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Alumni Profiles

Life in Death Valley

Sarah Craighead ’78 works to preserve and protect the nation’s largest national park

Sarah cragihead
Sarah Craighead ’78, superintendent of Death Valley National Park, explains some of the park’s unique natural features to a visitor.

The name Death Valley sounds forbidding, but not to Sarah Craighead ’78, superintendent of Death Valley National Park. To her, the natural, cultural, and recreational aspects of the park present an exciting opportunity.

The territory under Craighead’s watchful eye is vast. Death Valley, which lies in the middle of the Mojave Desert, is the largest park in the lower 48 states with 3.3 million acres. Located primarily in southern California, with a small portion extending into Nevada, the valley itself is 130 miles long and between six and 13 miles wide.

“It can take me all day to get to another part of the park,” she said. “You can stand in Death Valley and look around and see only the park; you can’t see outside the boundary.”

It is also the hottest and lowest place in the western hemisphere with elevations ranging from Badwater Basin at 282 feet below sea level to the Panamint Mountains at 11,000 feet above.

A world of contrasts and extremes, Death Valley may sound like a lifeless landscape, but it is populated by numerous species of reptiles, birds, and mammals all living in a dramatic landscape of sand dunes, snow-capped mountains, and multi-colored rock layers.

Death Valley got its name during the height of the California gold rush when a group of pioneers became lost while trying to take a shortcut across the valley. Only one in the group died, but they all assumed the valley would become their grave.

Indeed, for five months of the year, unmerciful heat dominates Death Valley, and rain rarely gets past the mountains. The little rain that does fall, however, gives life to the wildflowers. Despite the harshness of the environment, Death Valley is home to more than 1,000 species of plants; more than 50 of these are endemics, found nowhere else in the world.

The lower elevations of the park are home to wildlife like road runners, ground squirrels, and coyotes, while big horn sheep and lizards can be seen in the higher elevations.

“Early spring temperatures here are perfect,” Craighead said. “The park is a lively place then, with temperatures in the mid-70s and birds migrating through. We have hummingbirds that time of year.”

Death Valley is usually considered a winter destination, but Craighead said the park has a surprising number of visitors in the middle of the summer, when temperatures soar to 125 degrees. “People want to experience how hot it can really be,” she said.

The hottest temperature ever recorded at Death Valley was a searing 134 degrees in July 1913 at what is now Furnace Creek Ranch.

A passion for parks

Craighead is passionate about the nation’s park system, which protects not only wildlife, but also historical and cultural sites.

“Our public lands are important because they’re areas where natural processes have an opportunity to continue unimpeded by humans.” Craighead said. “In our parks, wildlife has the opportunity to thrive. Our mission in the National Park Service is to preserve and protect places like Death Valley and to provide opportunities for the public to learn and enjoy so that the parks will be here for generations to come.”

Craighead’s passion is one she first discovered while a student at Transylvania. Unsure of her post-graduation plans, she began her studies as a computer science major. When she started working for the National Park Service as a summer worker at Mammoth Cave, she found her future career.

“I just fell in love with the job, the people, the place,” she said, “so I changed my major to biology because I knew that was more in line with the jobs I would be looking for after graduation.”

Her first full-time job after Transy, however, did not call for her training in biology. Instead of a natural setting, it took her to a large metropolitan area. For a year, she was a park ranger at Independence National Historic Site in Philadelphia, home of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. There she interpreted American history, sometimes in costume.

“It was totally outside my comfort area,” she said, “but that’s the beauty of a liberal arts education. I had a little bit of everything in my background, and I knew how to research and read.”

During her 30-year career with the park service, Craighead has been a park ranger at places like the Grand Canyon in Arizona and Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, and has held management positions at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, the National Capital Regional Office in Washington, D.C., and Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia.

She served as superintendent of Saguaro National Park in Arizona, Washita Battlefield National Historical Site, and Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Oklahoma prior to accepting the position of Death Valley superintendent in January 2009.

Craighead’s husband, John F. Shireman, also works for the National Park Service, by telecommuting work to the Intermountain Regional Office in Washington, D.C. He also goes to the nation’s capital one week out of the month.

“It’s nice we can live together for once,” Craighead said. “We haven’t for most of our marriage. Like many couples in the park service, we’ve always had to travel back and forth—park staffs are small, and it’s hard to find two jobs at the right level at the same place.”

Like two-thirds of Death Valley’s staff, Craighead and her husband live in park housing, within the boundaries of the park. “It’s very remote. We can’t just run out to the mall or go to the movies,” she said, “but we have an active social life. We’re always thinking up things to do.”

Day to day in Death Valley

In her role at Death Valley, Craighead spends much of her day with administrative duties, but because she’s responsible for the entire park, she gets out of the office to visit the backcountry, as well.

“I get to do a little bit of everything,” she said. “My job is to ensure that park programs are running smoothly, that we’re doing things efficiently, and that the public understands what we’re doing.”

A big park in an isolated area, Death Valley has programs that cover everything from law enforcement to fire fighting to plant and animal research.

“Parks are places where people can relax and become aware of the natural world around them,” she said. “They can feel renewed, but they can also see what our planet looked like before people had an effect.”

About 95 percent of Death Valley is designated wilderness area, and those areas are protected to an even higher standard. Many don’t even have roads, so visitors can truly see what the place was like before human intervention.

In this way, our national parks hold answers about environmental concerns and climate change. “We’re the hottest place on the continent. If it gets hotter, we’ll start to lose species,” Craighead said. “We still have native plants that, in some cases, have never been looked at for medical uses for humans. We have plants that only live in Death Valley, and we have threatened and endangered wildlife. The devil’s hole pupfish only lives in Death Valley, and there are less than 100 of them. These plants and animals are important because they are indicators of our planet. We need to watch them to make sure that the planet is sustainable for humans to come. What goes on here helps us better understand what climate change is doing to our larger natural world.”

Because of its desert location, the park also seeks to use as much solar energy as possible.

“We’re putting in a number of photovoltaic panels on park structures and trying to create as much electricity as we can,” she said. “We have to air-condition all of the park buildings, and one of the goals our director has set is for parks to have zero carbon emissions by 2016. That’s going to be tough for us, but we’re working toward it.”

National parks have benefited from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus funds, and Death Valley is undertaking a number of projects that will benefit the public, the park staff, and the park itself. One example is its ongoing program to deal with abandoned mines, mining having been the primary activity in the area before the land was protected.

“Death Valley has the most open mines of any place in the park system,” Craighead said. “A lot of gold, silver, and borax mining went on here in the past, and we have in the neighborhood of 6 -10,000 mine openings in the park. We’re doing closures in the areas that pose the most risk to visitors, while being careful not to disturb the bats that sometimes make their homes in the abandoned mines.”

Funds are also being used to build additional park houses and add to the curatorial facility, and a strategic plan is being developed to determine what would best benefit park staff.

“Staff members do a great job,” she said, “but there are a lot of challenges here between the heat and the isolation, and we want to make sure we’re providing them with good developmental opportunities.”

The casual visitor isn’t going to see these changes, however, and that’s by design.

“It’s our goal to preserve the area,” Craighead said. “We do our job so that our grandchildren and their children can visit the park and see it just as it looks today.”

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