Mardi Arce - At Home in America’s Most Treasured Places

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(See more photos and more articles in our print edition!)

Many people dream of traveling to as many national parks as possible during their lifetime. Mardi Arce is not only living that dream, she has made a 30-year career of living in and protecting the United States’ most exceptional places.

Mardi is the first female superintendent of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, which preserves four of San Antonio’s five Spanish frontier missions. The job is much like being a CEO: She oversees all aspects of the park, from maintenance to law enforcement, natural resource management, cultural resource management, and visitor services. She also partners with community stakeholders and the Catholic Archdiocese that still manages and preserves active churches within the old Missions.

Mardi arrived in San Antonio in 2013 – just in time to see the park through the final stages of its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That six-year process culminated in July 2015 with UNESCO’s recommendation that the Missions become Texas’ first World Heritage Site – one of only 23 in the United States and 1,031 globally.

“A World Heritage Site is like a national park for the world,” Mardi explains. “This brings us to the same level as wonderful international icons like the Taj Mahal, the Grand Canyon, and the Great Wall of China. There are people around the world who plan entire vacations around World Heritage Sites, so for international tourists, this is a big draw – and this status helps us preserve these places longer and better.”

As the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2016, Mardi is already planning special events to begin later this year, as well as a World Heritage Site celebration and concert planned for October 2015.

From a Whim to a Career
As committed as she is to the park service, Mardi jumped into her career “on a whim.” As a high school track athlete in Iowa, Mardi was on a group run during her junior year, when the coach asked each of the kids about their post-graduation plans. One said she wanted to be an architect, another an oceanographer, and another a sports therapist.

“Everyone was saying all these cool things, and so when she got to me, I had to say something, and it just came out of my mouth that I was going to be a park ranger,” she recalls. Everyone, including Mardi, had assumed that she would be a coach and teacher, like her dad. That night at dinner, when Mardi laughingly told her mother what she had said, her mom said, “Why couldn’t you?”

Having experienced many national parks and historic sites on family vacations, she decided to find out more. Her school guidance counselor wrote to the National Park Service, which sent details about possible careers and relevant college degrees. One of them – history – happened to be one of Mardi’s passions, so she planned a college curriculum that would lead to her first summer job as a seasonal park ranger in 1984, leading campfire programs and hikes at Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve in Idaho.

She was hooked.

In the 30 years since, Mardi has traveled all over the country, serving at America’s most treasured sites and pursuing a fresh adventure every few years. The closest she ever worked to home was as a chief ranger in law enforcement at Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa, just five hours away from her family. But her career has also taken her as far afield as Washington, New York, New Mexico, Idaho, Utah, Missouri, Arkansas, and now, Texas.

She has worked in visitor education and cultural resource preservation, and has trained and served as a law enforcement officer, museum curator, emergency medical technician, and wildland firefighter. She has rappelled off the rock walls of the Grand Canyon and Canyonlands National Park, and managed two national signature events for the Lewis and Clark bicentennial.

Along the way, she has forged countless friendships and had many funny moments, like the time at Craters of the Moon where a visitor asked for a map, then kept insisting that they were in Wyoming after she handed him a map of where they really were – Idaho.

“I had a great supervisor in the Park Service, and he said, ‘The American public, when they go on vacation, leaves their brain at home. When they come to a park, they are in a situation that is foreign to them. You are going to be astounded by what they say and do, and you will wonder how can they make it through life. You have to help them.’”

Nearly half the parks she’s worked in have had female superintendents, and while some park service professions tend to be male-dominated, more and more women are pursuing those careers.
“When I went to law enforcement training in the late 90s, out of 30 trainees, there were seven or eight women,” she says. “Now, the numbers are better. When I was a chief ranger and went to a chief rangers conference, I really had the realization that it’s a whole bunch of guys. But in other areas, such as interpretation, there are lots of women.”

Focus on Family
Some of her fondest memories were forged at Fire Island National Seashore in New York, where she gave tours, exercised horses on the beach, and met her late husband, Michael. A seasonal Park Service employee, he was a volunteer, and she was a volunteer coordinator. While both pursued their park service careers, they spent years at assignments in separate parks, seeing each other only on weekends.

“He finally said, ‘I didn’t get married to live apart,’” she recalls. “Luckily, he was ready and willing to follow my career.”

That led to Mardi’s longest stay in any one place: the seven years she spent as chief of museum services and interpretation, and director of visitor services, at Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, home of the famous Gateway Arch. Here, she and Michael started their family through international adoption from Russia.

Mardi is now raising their two children, Erin, 11, and Nicholas, 9, on her own, after Michael, a cancer survivor, passed away in February 2015. He had been a stay-at-home dad for the last 10 years, so everyone in the family is adjusting to a new normal as they settle in for a long stay in San Antonio.

Mardi now understands why so many of her park service friends stopped moving around so much once they had kids. “I remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe how they are sacrificing their careers for that,’” she says. “Now, I think, ‘Why would I move my kids?’”

Staying put gives her more time to make a positive impact on the Missions. She has added a park ranger focused on outreach and is piloting an Urban Ranger program this summer that will send four young rangers into the community through San Antonio Parks and Recreation, reaching 6,000 children who might not otherwise learn about the Missions and national parks.

“If we haven’t connected with the youth,” she asks, “who will be the next generation of park rangers who will preserve these places?”

Mardi thinks back to her own national park vacations with her family, and knows that those early experiences led her to where she is today: deeply engaged with our public lands, and preserving these cherished places for all those who dream of visiting them.

Kristy Hurst is a freelance writer. She lives in New Braunfels with her husband and two children.

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