Retiring NPS Division Chief Julie Van Stappen reflects on decades of service to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Julie Van Stappen in the office

December 28, 2023

After dedicating more than three decades of work to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Julie Van Stappen retires as Chief of Planning and Resource Management at the end of 2023. Julie grew up in Chicago; she spent vacations and later summers in northern Wisconsin. Her love of – and appreciation for – nature and science grew during her college years, during which she studied geology, earned an advanced degree in aquatic ecology and gained experience in the US Forest Service and at various locations in National Park Service before landing her dream job at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. The NPS featured Julie as a leading woman in science. Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore board member Neil Howk sat down with Julie to talk about her many accomplishments and her lasting impact on the park.

Neil: Can you remember your first experience in the Apostle Islands?
Julie: I started in early June of 1988 and the field season was rolling. Seasonal training was underway and shortly after starting, I was sent to a training course at Northland College. It was an Inventory and Monitoring Course – I didn’t realize at the time, how useful that course would be. Some of my early fond memories were learning about the park – such an amazing place – and getting out in the field. Bob Brander, my supervisor at the time, loved to bushwhack. He was so fast in the woods, I had to try really hard to keep up. Luckily he had shocking white hair – I would keep staring at his white hair so I didn’t lose him(laughter). Just being out on the lake was amazing, getting out in the field and getting to know the park.

Neil: Do you remember what your first job title was?
Julie: Natural resource specialist. The position was fairly new. It was created as part of a larger NPS initiative to professionalize natural resource management in National Parks. Apostle Islands was one of many parks that were given funding for this type of position.

Julie and biotechnician Leigh Downing in the field

Julie and biotechnician Leigh Downing in the field

Julie Van Stappen trying out the new fire pit at the group campsite on Stockton Island

Julie Van Stappen trying out the new fire pit at the group campsite on Stockton Island

Neil: And how has it changed since then?
Julie: What I do has changed quite a bit. I’ve been in three different positions and the organization of the resource management program has changed over time. I started out as a natural resource specialist (1988-1994). At that time, we had a park ecologist and the natural resource and cultural resource programs were supervised by the protection (division). During my first position, some of my early tasks were pulling together a long-term monitoring program and taking the lead in writing the park’s resource management plan. I had the good fortune to be able to be there at the early stages.

The park was still young – only 18 years old when I started. Bob Brander, my supervisor and mentor, laid down a solid foundation of science-based resource management and facilitated comprehensive inventories and research, but the park didn’t have much of an in-house resource management program. I enjoy planning, am interested in pretty much all natural resource fields, and enjoy tapping into other’s expertise, so this was a great opportunity for me – I learned so much and am really grateful to all the resource experts that helped along the way.

We focused on filling information gaps, developing monitoring programs for key indicators and strategic plans – lots of fieldwork and experimentation – really challenging and fulfilling. I moved into the Branch Chief of Natural Resources role in 1994. We continued to build the program and began active restoration. Most of the restoration focused on areas of human trampling on sandscapes, but other areas were restored as well – with a lot of volunteer help. My role included overseeing the natural resources program, more supervisory and managerial tasks and broader resource protection efforts.

Around 2005, the Planning and Resource Management Division was formed. I moved into my current position (Division lead) in 2010. This greatly expanded my focus to not only include natural resource management, but also cultural resource management, park-wide issues, overseeing park-wide planning, compliance and lands, increased role as park liaison, and serving as the pubic information officer. Some of this was out of my sandbox, but has been interesting. Each role has been challenging and fulfilling in different ways.

Neil: Can you describe some of the different tasks you’ve performed in the park?
Julie: Oooh…a lot. A lot of planning compliance; field work; logistics and developing relationship with a wide range of partners to try to get important work done. Working on natural, cultural and park-wide projects, regional initiatives, being involved with tribal collaboration, working on agreements with a variety of partners, serving as a public information officer – during the big ice caves years!

