It takes a strong team to protect the natural and cultural resources of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, while enhancing the experience for more than a quarter-million people who visit the park every year. With that in mind, Friends board member Neil Howk sat down with the park’s new Director of Communications and Education, Lucas Westcott. They talked about the skills and experience Westcott brings to the park, his first impressions about what makes the Apostle Islands a special place and about the important work that’s ahead.
Neil: Where are you from Lucas?
Lucas: Originally, I’m from western Massachusetts and eastern New York. The Berkshires in western Massachusetts. We lived in western Massachusetts until I was about 10 and then moved over the border, over the mountains, to New York. I lived in a bedroom community near Albany called Averill Park.
Neil: Where did you go to college?
Lucas: My undergraduate degree is from Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont. My graduate degree is from SUNY (State University of New York) ESF (Environmental Science and Forestry) in Syracuse.
Neil: So, you have a Masters?
Lucas: Yeah, in forest natural resource policy and law.
Neil: Where else have you worked for the National Park Service?
Lucas: I started out at Badlands in 2000. I worked (in interpretation) at Badlands for two seasons.
Badlands National Park – Mackenzie Reed NPS photo
Then I got out of the park service and did other things for a while… went to graduate school and built houses with my Dad. Then in 2007 I started working at the Lincoln Home in Springfield, Illinois. I worked there for three seasons, then I went to Isle Royale (National Park). I worked at Isle Royale for six seasons, as both the east district and west district interpreter.
Then I took a term job at Lake Clark National Park in southwest Alaska. I was at Lake Clark for three years as a term employee and then I got permanent status there in 2017. I started as the district Interpreter. Then I served as the Assistant Program Manager for Interpretation, Partnerships, & Public Affairs. Then I was in a long term detail as the Program Manager for Interpretation, Partnerships, & Public Affairs.
Lake Clark National Park – T. Vaughn NPS photo
I worked at Lake Clark until I came to the Apostle Islands in July (2022).
Neil: So, what is it that made you want to come to the Apostle Islands?
Lucas: When I was about 20, I did a field season with a major professor from my undergrad years. He was a forest ecologist, and his specialty was long term forest dynamics. He had plots over in the Huron Mountain Club near Marquette (Michigan) and at Duke’s Experimental Forest in Hiawatha National Forest. I did a field season with him up here and I really loved the lake. The forest was great. It was enough like where I was from that it felt familiar. I loved big open water that wasn’t salty. I thought, “wow, it would be really great to be able to live here.” And then it was many years before I got a chance to go up to Isle Royale. Isle Royale had always been on my list as a place I really wanted to work. After spending six years there, I really just… I lived in Calumet during the winter on the Keweenaw (Peninsula) and loved the area.
Isle Royale National Park – NPS photo
I kind of thought that my opportunity to go to Alaska had passed me by. At that point in my life, I didn’t think it was a thing that I was going to do, and then I got this opportunity to go to Alaska. It was only supposed to be for a short while. A short while ended up being seven years.
Lake Clark National Park – Lucas Westcott NPS photo
It was always with the idea that I wanted to come back here if I had the chance.
Neil: What is your job title now?
Lucas: I’m the director of communications and education.
Neil: So, what does that mean? What do you do?
Lucas: I oversee our interpretive operation, and our education operation, fee collection operation, web, social media, and non-personal services like wayside exhibits and publications. I also work on the management team and try to help all the other divisions be successful.
At the moment, I supervise most of the (interpretive) staff. I recruit and hire our seasonal staff as well as working on filling permanent positions that we have vacant and do all the paperwork associated with that. I try to coach and supervise as much as I can… it’s a big team. We do have a deputy position that we’re working to fill, hopefully later this year.
Neil: I hear that is pretty critical…
Lucas: It is pretty critical… (Laughter) (Lucas was hired to be Apostle Islands National Lakeshore’s deputy director of communications and education in 2022 before being promoted to the director’s role in September).
Neil: You’ve been here for a while now, more than a year. What has impressed you most about the park?
Lucas: I guess there are two things that have impressed me. In terms of the resource, the park is what I hoped it would be, which is this incredible combination of all of my favorite things from all the places that I’ve worked. It has this sort of island-y vibe that Isle Royale has.
