National Parks guides, from Yellowstone to Yosemite and beyond, seem like such essentially American figures, but the concept of guides started in Switzerland. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has inventoried nearly every life form in its environs—but that ample approach was forged in Costa Rica. These are the kinds of facts you learn when you chat up Jonathan Putnam ’88, who has one of least-known jobs: He’s an international park affairs specialist working for the U.S. National Park Service. He didn’t know there was a such thing either, until he got the job.
He runs a small office in Washington, D.C. (just six on staff) that does big things. It helps manage sister park programs to protect species that travel between borders, such as the humpback whales plying the waters in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park and Chile’s Francisco Coloane Marine Park. The office runs park staff travel programs, so innovative ideas can be gleaned from personnel in, so far, Australia, South Africa and the U.K. And Putnam has been part of the teams that designate World Heritage sites that cross national boundaries, such as Montana’s Glacier National Park and its neighbor, Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada.
Putnam’s office also helps put on international conferences for the parks community around the globe. This past fall, for instance, he headed to Washington State for the first U.S.–Chile workshop on Indigenous Government Partnerships in Protected Area Management. “Many of our parks were created at the expense of Indigenous communities,” says Putnam, who adds that the National Parks are exploring ways to acknowledge past harms and seek alliances with Indigenous communities, a priority set by National Parks Service director Charles F. Sams III, a member of the Cayuse and Walla Walla tribes.
Putnam’s bio is a rich blend of the international and environmental. He has served as a Peace Corps conservation officer in Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland). “We planted thousands and thousands of mango trees,” he recalls. “One of my proudest moments was going back years later and seeing how high they’d grown. I also helped with a countrywide mammal survey, and I’d go out at night, with spotlights, and look into caves to find nocturnal mammals. That was a real thrill.”
At Amherst, he played rugby and ran cross-country, but he says his best outdoor memories come from all the hiking and birding excursions he took with his classmates in the area. Meanwhile, his affinity for foreign affairs (he started subscribing to the journal of that name at age 15) led him to major in political science. He was inspired by his uncle Chester Crocker, assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Reagan administration. As part of his bent toward service, Putnam has also served in the National Guard.
Out of college, he worked a few National Park stints, including at Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park and New York’s Fire Island National Seashore. He thought of becoming an environmental lawyer, but instead got a master’s degree in resource management from the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability. When he and his wife returned from Eswatini, after a short-lived job at USAID, “I discovered the park service has an international office, and just as luck had it, a job opened up there,” says Putnam.
Apart from those mango trees, what else has especially gratified him in his career? He cites his role in creating Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii, the largest marine conservation area in the world. He is also excited about SoundsofYourPark.com, a new website that features lush audio of the planet’s protected places. It originally focused on just the U.S. parks, until Putnam offered sound advice: Add in the international ones, too.
Photograph by Jimell Greene