Trying to figure out what resource threats and information needs we have in the park, reaching out to experts for the best approach, and trying to chip away at the highest priorities. Being involved with the Lake Superior Binational program with a wonderful group of dedicated professional. And being on the National Park Service’s natural resource advisory group. It was really interesting to see things at the nationwide level. And, more recently, serving as the GLRI (Great Lakes Restoration Initiative) coordinator for the park. This funding source has been a game changer especially for natural resource projects. It’s provided a whole new avenue of funding that has helped us tackle many important issues. It’s provided a lot of stability and extra capacity to the resource program.

Neil: What are some of the hands-on things that you’ve been involved with?
Julie: Everything from sandscape restoration to helping re-roof a cabin on Rocky Island. Also, a lot of field work, whether it’s monitoring sandscapes, conducting breeding or colonial (nesting) bird surveys, bushwacking across the islands to check wildlife cameras or exotic insect traps, water quality monitoring, cultural landscape clearing or assisting researchers on a variety of projects. In my previous positions, logistics and boat transportation were a big part of the job during the field season – always thinking about the weather and changing plans. Coop used “Semper Gumby” as our motto – “always flexible”. I’m a field biologist at heart, so I’m happiest when I’m in the field.

Julie Van Stappen repairing a cabin roof on Rocky Island

Julie Van Stappen repairing a cabin roof on Rocky Island

Julie with WI DNR biologist Sumner Matteson banding piping plover chicks on Long Island

Julie with Wisconsin DNR biologist Sumner Matteson banding piping plover chicks on Long Island

Neil: Of all the projects you’ve worked on, what would you say was the most challenging?
Julie: Probably one of the most challenging ones was back in the early 2000s when we had an irruption of deer on Sand and York islands. Canada yew, which is widespread in the park, is really rare in most of its previous U.S. range. The park provides excellent habitat for Canada yew and there are a handful of islands that escaped high deer populations in the 1950’s – including Sand and York. Canada yew is like candy to deer – they’ll browse on that and leave other preferred browse (e.g., cedar) alone. We worked with the Wisconsin DNR and tribal partners on a Wildlife Management Plan that included deer management and options for zoning and harvest quotas. The plan recommended a population goal (as low as possible) on islands without a known history of deer. Then came the implementation. We tried all kinds of things (to reduce the population) from having liberal quotas for hunters, to having park service staff cull deer, to using volunteer (hunters). But it wasn’t until Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding made it possible to work with Wildlife Services that great progress was made at reducing deer numbers. We worked closely with our tribal partners to provide culled animals for food, staff from the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission did research on population health, and U.W. Madison did a three-year population study using remote cameras to study population changes. In the end, it was more successful than we would have ever dreamed, because we kind of lived, ate, and breathed this project for a few years. And we haven’t had any substantial deer (issues) since then. The population is growing a little, but not much. Luckily, we’ve been able to use remote cameras to monitor deer occurrences on the island. They give us a really efficient early detection tool, which is so much more proactive than trying to do something after there is damage (to habitat).

Neil: What would you say is your favorite part of the job?
Julie: Oh, there’s so many things. There’s nothing like being in the field, but I probably get the greatest satisfaction from being able to tackle a problem and work with partners to hopefully make a difference. I’ve been able to work with so many incredible people. Most recently the marten/wildlife project has been really fulfilling because it’s being able to do things that we had only dreamed of doing prior to the advent of new technology. Being able to have remote cameras out there provides us insight into what’s happening 24/7. The cameras provide information about our wildlife population non-intrusively and has greatly expanded our understanding of the park’s mammal populations.

Julie Van Stappen on Long Island beach

Julie Van Stappen on Long Island beach

Julie and the Ardea, one of the NPS boats used by resource managers

Julie and the Ardea, one of the NPS boats used by resource managers

We’ve discovered that the islands have a rich carnivore population, a greater diversity of wildlife than we thought, and that the habitat provided by the islands is significant in so many ways. The more we look the more we find. We’ve discovered that the habitat the islands provide has allowed state endangered (American) marten to not only thrive but serve as a source of animals to the mainland. Genetic work has revealed that marten are a fairly new colonization and that there’s genetic differences between island populations. And current research is exploring population connectivity in the park and how changes to ice cover may impact different species. That’s just one example but there’s so many.

