Women Making History in the National Trails System

Published March 31, 2023 in the March issue of Pathways Across America

March is Women’s History Month. There are countless women who have played integral roles in the formation, maintenance and advocacy of National Scenic and Historic Trails. It is on the shoulders of these women that we stand, with a robust and diverse National Trails System to attest to their hard work and dedication. That is why the Partnership for the National Trails System sat down this month with two women who have made history with their exceptional careers dedicated to the National Trails System.

Pam Underhill

Pam Underhill addressing a group of Girl Scouts at Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters

Pam Underhill addressing a group of Girl Scouts at Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters

Pam Underhill devoted her career with the National Park Service to the Appalachian Trail (AT), beginning in 1979 as a secretary in the Parks office and culminating with her appointment as Park Manager (Superintendent) in 1995, a role she excelled in until her retirement in 2012.

As her responsibility for the Trail grew over the years, so did her passion for it. While being a strong advocate for land conservation along the Trail, she has also been a forceful voice in coordinating one of the most extensive partnership programs in the park system between Federal agencies, state and local governments, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and other private entities. She also focused on securing a permanently protected corridor for the Trail from Maine to Georgia, one of the most complex and successful public/private land conservation efforts in our country’s history.

In our conversation with Pam, we asked her why she thought it was important for women to be in leadership roles. “Because women are so much smarter than men,” she chuckled jokingly.

“Women have so much empathy,” she explains. “I think that women bring a different perspective to things, and tend to be great problem solvers. The world would be a better place if women were in more leadership positions.”

Pam is a fierce female leader; so, we asked her what advice she would like to give to young women who are emerging as leaders.

“If you feel passionate about a place or a trail, speak up,” she responded. “Don’t be afraid of who you are, and don’t let men tell you otherwise. In your heart, you have a contribution to make. Don’t be afraid to do it.”

Rita Hennessy

Rita Hennessy on a hike at White Rocks on the Appalachian Trail

Rita Hennessy on a hike at White Rocks on the Appalachian Trail

Rita Hennessy held a 30-year career with the National Park Service, with the majority on the Appalachian Trail. She began as an Appalachian Trail Ridgerunner with clubs, and then as a Recreation Specialist, then as Assistant Superintendent of the AT, and finally the National Park Service Program Lead of the National Trails System until her retirement in 2019. She initiated several incredible programs, including Trail to Every Classroom, a professional development program for teachers, and the Trail Administrators Round Table, which was a way for trail administrators to come together to talk about policy and legislative needs.

Rita’s impactful career as a trail champion can be attributed to her lifelong love for the outdoors and driven certainty about her desired career path. When Rita was in the 5th grade, she read The Bears and I, a story about a man who takes responsibility for three orphaned bears and raises them to be independent in the wild. It was then that she knew she wanted to become a Park Ranger.

As a high schooler, a guidance counselor laughed at her career goals, telling her to rethink her priorities. Despite the limiting expectations of women at that time, Rita not only became a Park Ranger but excelled as a leader in the Park Service.

We asked Rita what she learned throughout her career, and what advice she would give to women today. “Keep an open mind and listen; balance passion and understanding, but don’t give up,” she replied.

“I was hellbent and driven in my career,” she explains. “The more that I learned from other people, my passion didn’t change, but my approach changed. It takes a lot of understanding from where other people are coming from to truly make things happen.”

We are grateful for the extraordinary contributions these two women have made to the National Trails System, and the wisdom they shared with us for Women’s History Month. While their careers have come to an end, their legacy lives on in the paths they have carved for future women leaders in the trails community, and in the positive impacts they have made to the Park Service.