New Superintendent Feels ‘At Home’ At National Seashore

by Alan Pollock
Jennifer Flynn, new superintendent of the Cape Cod National Seashore, started her Park Service career as a parking attendant at the park’s Outer Cape beaches. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO Jennifer Flynn, new superintendent of the Cape Cod National Seashore, started her Park Service career as a parking attendant at the park’s Outer Cape beaches. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

SOUTH WELLFLEET – As a college student in 1991, Jennifer Flynn took a job as a seasonal gate attendant in the Cape Cod National Seashore, launching a career that brought her up through the ranks in the National Park Service, and ultimately back to her Cape Cod starting point.

Flynn began work last month as the new National Seashore superintendent, and she said she’s eager to start work on some of the pressing issues facing the park.

“I am incredibly grateful that at 20 years old, I figured out where I fit and what my life’s work was going to be,” she said last week.

Until recently, Flynn was associate director for visitor and resource protection at National Park Service headquarters in Washington, and said she was fully engaged in that position until her last day at work, giving her little time to prepare for the issues particular to Cape Cod. Helping the park prepare for the impacts of climate change will be a priority, she predicted. A former Wellfleet call firefighter, Flynn was a member of a national commission on wildfires, preparing for the risks the U.S. will face from wildfires in the next decade.

“All of those national issues are going to have local impacts here,” she said. Wildland fire “behavior we have seen for the prior century is not what we can anticipate to see in the next century.” The Cape and its residents should prepare, and not just for impacts from distant fires like the ones in Canada that sent choking smoke to the U.S. earlier this year. “In the coming years, there has to be a big conversation about what are we all willing to tolerate in terms of clear spaces around buildings and sight lines,” Flynn said. “Maybe we’ve grown accustomed to not being able to see our neighbor, but we know if all that brush is in between you and your neighbor, that’s an opportunity [for fire to happen].”

In the past, Chatham, Orleans and the other towns in the National Seashore have made use of the Cape Cod National Seashore Advisory Commission, which has helped shape debate about thorny topics like the disposition of camps on the barrier beach. Is Flynn committed to continuing that kind of collaboration? Yes, she says, but only within the boundaries of the commission’s charter. She said she considers herself to be a very good bureaucrat.

“Over the 32 years that I have worked for the Park Service, I have figured out what my decision space is as a leader,” she said. Laws and regulations are non-negotiable, but policy decisions can allow some latitude. “Our Seashore communities are very savvy. They’re folks who have largely lived here for a very long time,” she said. “But I do think being successful in this conversation is first and foremost about truly understanding where the decision space is and what is really not negotiable.” Flynn pledged to communicate openly about that.

“My commitment out of this, on day one, is that I will be as transparent as possible. And if it’s not someplace I have discretion, I will be transparent about that too,” she said.

Before her stint in Washington, Flynn was the superintendent of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. As a ranger, she served at Yosemite National Park, Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi, at the Grand Canyon and at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, West Virginia. Flynn also managed the National Park Service’s Basic Law Enforcement Training Academy at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia. This assignment promises to be unique, however. For one thing, it’s the first National Park where she’s had to think about sharks.

“This will be a new one,” she said with a chuckle. “I’ve vacationed at the Seashore almost every year since I moved away. This is truly home for us, and you know, I still swim in the ocean, my kids all swim in the ocean.” Deputy Superintendent Leslie Reynolds has been actively working with area towns on beach safety protocols, Flynn said. “I think our greatest responsibility is to have well informed visitation. We can’t control the sharks, but we can absolutely make sure that our visitors understand the risk,” she said.

Flynn takes the place of former superintendent Brian Carlstrom, who left in October for a post in Denver as deputy regional director of the Park Service’s Intermountain Region. She said she’s glad to be taking over the National Seashore in what could conceivably be her last post before retirement.

“I am truly just so happy to be here and to be home,” she said. “I know often folks can get worn out by the sort of churn in leadership. I have worked in lots of places, I’ve traveled a lot, but Cape Cod has always been the place I come back to.”