Since 2006, Kate Cannon has been the National Parks Service (NPS) superintendent of the Southeast Utah Group, which includes Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park, Natural Bridges National Monument and Hovenweep National Monument. But that will change on Jan. 3 when Cannon retires after more than 40 years of working in national parks.
“While the news (of Cannon’s retirement) wasn’t shocking, I think we’re all sad to lose such a dedicated and passionate leader,” said Angela Richman, chief of interpretation and visitor services for the Southeast Utah Group. “We hope that the person who fills her shoes will care as much about the parks and the resources as she has.”
Scott Brown, chief ranger for the Southeast Utah Group, also expressed appreciation for Cannon.
“Having worked directly and indirectly with Kate for many years, I can say that Kate is a remarkable champion of protecting park resources while also providing for the best visitor experience possible,” he said. “Her leadership and positive energy will be missed.”
Cannon spoke with the Moab Sun News about her upcoming retirement and reflected on her long career built around national parks and the people who visit them, work that has spanned nearly all of her adult life.
Originally from Omaha, at age 20 she was a volunteer intern at Isle Royale, an island of the Great Lakes. Cannon said she loved the experience and went back the following year as a paid, seasonal backcountry ranger.
“I lived in a little cabin at a lake on the island,” she said. “It’s a beautiful place. The lakes had loons…lots of wildlife, including some wolves and moose. It was an idyllic, wonderful place to work from.”
As a backcountry ranger, Cannon would travel solo, hiking for 10 days at a time, helping visitors who had questions or were lost or injured. She also did trail work and campground maintenance.
Cannon’s next backcountry ranger gig was in North Cascades National Park in the state of Washington. She also enjoyed a stint as a backcountry ranger in the Needles District of Canyonlands before heading to Alaska to be a seasonal supervisor at Yukon-Charlie Rivers National Preserve.
While doing seasonal work for the parks, Cannon graduated from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln with a degree in Natural Resource Management. She also obtained her seasonal law enforcement commission which qualified her to do law enforcement in national parks.
Cannon’s first permanent job with NPS was a clerical position in a regional office in Anchorage. After that, she moved to Kotzebue, a city in northwest arctic Alaska near a group of parks that Cannon described as “beautiful, remote, wild places.” There, she served as a natural resource specialist.
“By then, I had met the guy who’s now my husband,” Cannon said, adding that when he transferred to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Utah, she followed him there and spent several years working at Bullfrog Marina.
Cannon made her way up the NPS ranks, becoming superintendent of Jewel Cave National Monument in South Dakota in 1990, going on to be the assistant manager and then the manager of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and then deputy superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park. She took her current position as superintendent of the Southeast Utah Group in 2006.
“That’s where I’ve been ever since, because it’s the best,” Cannon said.
Cannon said of her career that she loved “the chance to be in these beautiful, wonderful places that have been set aside for all of us, and to help people visit them, enjoy them, and keep them beautiful,” adding that it was “one of the joys of what I got to do.”
“I feel very fortunate to have had the jobs that I’ve had. It has enriched my life,” she said.
But her career wasn’t all fun in idyllic places. There have been challenges, especially as visitation to the parks has continued to increase.
“I think when you consider what’s going on in parks nowadays, one of the biggest challenges is to deal with the numbers of people who come,” Cannon said. “We have to make sure we maintain things in such a way that we preserve the quality of the place and the way people feel about it when they visit.”
When asked by the Moab Sun News what she was most proud of accomplishing, Cannon paused thoughtfully before answering.
“I’m proud of having been part of a wonderful organization that is so important to the people in the country,” she said, “working to maintain the places in such a way that they stay intact and treasured for generation after generation.”
Cannon said a successor has not been named and, while she expects that an interim superintendent will be coming in soon, it will likely be months before a new permanent superintendent is selected.
When asked what her plans were for retirement, Cannon said she looked forward to spending more time with family and traveling. And, where does she plan to travel?
“I guess I’ll just visit a lot of parks,” Cannon said with a laugh.