In the end, it came down to telling stories.
In October of 2010, longtime Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area interpretive ranger Christy Fleming left her familiar surroundings at the National Park Service Visitor Center in Lovell for new challenges as area manager of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, which was at that time under construction at the historic Heart Mountain Relocation Center between Cody and Powell.
And now she’s back – as chief interpretive ranger over the entire recreation area. Fleming started her new post on Monday, June 4.
Fleming started working at Bighorn Canyon NRA in 1998 as a seasonal fee collector, then entered a National Park Service student program that allowed her to work at the park and attend school simultaneously during the school year and then work during the summer in resource management.
As she graduated from the University of Wyoming in 2000, the Garland native and 1994 Powell High School graduate learned that a position was coming open close to home: South District lead interpreter at Bighorn Canyon. She applied and was hired.
Fleming worked to enhance interpretive services at Big Horn Canyon for 10 years, then took on the new position at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center.
She hit the ground running, working with contractors to make sure the new interpretive center building would be completed by August of 2011 in time for the Aug. 20 grand opening. She also worked with the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation Board of Directors and area partners to put on the grand opening with help from more than 200 volunteers who helped that weekend, including Bighorn Canyon NRA staff members and community leaders.
Following the grand opening, Fleming was named deputy director of the interpretive center, working to schedule programs, staff the center and develop on-site and off-site programming. She worked with Claudia Wade of the Park County Travel Council and the board of directors on a marketing plan and placed advertising and information in travel guides and attended various travel conferences. She said she did a lot of networking with chambers of commerce and various partners to get projects completed.
In the spring of 2011, Chief Interpretive Ranger Chris Wilkinson left Bighorn Canyon NRA to take a new position, and the park was left without a chief interpreter, although South District Interpretive Ranger Valerie Newman basically assumed the duties, Fleming said. Newman moved to Michigan late last fall to join her husband, who also works for the Park Service, leaving interpretive ranger Shawn Williams to carry the load all winter.
“He needs to be let free (from the visitor center),” said Fleming with a laugh.
Fleming said she first considered returning to Bighorn Canyon in November when Newman moved on, and when the chief of interpretation position was listed in February, she applied for the position, but there was one important key: the position had to be moved from park headquarters in Ft. Smith to Lovell.
“I wouldn’t have moved to Ft. Smith,” Fleming said, noting that she and her husband, Jason, live south of Garland and Jason works for the Wyoming Dept. of Transportation out of Lovell. “Jerry Case (park supt.) has traditionally wanted all of the chiefs in the north end, but Cass (Bromley) has done such a great job in the south end as chief of resources in terms of communication and project management that Jerry decided if she could do it, so could I.”
A tough decision
Fleming was offered the job, completed with the move of the office to Lovell, in April and she had a decision to make. She chose to make the move back to Bighorn Canyon.
“It was a hard decision to leave Heart Mountain,” she said. “Jason and I sat down together and went over the pros and cons, and it was even, so that didn’t help much. But the sticking point was the stories.”
Fleming explained that the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center has one story, the forced relocation of Japanese Americans early in World War II, and, she added, “It’s depressing.”
“After you tell the story over and over again, it starts to bring you down,” she said. “The atmosphere there is kind of somber, and that’s not my way. Here, I can greet people however I want, and that was definitely not appropriate at Heart Mountain.
“Here, there are a bazillion stories you can tell, serious or light-hearted, not the same sad story. It (the Heart Mountain story) is an important part of our history, but as I looked forward five years, I thought, ‘Do I still want to be telling this same story?’ The mission of Heart Mountain is important, and as much as I can, I still want to be active as a volunteer, but as a career this position will make me happier and is better for Jason and I.”
Fleming has been an active member of the Lovell-Kane Museum Board of Directotrs and will continue that work. She also helped lead local recycling efforts over the years and was an active volunteer at the Hyart Theatre. She will work back into those areas as time permits, she said.
But Fleming’s major task will be to lead the interpretation of the history and the many sites visitors can see at Big Horn Canyon, and she already has plenty of ideas.
“I’ve already talked to several members of the staff, and our goal this summer is to do more programs, expanding times and days and locations,” she said.
Typically, the park staff has offered campfire programs at the Horseshoe Bend Campground on Friday and Saturday nights, but she would like to expand into more trail programs and informal on-site programs, where a ranger will be available at a site like the Lockheart Ranch for visitors to speak with.
She also wants to schedule more guest speakers and reach out to community groups. And she wants to promote the park more widely.
“I realized while I was gone that people still don’t realize where Big Horn Canyon is,” she said. “We need to work on outreach and networking with other groups – museums, chambers, organizations like the Friends of Big Horn Lake, touring groups, etc. We need to update our website and expand social media.
“I have a lot of ideas. We are hoping to change things.”
Fleming said she is interested in hearing from people for programming ideas or from those who could conduct a program themselves. She invites people to contact her at the visitor center at 548-2251.
Christy Fleming has once again hit the ground running.
By David Peck