue devil. Her undergraduate degree from Boston College focused on biology, chemistry, and environmental studies.

“I’ve always been interested in ground-level science and how that informs policy decisions. I want to see the data so I can take a structured approach to my role in managing a national park. In fact, the data and analytics courses I took at Sanford are still extremely helpful to my work today.”

That curious spirit carried on throughout her time at Duke as she surveyed the full breadth of her interests. As a dual degree graduate student, Kurnath was very involved. She also received her Master of Environmental Management at the Nicholas School and served as an editor for the Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum. These experiences helped her gain internships with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the World Health Organization, and the Environmental Defense Fund.  

“I found it valuable here at Duke to seek out different experiences. The more I explored what I liked, the more I learned about various career paths. I had no idea my current job even existed when I was growing up, but it’s clear now that my interests led me to it.”

Working with Obama and the EPA

Her next step however took her to a place that everyone knows about: The White House. After her final year in Sanford, Lindsey was chosen to the prestigious Presidential Management Fellows program. This two-year program put her degrees to good use again with the EPA, working to shape environmental policy on a huge scale. During her time as a fellow, she worked for six months with President Obama’s Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ).

“Having started my career at the EPA I saw how their work is incredibly important. We were able to take a structured approach using data to determine decisions that could shape our entire world.” While at CEQ, she was part of a team that put policy into action with her work on an executive order that focused on sustainability within government agencies. In that work, however, Lindsey once again felt the pull of that ground level.

 

I am policymaking right here at the park

Lindsey Kurnath

Mount Rainier National Park

That “ground” level was at the top of the tallest mountain in Washington State. As the Chief of Administration and Business Management of Mount Rainier National Park, she was tasked with analyzing and assessing the day-to-day business side of running the park. Prior to moving to Mount Rainier, she spent nearly six years in Washington, DC working for the NPS central office.

“It was through fellow Sanford alums that I got connected to the National Park Service. Shifting from policy to land management was humbling, but it offered something tangible that was impossible to resist. The analytical approach I learned from Sanford and used in the EPA was perfect for park management. I was in charge of “report cards " for all parks across the country, encompassing every aspect of operating a park."

In this case, park management included some higher-than-normal stakes. Considered one of the potentially most dangerous volcanoes in the world, Mount Rainier allowed Kurnath to draw upon the knowledge she learned at Sanford.

“At Mount Rainier I often found myself going back specifically to my politics class to understand the power dynamics of the situation; how to get deferred maintenance money. When you understand the dynamics, you can find out who truly has the power to authorize those funds. After 15 years of federal service, I still draw upon my classes at Sanford regularly.”

Fire Island National Seashore

From the snow-capped mountains to the sand-covered beaches, Lindsey has continued her journey now at Fire Island National Park in New York. As the Deputy Superintendent, she has arrived at a role that combines high-level analysis with individual interaction.

“I am policymaking right here at the park. I have been part of town halls with the surrounding community to see how we can serve them and their needs. Fire Island contains 17 individual communities, so you get a chance to meet the people and see how our policies impact them directly. The park makes decisions that help their kids get to school, or help their loved ones get to their cancer treatment. This park also has a special place within the history of the LGBTQ+ community, so we have a chance to celebrate that diversity in our park right here on federal land. We aspire to care not just for the land, but for the people that live around it as well.”

Reflection and Advice for Students

Now as she reflects on her career in the federal government, Lindsey can see her place in the future of national parks.

“We are in the forever business. We have to think in the moment to protect the park from hurricanes or other disasters, but we also have to think 50 years into the future. What will climate change do to this park? Often when I tell people that I work with the National Park Service it leads to a story of an amazing experience they had in a national park. So, I get to be placed with this amazing experience in their life. I’m in a unique space where I am part of the past and future of these people’s lives.”

Speaking of that future, she looks to some past advice from a mentor that she hopes resonates with students and alumni from Sanford.

“Keep the long game in mind but look at the choices in front of you and choose the one that feels best. If each step you take is right, then you can trust that the path will lead you to where you want it to go.”

 

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This article was posted in the Sanford Alumni Memo, to stay informed about Sanford alumni events, news and profiles email Alex Dodds alexander.dodds@duke.edu to sign up. 

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