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What Dreams May Come

Maddie Pellman, host of the ‘Who Runs This Park?’ podcast, discusses how dreaming big delivered her dream job

The host takes reconnaissance time outside to gather material for her podcast, "Who Runs This Park?" Photo courtesy Maddie Pellman
The host takes reconnaissance time outside to gather material for her podcast, "Who Runs This Park?" Photo courtesy Maddie Pellman
CORRECTION: MoJo incorrectly referred to Pellman interviewing current Indiana Dunes National Park Superintendent Jason Taylor. Pellman interviewed former Indiana Dunes Superintendent Paul Labovitz.

By Joseph T. O’Connor

Maddie Pellman has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. In college at the University of Texas at Austin, she had a painting company and for a time made and sold greeting cards. She worked with the school’s Entrepreneurship Club and with various brands at local events. After earning a business administration degree in management information systems, Pellman took a job with Google and moved to New York City.  

“I had a lot of friends who were like, ‘Why are you moving to New York? You love the outdoors,’” says the 28-year-old Austin native. “I ended up at Google because I was intrigued by the opportunity.”

Yet Pellman found a different calling, one that harkens back to her first visit to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks at 14 years old, and one that’s taken her behind a microphone into the world of audio storytelling. Last September, she launched “Who Runs This Park?”, a podcast where she plans to interview the superintendents of every national park in America.

It’s a matter of following your dreams, she says, even when it’s frightening. “I knew what I wanted to do, and it just took me a long time to build up the courage to do it.”

In January, Pellman invited Yellowstone superintendent Cam Sholly on the show and her latest episode, released last week on Earth Day, features Chip Jenkins, head of Grand Teton National Park. Of the 63 national parks in the U.S., she’s interviewed 15 superintendents and doesn’t plan on slowing down.

Mountain Journal recently caught up with Pellman to discuss her podcast, the wonders of the national park system, and how it feels to be the interviewee as opposed to the interviewer.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
 
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Mountain Journal: Maddie Pellman, you're on the other side of the microphone now. Thank you for talking with us. I'd like to start when you first visited Grand Teton National Park as a teenager in 2010. Tell me about what the park meant to you and what impacted you back then?

Maddie Pellman: To set the scene: It was a road trip with my family. We flew into Salt Lake City and drove up to Jackson Hole, then Grand Teton National Park, then Yellowstone. And it was one of my first experiences going to national parks and seeing some of the wildlife; we got to see a moose. We got to see a grizzly bear from the car. And I remember we were obsessed with trying to find huckleberry anything. I got bamboozled a few times by buying huckleberry ice cream and reading that it was actually blueberries.

It makes me think of some things Chip [Jenkins] actually said in his interview of his love of seeing families experience grandiose aspects of nature for the first time … One of the seeds that my parents planted in me was to be a lover of nature. We got to swim in alpine lakes in the Tetons, we got on this big hike from one of the lakes. And then in Yellowstone seeing some places that looked like another planet. It's hard to say when exactly my love for nature started, but I think that moment was foundational in learning that the national parks are places of grand nature and wildlife.
"I love using the term 'our national parks' because they're ours and we get to be stewards of that."  – Maddie Pellman, Podcast Host, "Who Runs This Park?"

MoJo: As you said, you recently interviewed Chip Jenkins, superintendent of Grand Teton National Park, for your podcast. The two of you spoke about the Kelly Parcel and its critical migration routes, the cutthroat trout population and park visitation, among other topics. At one point, Jenkins said that creating memories is an act of stewardship. I was curious what that means for you.

M.P.: Chip saying that will stick with me for a very long time. It makes me emotional when I think about it because I think of beauty in that, and simplicity. I think [Jenkins’ quote] is this idea that by creating memories, by sharing your love for a place with the people that you love in your life—by instilling those values, you are being a steward of the place, especially if you're a parent and you're bringing your kids to the park, you are stewarding that next generation to care about national parks.

MoJo: It sounded like an emotional conversation at times.