Neil: What was your scariest experience in the park?
Julie: I’m torn, I’ve got two of them. Peggy (Burkman) and Ryan Brady were at Outer Island doing a breeding bird survey, and they really wanted to get off (the island). They had already been delayed by a few days due to weather. Frank Maragi was our bio-tech then, and we looked at the weather and thought, “if we just leave really early, we’ll be able to sneak a trip in.” So, we did get them off of Outer. It was pretty gnarly out. It was rough and getting rougher. On the way back (from Outer), it was rough enough that I had to tack back and forth and every once in a while, water would come splashing over (the bow). We discovered that Ryan gets motion sickness and was throwing up over the side of the boat. To steady himself he was grabbing the line and it got into one of the engines. So we’re rocking along, and Frank is leaning over the engines to cut the line and I’m trying to keep the boat steady with the engine off. Luckily he succeeded and we made it back (laughter). But it was one of those times when you kiss the ground, feel a little wobbly and be thankful that we got back in one piece.

And then there’s the time I went through the ice with Bob Brander…that was probably my scariest time. We went out (by snowmobile) to do a track survey on Long Island. It was (early) spring. We were with (district ranger) Larry Johnson. Jeff Hepner (district ranger) had told us, “Don’t follow your tracks, because the ice conditions have changed.” I’m (sitting) behind Bob Brander and Larry’s (snowmobile) is in front. On the way back (from the island), Larry follows the old tracks. Bob follows the old tracks. Suddenly, Larry is waving Bob off, and Bob turns the snowmobile towards the bay, causing the snowmobile to slow down. It breaks through (the ice), and we jump off the snowmobile onto the ice. We get out, but not thinking ahead as much as we probably should have, everything was on the snowmobile, the backpacks, everything was tied up, and we had no idea where we were with respect to Long Island. We were on the bay side and didn’t know if we were in three feet of water or fifty feet of water. Then Larry sees what’s going on, turns around and his snowmobile goes in. But Larry goes down almost like a rock, that was really scary. Luckily, he had is radio and his ice picks, but he wasn’t as agile as Bob and I were. Long story short…we all made it off. The ice conditions on a lot of the bay were about three feet (thick). It’s just that there was a lot of current right there (making the ice thin). Jeff Hepner rescued us. So, I was forever grateful to Jeff (laughter).

Neil: What is your most rewarding accomplishment in this job?
Julie: Just being able to be involved in the whole resource management program. Probably the most fulfilling part of that has been mentoring…especially seasonal employees. I always enjoy their new ideas and perspectives, to have a fresh look at things. It’s also been fun to keep in touch with past staff.

Neil: What’s the most memorable thing you’ve seen in the Apostle Islands?
Julie: I would say, being involved in migratory bird surveys on Outer Islands were pretty amazing. There was one year that we counted about 50,000 birds during the month of September, over 100 merlins and over 60 peregrines! You’d have peregrines and merlins (falcons) flying around, and flickers squawking…. It was just a really cool experience. We did some trapping for a couple years at Outer, of merlins and peregrines, which was so cool.

A few other highlights that come to mind are being on the lake in late afternoon when the sun hits the water just right and it looks like there’s millions of diamonds; helping band piping plover; helping with eagle banding; and bushwacking through the islands. When you get off the trail, you see different parts of the islands that you wouldn’t otherwise. No matter what island I’m on, you run across amazingly large trees. Although there’s cutting that happened on the islands, there’s old growth trees and forest throughout, and there’s just really incredible ecosystems.

Neil: What are you going to miss least about the job?
Julie: (laughter) Of course, some of the bureaucratic and administrative stuff that’s doesn’t make sense. Things that you do because you have to, but the purpose behind them is elusive.

Neil: What are you going to miss the most?
Julie: I’m going to miss all the wonderful people I’ve had the pleasure to work with and I’m going to miss the resource, especially time on the water and on the islands.

Neil: Succinct! Any final thoughts?
Julie: Now you’re making me choke up… I just feel so fortunate to have had this career, and I’ve done it with incredible people in an incredible place.

Neil: That’s a good wrap up right there! That’s great, thanks Julie.

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.

Friends of the Apostle Islands Board Member Neil Howk

Julie presented “A Retrospective – Research and Resource Management at Apostle Islands NL” during the 50th Annual Resource Stewardship Symposium. Watch it here. 

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