When Jill Harding was growing up in Maple Valley, Washington, there was a patch of woods on her street where she nurtured a love of nature. Then the trees vanished, victims of urban development elbowing out from Seattle and Tacoma.
“Those woods won’t be there for other kids,” Harding says, a twinge of sadness still in her voice.
Yet here she was on a sunny August morning, helping to preserve a much different development site: the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s 200-year-old winter encampment. The land surrounding Fort Clatsop in northwest Oregon once more is cradled by conifers.
Harding (’92 Wildlife & Wildland Rec. Mgt.) is the chief of visitor services for the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park. The collection of parks includes Harding’s post at the fort, an exhibit near Astoria that depicts the life of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery during the famously dreary winter of 1805-06.
The expedition’s bicentennial placed Harding in the path of throngs of tourists retracing parts of Lewis and Clark’s 4,000-mile route to the Pacific Ocean.
After graduation, Harding landed a job as a National Park Service seasonal ranger at Fort Clatsop, earning a permanent job there three years later. Since 2002, she has overseen the “front line” interpreters and attractions that helped draw 245,674 visitors in 2005.
“We’re the ones that are throwing the party,” she says of her crew, which during the summer swells to about 40, including employees and volunteers.
“She’s a very, very creative person,” says Chip Jenkins, superintendent of the historical park. “When there’s something that needs to be done, we turn to Jill and she does it.”
Harding has needed to do plenty to gear up for the bicentennial. She and her staff updated exhibits, films, and publications to tell a fuller story, including perspectives of Clatsop Indians and other tribes whose ways of life changed forever when settlers followed Lewis and Clark.
The bicentennial enabled the development of new attractions that will long outlive the anniversary, including the six-and-a-half-mile Fort to Sea Trail, with a trailhead at the fort, and the Salt Works in present-day Seaside, where Lewis and Clark’s men boiled sea water to obtain salt.
Meanwhile, the Park Service struck a partnership with Oregon and Washington to tie the region’s rich collection of historical sites into one park, a collaboration that had never been tried on such scale before.
And then in late 2005, an errant ember from an open fireplace transformed the rustic 50-year-old Fort Clatsop replica into a pile of charcoal overnight.
“The next morning at nine o’clock Jill was there with her staff . . . and she worked to make sure that people were still welcomed, even though the fort had burned down,” Jenkins says. Harding turned the fire itself, as well as the archaeological excavation and rebuilding project that quickly followed, into “teachable moments” for visitors.
At Fort Clatsop, under Harding’s direction, interpreters dress in period costume but don’t necessarily pretend to be specific members of the expedition. They do tell the tales in unexpected ways. For example, Harding encourages her staff and volunteers to speak from the viewpoints of the expedition’s common men.
“Most people know the big names of the expedition,” Harding explains. “In any situation, if you want to get the scoop about the big guns, you talk to the enlisted men.”
“They pay a lot of attention to authenticity there. I think they do it in a very powerful way,” says Sam H. Ham, a professor of communication psychology at the University of Idaho. “Unlike some other operations in a similar ilk, they do it in a way that isn’t cheesy.”
Ham (’74 For. Mgt., ’78 M.S. For. & Range Mgt.) also is director of the Center for International Training and Outreach and an expert in nature-based tourism. When he leads international groups around the Pacific Northwest to glean ideas for operating their own country’s tourist attractions, he likes to schedule a stop at Fort Clatsop. Not only is the site managed well, Ham says, but his groups see an effective and respected female manager—something they might not experience in those countries where women are less often promoted to positions of leadership.
“I want them to see good role models, people who have good integrity,” Ham says. “Jill certainly [has] filled that bill in flying colors.”