M.P.: Yeah. Jenkins actually teared up and I was really impacted talking about families experiencing the park for the first time. But it makes me chuckle when I think of how we got to that. Being an adventure lover and being an outdoor lover, I'm curious about the coolest things people do in the park. My question to Jenkins was, “What are some of the most impressive physical feats that have been done in Grand Teton.” He listed off a couple different things, but he said he’s most struck by these families showing their kids the value and beauty of the Grand Tetons, or a family who's come on their first fishing trip or their first tubing adventure on the Snake River, or they're doing a four-mile hike from Taggart Lake.

These are things we take for granted if we’re immersed in the outdoors and always pursuing that next adrenaline kick. We can overlook these introductory things like people experiencing nature for the first time or like I was when I was 14 and seeing a grizzly bear from the car, seeing a moose on a hike. They're impressive, those stories of people saving up and their big trip is to go to the Teton mountain range and national park and it’s about spending that time outdoors together. Treating memories as preservation and stewardship: those two things from this interview will continue to stick with me as I interview more superintendents.
Pellman interviews Grand Teton National Park Superintendent Chip Jenkins. "I was smiling for days after this interview," Pellman wrote on Facebook.
Pellman interviews Grand Teton National Park Superintendent Chip Jenkins. "I was smiling for days after this interview," Pellman wrote on Facebook.
MoJo: How did the idea for the “Who Runs This Park?” podcast come about?

M.P.: My younger sister lives in Seattle and my whole family was visiting her and having dinner with some family friends. Their brother-in-law—he wasn't at the dinner, but he is the superintendent of Yellowstone [National Park]: Cam Sholly. This was the summer of 2022 and Yellowstone had just had that really big flood. They were talking about everything he had to deal with, the decisions he had to make overnight, and all the things he had to get mobilized.

I immediately perked up and was interested and kept digging and asked questions and learned about everything he did; how he became superintendent, what a superintendent is, and I was floored. I was like, ‘Why have I never heard about this? I have never even thought for a second who ran our national parks.” I was ruminating on it all night and my family was like, “Maddie, it's not that big of a deal.” But the next day we're waiting for the ferry to go to the San Juan Islands. I was journaling on the beach and overlooking the Puget Sound with snow-capped mountains in the background. And the idea popped in my head to start a podcast interviewing superintendents, and I wrote it down.

MoJo: Had you done any podcasting before?

M.P.: [Laughs] No, absolutely not.

MoJo: What did you decide was the first next step, from ideation to reality?

M.P.: The practical next steps were: What's it called? And what's the logo? I used my greeting card experience to make greeting cards with the “Who Runs This Park?” logo on them. Once I had the logo and the name, I wrote letters to maybe 15 superintendents, and my idea was to get a couple of interviews on the books and then I'll figure out everything else.

I remember the Indiana Dunes superintendent [Paul Labovitz, retired] responded to me a month-and-a-half later with the subject line, “That Postcard,” and said he was in. And then [I had to] figure out where I record; How do I record? Once I record and have these audio files, how do I edit it? Where do I host the information? It was very much breaking it down and flying by the seat of my pants.

MoJo: The greeting card approach is great.

M.P.: The hope was that they would see or at least feel some of the heart behind the podcasts and the intention rather than a random interview request.
Pellman in her studio, where she's the one asking questions. "It was fun for me to be on the other side of the interview table," she said. Photo courtesy Maddie Pellman
Pellman in her studio, where she's the one asking questions. "It was fun for me to be on the other side of the interview table," she said. Photo courtesy Maddie Pellman

MoJo: Among others, you’ve now had both Chip Jenkins and Cam Sholly on your show. What have you learned about the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem from interviewing them?

M.P.: The biggest thing to me was the impact that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has not only on the U.S. but on the whole world. As I was preparing for the interview with Chip, I saw a C-SPAN interview of a congressional hearing and it was Cam and Chip talking to governors of western states about the national parks and there was a surreal moment where I can't believe I'm also interviewing these people. I’m getting a sense of what impacts Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks have on the park system.