Stockton Island Sunset – NPS photo
It has a rich history with immersive experiences like house tours like I did at Lincoln Home. There’s a wilderness element like Alaska. There’s really great cultural and natural resource science work that is being done here, which I’ve enjoyed in all the places where I’ve worked. And I love that I can have all those things and not be so remote from the rest of the world.
I think that the other thing that I really appreciate about this park is the team that is here. It’s a very nice group of people. It’s very collegial and collaborative. People are open to pitching in and hearing new ideas. Trying to help each other out, and I really appreciate that.
Neil: Has anything surprised you about the park?
Lucas: I guess the thing that has surprised me the most is that this is a small to medium sized park but there’s a lot of things that people are doing here. We have many of the elements that larger parks have but with a smaller team. People are doing a lot of things… like all the facilities projects that are pretty unusual to find in a park this size. The historic preservation work is substantial. The fee program is a substantial workload and one that I’m new to. So, there’s a lot of those sorts of things.
Neil: What are some of the favorite things that you get to do?
Lucas: One of the things that’s been really great is to continue to be able to get out into the park as a boat operator. I did that at Isle Royale a little bit and I did that in Alaska. The (boat operator) training here is very good. I’ve operated (boats) in a lot of places and there is a real thoroughness here about that. I not only feel like I get to get out, but I have some level of confidence about knowing where things are, and knowing where the hazards are. It’s great to be able, with the amount of office work that I have to do, that I still get to do staff transports, get out and see things, and when we talk about something in a meeting, I get to go see it. Being able to get out is really good.
Neil: What have you found to be your biggest challenge so far?
Lucas: I have a lot to learn Neil. I think there’s two tracks of that. To be able to do that wide variety of work you have to be proficient in a number of different kinds of administrative tasks. The way those tasks work here is different than they did in Alaska, so learning those systems over and figuring out how to meet those responsibilities is part of it. And the world has changed a lot in the last couple of years. People’s use of parks, the things that people are coming and looking for, how people visit… I think we have some thinking to do about how to adapt to this post-Covid world we are living in.
Neil: What are some of the things that you are looking forward to? Do you have any big dreams?
Lucas: Over the years, one of the things that I’ve tried to do is as much as possible is try to learn from each season that you go through. Make small improvements to try to keep steadily adapting to circumstances. I think that’s something I’m looking forward to… try to get incrementally better.
We’ve got a lot of big exhibit projects that we need to tackle. I’m excited and slightly terrified of them. Things like the Hanson Farm on Sand Island… the work on the boardwalk out there. They’re going to start working on the Hanson Farm facility, so we’ll be doing some waysides to help tell that story. Starting to think about how to tell those stories to not just be necessarily about the big tangibles on the landscape, but also how to tell the story from the indigenous perspective or from the ecological perspective. To try to integrate different resource narratives together to try to give a diverse series of points of view.
So, there’s that one, the mainland trail, some work to do out at the Sand Island Lighthouse… There’s quite a few of these sorts of projects that are in the queue.
Neil: By the mainland trail do you mean at Little Sand Bay?
Lucas: At Meyers Beach. But then there is the boardwalk at Little Sand Bay. That’s another one.
Neil: Will there be some interpretive elements to all those things?
Lucas: We’re talking about that, but yeah, those things are part of the vision. What they are and how we do them is part of conversations we need to have to make a plan to get them all done.
Neil: That’s the end of my list. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Lucas: Well, I’m glad to be here. I really like it here. I have a lot to learn about the park and the resources of the park. So far that’s been an area that I need to spend more time on.
Neil: From what you have learned, do you have any favorite stories about the park?
Lucas: I’d have to say, probably the fire work (controlled burns) out on the Stockton (Island) tombolo. I’m not directly a part of that, but I think that’s a really popular location, there’s meaningful ways for people to access it… There’s this shift in management around how the park manages the resources that moves back to the way that the Ojibwe people lived on that landscape, and I think that is really great.
Neil: OK. Thanks a lot Lucas.
Neil Howk began working as a park ranger/interpreter for the National Park Service in 1978. He worked at a number of different parks over the years and served as the assistant chief of interpretation at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore from 1993-2016. He now serves as a board member of Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.