TACOMA — With a big smile, Sarah Creachbaum unabashedly admits she’s “a park nerd.”
So she sometimes doesn’t understand when people ask why she was willing to trade coconuts for conifers, leaving Haleakala National Park on Maui to become superintendent at Olympic National Park.
“It’s Olympic National Park! Why wouldn’t I?” she said.
Having been on the job since early November, the 54-year-old Creachbaum has explored as much of the park as her duties allow. She has traveled up the Elwha and Sol Duc river valleys, into the Staircase Rapids area and along the coastal beaches.
“This stuff makes my heart sing,” she said of her first impressions.
“The rivers are just awe-inspiring, especially when they really get rolling. There are the huge trees and the wonderful opportunities for quiet. How can you not love it? (The park) had me at hello.”
Creachbaum came to Olympic after serving as superintendent of Haleakala since 2009. Before that, she was superintendent at War in the Pacific National Historical Park on the island of Guam and American Memorial Park on the island of Saipan.
Other stops in her National Park Service career include Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Saguaro national parks.
Growing up in rural southeastern Ohio, Creachbaum said farm life didn’t allow for cross-country family vacations. Instead, her passion for the open spaces of the West was kindled by watching westerns on television.
“I wanted to be Roy Rogers,” she said. “I wanted that adventure.”
After high school, Creachbaum moved west, landing a waitress/bartender job at El Tovar Hotel on the South Rim at Grand Canyon National Park. She eventually landed a seasonal job at the park, and began watching and learning from veteran park staffers.
Among those who inspired her was Stu Fritz, an interpretive ranger at Grand Canyon.
“He would have people on their edge of their seats and end with a very inspiring message about the importance of national parks,” Creachbaum said. “He inspired and changed the minds of hundreds of people a day.
“You realize there are people who get paid to do that and can make a difference.”
While spending much of her time getting to learn her new park and staff members, Creachbaum also is getting to know the communities outside the park.
“I firmly believe the park will not be successful unless the communities around it are successful,” she said.
Building those relationships is vital as the park moves forward with projects like a wilderness stewardship plan.
“We need people to sit down and work out solutions,” she said. “Our parks deserve the best solutions. It will take all of us working together to come up with answers to the complex questions out there.”
That often means gathering and listening to people with different perspectives.
“You have people who live next door to the park have an intimate knowledge of the park,” she said. “Then you have the little girl in Chicago who has read about the Elwha Dam removal, Roosevelt elk or wants to see a sea otter. We have to invite those people to the table as well.
“When you work with anybody whose experiences are different than yours, it behooves you to shut up and listen for a while.”
It all ties to some advice she got from Jon Jarvis, now director of the National Park Service: “Make those relationships before you need those relationships.”
Another aspect of the learning process is hitting the books. Not a difficult task for Creachbaum, who describes herself as an avid reader.
Among the titles she’s reading at work and at home include “Behavior and Ecology of Pacific Salmon and Trout,” ”The Ozette Prairies of Olympic National Park” and “Olympic National Park: A Natural History.”
With a laugh, Creachbaum admits one set of books yet to make her reading list is the “Twilight” series. But she has been fully briefed on the books and their connection to the Olympic Peninsula by a neighbor, a 16-year-old girl.
“I have promised to read them,” she said.
Creachbaum said she hopes to spend a year getting to know the staff, the park, partners and communities before beginning any major initiatives.
Still, she has had to hit the ground running. She will shepherd the continuing work to remove two dams on the lower Elwha River.
The first major task Creachbaum and her staff will start together is developing a wilderness stewardship plan.
The goal of the process, expected to take two to three years to complete, is to spell out how the park should best manage the designated wilderness areas within its boundaries and prioritize the activities allowed. In 1988, 95 percent of the 922,000-acre park was declared wilderness.
“You can’t have every use on every acre, but what’s the best use for that acre,” Creachbaum said. “
She said she expects initial public meetings to begin in January and February, including sessions in Olympia, Bremerton and Seattle.
Along with everything else, Creachbaum is settling back into mainland life with her husband, Bob, 65, a retired Park Service employee, and their 18-month-old border collie, Jimmy. The couple has two grown sons. The two are familiar with the Northwest, having honeymooned on Orcas Island.
While they left behind warm sea breezes and palm trees, they also left behind the highest gas prices in the nation and milk prices that were $8 to $9 a gallon. Creachbaum, the reader, also is happy to live in a community with bookstores - there were none on Maui.
“I’m having a ball,” she said. “I’m like a kid in the candy store.”
That’s also describes her attitude about her new job.
“Olympic is a special place within the National Park Service,” she said. “But this is not a 12-page booklet park. That’s the fun part of the job, getting to really know the landscape and understanding the people.”