Jenkins mentioned that Grand Teton National Park [hosted the] first Global Summit for ungulate migration last summer. People came from the Serengeti and all around the world to talk about different ungulate migration patterns and research that's going on and policies being put in place. [I’ve learned about] the relationships between towns and the national parks, and the Bureau of Land Management, all these different working pieces. I've been struck by the ripple effects that the decisions in that area have globally. Also, Cam mentioned this in the interview, but the way that the amount of people and wildlife interact in Yellowstone is very unique.

MoJo: It’s certainly special. It can also be complicated.

M.P.: One thing Chip said is, as we’re looking at the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, it’s not just about the wildlife populations flourishing, it also is about, “How are the schools? How is cost of living? How is it for people to live?” And I think you can see that through a lot of organizations: Jackson Hole has a sustainable destination management plan. That's pretty revolutionary. What does sustainable tourism look like in such a popular and dense place?

MoJo: Your podcast must be special for the superintendents you’re interviewing. You've talked about the enthusiasm these park leaders express and bring out in your audience. What makes these stories about national parks—and the fact that they're told by their superintendents—distinct?

M.P.: I think people are more motivated to care about something if they hear a story. Telling the stories from the superintendents’ perspective is bringing a storytelling framework to national parks and how they're run and how they're maintained. And it’s creating people who feel more ownership over the national parks. Chip said that, as superintendents, they're directly responsible for knowing everything that's going on in the park. Every time I talk with a superintendent, I'm struck with how much is going on and there’s never enough budget to do everything they want. Not enough parking for all the people that are coming. Climate change is making things really challenging.

When I had this podcast idea, I wondered, “Does this [already] exist?” Park superintendents are interviewed occasionally, by maybe a nonprofit partner or a publication like Mountain Journal, but it hasn't been done at a larger Park Service scale. A lot of people are generally interested in our national parks and are curious; many don’t even know to be curious about how they're run. I didn't know that before I knew about the superintendents. So, there’s an educational component to it.

MoJo: It's fascinating to hear your perspective and journey because there are so many people interested in our national parks. But to think about how these places actually operate can be mind boggling. Like you said, people don't know what they don't know.

M.P.: Yes. Even thinking about parks that are dealing with reintroducing different species; the controversies that come with that and the challenges. Glacier [National Park] is … trying to be proactive about the climate changes that are happening and so they're actually planting trees that maybe weren't historically in that area but only grow in colder climates. And they're doing that with fish in Gunsight Lake which has invasive species in it, but they're wanting to put noninvasive species in the lake. The lake previously didn't have fish, but it's this idea of increasing [chances] these fish will have of existing in cold water glacial lakes.

MoJo: Before starting this podcast, you worked for Google. And then you decided to take this very much left-hand turn. You mentioned a trip to Japan you took before leaving Google. How did that trip influence your decision to switch gears?

M.P.: It highly influenced my decision. Granted, it took me a while to actually cut the cord and take the leap. I think it was pivotal because, while I loved my time at Google, I was surrounded by people who are in the corporate world and have stable jobs, have paying salaries, and it’s a little less risky. It's that career path that we're told as kids: you go to college, you get a job. I'd been there four years and was getting to that: and then what, question mark?

I went to Japan through NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School, and there were three instructors. And nine of us, ages ranging from 23 to 56. It was an opportunity to spend eight days with a bunch of people I didn't know before going on adventures that, for me, some were outside of my comfort zone. It was a new experience for me—I was backcountry skiing for the first time—but when you're hiking up the mountains and in the onsens [Japanese hot springs] you have a lot of time to chat.

