April 24, 2019
CHEROKEE – Susan Sachs’ love of dirt had become contagious.
Sixth-graders from a Gatlinburg, Tennessee, elementary school were gleefully digging in it outside the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
They were using trowels and fingers, dumping the dirt, shaking it through sifters, and when they found something that might be an artifact, carefully removing dirt around it with paintbrushes.
They were amateur archaeologists for the day in a pilot program created by Sachs, the park’s education branch chief. After more than 20 years as a park ranger, she is creating unique and exciting ways to draw children and teenagers into the wonders of nature, gaining her national awards, as well as international fame by having a lichen new to science named in her honor.
“It’s very important to get kids outdoors, to give them the idea of a future career, and help them to understand why they do certain things in the classroom,” Sachs said. “They’re out here doing math, measuring, playing with angles, but not realizing it. It’s real-world experience.
“But we also want them to have a love for the park and understand why it’s important to protect the resource. It’s stewardship, it’s learning, it’s inspiration and it’s fun.”
National attention for Smokies programming
Sachs watches over the students and their “test plots,” as they dig and extract everything from a candy wrapper to plastic, to a marble and some sort of animal bone, excitedly bringing each of their findings for her to examine.
“If you can break it, it’s not bone or rock, it’s plant material,” she tells them.
“We want them to understand is that archaeology is a science, even though it’s cultural research, about people who have lived here before.”
She’s designing the new program for high school students, one of many she has concocted over the years, and the kind that has gained her national attention.
In February at a ceremony in Denver, Sachs received the Public Lands Alliance Agency Leadership Award for cultivating and leading partnerships. The PLA is a national consortium of more than 165 nonprofit partners of public lands.
The Smokies’ Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, which is now in its 69th year and runs April 24-27, was also honored by the PLA for Outstanding Public Engagement for its programming that partners a nonprofit — the Great Smoky Mountains Association — and public lands.
“Susan has a remarkable passion for teaching others about the special resources that make the Smokies unique,” said Smokies Superintendent Cassius Cash. “Through her creativity and leadership, she’s developed meaningful partnerships that expand our reach into communities well beyond our borders and expose more people to learning opportunities in the Smokies.”
Her seamless way of building partnerships also earned her the Asheville GreenWorks Environmental Excellence Award in Education. She will be honored April 27 with other award winners at the annual Trashion Show at the DoubleTree Hilton.
For the past five years she has worked with GreenWorks’ Youth Environmental Leadership Program, a paid internship for Asheville students from low-income backgrounds, teaching them hands-on science at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center at Purchase Knob in Haywood County.
The high school students, many of whom had never been outside Asheville, learn about the effects of air pollution on plants in the ozone garden Sachs created, to look at effects of ground-level ozone, air pollution, on sensitive plants including milkweed, sochan, and crown beard.
“Susan is patient, knowledgeable, and takes time to connect with each young person she is teaching or guiding,” said Joéle Emma, GreenWorks director of education. “Every year our interns ask about Susan and look forward to seeing her at the Smokies.”
Sachs also started the park’s lichen monitoring project at Purchase Knob to monitor the effects of air pollution, particularly sulphur, on lichen. Her years working alongside researchers with the All Taxa Biodiversity Project, led them to name one of five new lichen species found in the park last year after her: Lecanora sachsiana.
Accidental outdoor career
Sachs, who lives in Waynesville with her husband, Greg Kidd, is a self-described city girl raised in Baltimore. She said she had no idea what national parks were.
“I didn’t grow up in area where I had a lot of exposure to the outdoors. My family would go to the beach in the summer. I didn’t grow up going to parks or knowing about careers like being a park ranger,” Sachs said.
She studied business at the University of Maryland and went to work as a union representative. She said the desk job wasn’t “sparking joy” and she took off on a years-long backpacking trip to Portugal, Israel, Egypt, Greece and Turkey.
“What was resonating for me was the beauty and the natural areas. In particular in Israel, plant identification is something I became obsessed with,” she said.
As soon as she returned to the States, she took an internship with an environmental education nonprofit outside Washington. Her first program was working with kindergartners catching tadpoles in a dip net.
“Watching the kids light up, it was magical. I realized sharing my love and passion of nature with others, especially kids in urban areas, this was what I want to do.”
She worked at Denali National Park in Alaska, the Grand Canyon, and smaller parks in Washington, D.C., before landing in the Smokies in the late ‘90s. She worked at Purchase Knob until last year, when she was promoted to the education chief, in charge of all park educational programs in North Carolina and Tennessee.
Working with partners such as the Friends of the Smokies, GSMA, Haywood Waterways and Cherokee Preservation Foundation, the park offers field trips, as well as rangers who travel to the schools in the winter, and lead camp groups in the summer, reaching 20,000 students a year.
Sachs develops grants to offer teacher workshops, science camps, and other programs through the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, Montreat College, GSMA, Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, Discover Life In America and the Smoky Mountain Field School.
Sachs also works on national-scale initiatives such as helping to integrate partnership-based phenology citizen science along the entire 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail.
Being inspired, promoting inclusiveness
“What inspires me is just seeing kids make connections to the real world to what they’re learning in the classroom, when a light bulb goes off, and want to take an ownership of learning, and not just, ‘Ugh, we have to do this,’ but ‘we want to do this.’”
Natrieifia Miller, an American Conservation Experience intern, who will start work as a seasonal park ranger in May, said she has been inspired by Sachs.
“I think working with Susan is amazing. It’s phenomenal getting to watch her work with the kids,” said Miller, who would like to one day become a park superintendent.
“It’s also been great having her as a mentor, someone who helps me believe in myself, increasing my own self-confidence and giving me a lot of wisdom and advice and helping me grow in my career.”
As she walks along the Oconaluftee River Trail, Sachs can’t take more than a step without pointing out early spring wildflowers like may apples and star chickweed, or scouring the sky to identify the just-budding leaves of buckeye and tulip poplar trees, while discussing her focus on making the park as accessible and welcoming to as many people as possible.
“We’re very intentional to reach out to kids of color, but also to some of our very rural Appalachian groups,” Sachs said. “We want these same kids to think about this as a possible career path. We would like to have people working in the National Park Service to visually represent the people visiting the parks and who own the parks, which is the American public.”
She said there is research underway on the history of the park’s African Americans, who were mostly slaves. She hopes to work with a local university next summer using ground-penetrating radar to learn more about those buried in an African American cemetery on park land.
“If you look at the history of the area, it was not necessarily friendly to people of color. They see it as a place where they’re not welcome. We don’t want that to be the case in national parks. We want all communities to think of parks as their place.”