Cherry Payne: A Career of Commitment and Compromise

This article was developed from the oral history interview with Cherry Payne that Nancy Russell and Lu Ann Jones conducted in April and May of 2020. It is part of the Women’s Voices: Women in the National Park Service Oral History Project, made possible by a grant from the National Park Foundation.
Portrait of Cherry Payne
Cherry Payne in 2020

Courtesy of Cherry Payne

Oral history has a long history in the National Park Service. In 2020, Nancy Russell, NPS Harpers Ferry Center History Collection archivist, had an idea: locate and re-interview some of the women that Dorothy Boyle Huyck interviewed in the 1970s. The Huyck collection of some 200 interviews became a key source for National Parks and the Woman’s Voice: A History, written by Polly Welts Kaufman after Huyck’s untimely death in 1979. Cherry Payne, then a young interpretive ranger at Grand Teton National Park, was among the NPS women that Huyck interviewed.

In the spring of 2020, Russell and NPS historian Lu Ann Jones located Payne. They picked up where Huyck left off. As it turns out, Cherry Payne had created a remarkable career with the National Park Service.

Commitment and Compromise

When Cherry Payne was first interviewed, there were fewer women in the agency’s workforce than there are today. Dorothy Hyuck asked, “If you were to encounter, say on one of your interpretive walks, any young woman who is in college and contemplating a Parks Service career, would you encourage her to think of the Park Service as a career possibility?”

“I encourage anyone I meet to think of it,” Payne responded. “Of course, a lot of people say, ‘Oh, it must be so neat to be a park ranger’ and indeed it seems like a real romantic profession. In a lot of respects it is, but this is just like any other job too. You have good days and bad days, but I certainly would if a woman thought that that's what she wanted, if she were committed to the Park Service idea, to the idea of conservation, fine.”

Payne’s NPS career has been a demonstration of that commitment. She has also shown how compromise is a part of commitment, as one balances the attention to work, life, and the goals of others.

Payne’s NPS career has been a demonstration of that commitment. She has also shown how compromise is a part of commitment, as one balances the attention to work, life, and the goals of others.
Low vegetation, rocks, and bare tree trunks line a narrow trail on a slope, with a large lake and rugged mountains in the background
Jenny Lake at Grand Teton National Park

NPS/J. Bonney

Cherry Payne, in NPS uniform, stands in a couryard beside a building, holding a snake with both hands
Cherry Payne holds a snake at Everglades National Park, 1982.

Courtesy of Cherry Payne

About the time that Payne spoke with Hyuck, she met Bob Howard, a climbing ranger at Grand Teton National Park's popular Jenny Lake. When the couple married they became what is known as a dual career couple. They faced what could be a daunting challenge, seeking to locate to parks and positions that allowed each of them to pursue their individual career paths. That challenge got more complicated when they became parents in the 1980s.

From Grand Teton National Park, Payne and Howard transferred to positions that took them to parks and offices in Colorado, Florida, California, and New Mexico. Then, they both headed to San Antonio, Texas, where Payne worked at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park and Howard at Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. The next move led them back to Florida, where Payne was Chief of Interpretation at Everglades National Park and Bob was the Management Assistant for Dry Tortugas National Park.

Some of the challenges and benefits of being a dual career family in the National Park Service are unique to the agency, and others may sound familiar to just about anyone balancing profession, family, and personal interests. Along with the variety of work experiences that shaped her career decisions, Payne described navigating the choices and concerns around childcare, housing, commuting, and scheduling.

While Payne was realizing her role in interpretation, she also felt the pull of new challenges and experiences. Through a variety of positions, she began to build a host of skills across areas of expertise. She took advantage of NPS leadership and management training. She served details in several parks. She realized that she wanted the responsibility and influence that comes with being a park superintendent.

When another chance to grab the park superintendent's ring came along, Payne took it.

Managing for Balance at Glacier Bay National Park

Negotiating a balance of interests was a critical part of Payne’s responsibilities as superintendent at Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve in Alaska, a position she held between 2007 and 2010. During her tenure, the park, partners, and surrounding communities were facing concerns about cruise ship management and tourism and the relationship between the park and the Huna Tlingit.

The park was established as a national monument in 1925, and there was no formal NPS presence until about the 1950s. Meanwhile, the local Alaska Native residents, the Huna Tlingit clans, lived in the village of Hoonah across Icy Strait, about 35-40 miles from where the park headquarters now stands, as they continued their traditional activities such as seal hunting and gull egg collection.

"So one of the things we worked on with them was to develop a tribal house in the park, which is now there. It’s been built. But we were working on making that to become a reality so that they would have a place to come and do their ceremonies and perpetuate their culture with their youth in the park. That was just really, really important to all of us because we recognized yes, this is a great natural landscape. But it’s also a very important cultural landscape, too. And that’s part of the park."

A group of people gather in a large, open building with a high wooden roof and traditional tribal painting on the wall at one end.
Clan members gather during the Xunaa Shuká Hít (Huna Ancestors' House) Dedication on August 25, 2016.


Cherry Payne stands beside a pile of stones covered in vegegation, holding a photographs of a cabin
Cherry Payne displays a historic photo beside the ruins of Muir Cabin at Glacier Bay, built by John Muir and others around 1890 as a base for studying glaciers.

Courtesy of Cherry Payne

The islands in the park are also an important site to the Huna Tlingit for gull egg collection. The park conducted an ethnographic study and a biologic study that measured how egg collection methods affected the gull population. Payne summarized the findings, “What was so cool was the ethnography and the biology lined up! It was like, the oral traditions that people are saying you don’t take all the eggs, you just take one egg, and you take them at this point after they’ve been laid. It all lined up.” The research led to legislation to allow for egg collection.

Throughout her career, Payne has advocated for bringing together teams of people with different perspectives and styles of thinking. On seeking diversity across the roles in an organization and in a decision-making process, Payne reflected, "sometimes it leads to conflict, but a lot of times it leads to better outcomes." In other words, commitment and compromise go well together.
Lu Ann Jones is the oral history program coordinator for the National Park Service Park History Program in Washington, DC. Learn more at the NPS Oral History Website.

Everglades National Park, Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve, Grand Teton National Park, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Last updated: September 19, 2023