I got to meet people outside of my corporate bubble. One was a masseuse and had to make ends meet, and there was someone who was ski patroller in Aspen for five years. It opened up my eyes to the many different ways to pursue life. I had already had the podcast idea at that point and had interviews set up. I remember getting back and being like, “What am I doing?” I wanted to be able to put everything into the podcast rather than having it be this thing on the side. Going forward, it's scary. Having had a more stable paying job for four years afforded me to take this risk now. I'm grateful for that. I think the next couple of months will be very telling of how I continue to grow the audience, make a livable salary off of this and/or how I figure out how to make ends meet while I pursue a dream.
"These are things we take for granted if we’re immersed in the outdoors and always pursuing that next adrenaline kick." 
MoJo: What have you learned from this podcast experience so far?

M.P.: If I’ve learned anything in this podcast endeavor, it’s that it’s no small task to manage our national parks. It takes the biggest of villages in the Park Service and even outside of the Park Service. And if you don't have people that care about the parks, it makes it a lot harder to steward and protects these places. By [Jenkins] saying that, it invites everyone into the high calling of being stewards and protectors of our national parks. What I want people to feel is that people from all walks of life can say that the parks are their own. I love using the term “our national parks” because they're ours and we get to be stewards of that.

MoJo: You’ve now interviewed 15 superintendents out of the 63 national parks. What's next for Maddie Pellman?

M.P.: I always wonder that. It’s definitely not lost on me that there's a set number of interviews to be had in terms of superintendents. I have a couple ideas of different series that I want to expand into within either the outdoor or the park space. Whether that's talking more intentionally to park rangers and talking to people who partner with national parks and so just continuing down that path of unveiling what we didn't know we didn't know.

Talking to the top people at the national parks is the tip of the iceberg. Let's dig into the stories of the people in the field [or] the people who are financially supporting the national parks from a nonprofit perspective. There's a lot of ideas and areas to go. I also hope to check in with myself at predetermined cadences to make sure I still like this. It's the podcast world, the world of storytelling. Growing up, English was my worst subject. I thought I hated writing. So, I'm also redefining myself and the sense of becoming a storyteller.

MoJo: Now that you’ve been interviewed yourself, do you feel any differently? Was it difficult being on the other side?

M.P.: I have more empathy for the people that I'm interviewing and I'm more impressed by them. It's hard to have concise answers. I talk to the people that I interview for an hour and a half a lot of times, but I haven't really realized that because I enjoy listening to them. It makes me want to make sure I'm really asking them questions they know the answers to. This was really fun for me, so I appreciate it.

MoJo: There are millions of podcasts out there. How's yours going and what advice would you give to someone who was thinking about starting their own podcast?

M.P.: It's the most fun I've ever had. And it's also extremely difficult. I think the hardest thing is growing an audience. It's one thing to have a good idea. It's another thing to have a committed group of people who are invested in that. I started from nothing and didn't have any social media following [or] outlets to promote it. So, it's very much grassroots: promoting it and working with publications like Mountain Journal or nonprofit partners at the national parks to help get the word out.

I would say if you have an idea, think about how you are going to advertise that idea, and I don't mean necessarily in a paid sense. How are you going to position it so that people are actually interested? How do you leverage the audience that you already have on maybe your preexisting social media channels or your network at work? I'm still relatively in the beginning. There will be times when you'll get discouraged but cherish those moments when people speak to what you’re doing and compliment it or share their thanks. It’s the affirmations: remember those when you're not getting any traction.

Click here to listen to the “Who Runs This Park?” podcast.

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Mountain Journal is the only nonprofit, public-interest journalism organization of its kind dedicated to covering the wildlife and wild lands of Greater Yellowstone. We take pride in our work, yet to keep bold, independent journalism free, we need your support. Please donate here. Thank you.

Joseph T. O'Connor
About Joseph T. O'Connor

Joseph T. O’Connor is Mountain Journal’s Managing Editor. He has an extensive background in multimedia storytelling including writing, editing, video broadcast and investigative journalism. Joe most recently served as Editor-in-Chief for Mountain Outlaw magazine and the Explore Big Sky newspaper in Big Sky, Montana. He has published work in several publications from the East Coast to California, including Newsweek, CNN, and Skiing magazine, among others. Joe moved to Montana in 2012 after taking graduate journalism courses at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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