Yenyen Chan fell in love with Yosemite National Park while exploring its wilderness and vistas on a high school field trip. Now, after graduating from Yale College and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, she has returned to the place where it all began: as a United States Park Ranger in Yosemite, Chan works to pass her knowledge and enthusiasm about the natural world on to the next generation of park visitors.
Before coming to Yale, Chan was already interested in environmental studies. Her courses in environmental history and policy only solidified this focus. “Professor John Wargo, who later became my advisor at the Forestry School, really opened my eyes to the environmental policy issues facing the country,” reflected Chan. She became especially interested in how these issues affected the most vulnerable populations, namely children and the elderly.
After a summer internship with the Natural Resources Defense Council, Chan spent a few years at an environmental consulting firm in Hong Kong. By working in a region undergoing rapid development, she gained a more global view of topics such as waste, water and air pollution, and corporate environmental stewardship.
Looking back on her time at the Forestry School, Chan’s recollections mirror the giddy faces of most students in Kroon Hall today. “I loved it,” she said. “All of us in this field want to do this work because it’s something we love and because it’s critically important, both socially and environmentally.” After earning a Masters in Environmental Policy and Resources Management, Chan landed a position with the Yosemite Institute as a field science instructor and became a park ranger a year later.
Now, even after ten years of working in Yosemite, Chan’s life as a park ranger is never dull. “There is no typical day,” she said with a laugh. Her activities range from leading visitors on full-day hikes to giving star and campfire programs at night, and she spends much of her time teaching visitors about the rich history of Yosemite. “Eighty percent of it is talking with the public,” said Chan. “You become really good at talking.”
While Chan works much of the year in Yosemite Valley, she spends the summer months in her favorite part of the park, Tuolumne Meadows. Open to visitors from June to October, the meadows are nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountain range at 8,600 feet above sea level and characterized by breathtaking sub-alpine meadows and peaks. To nature-enthusiasts like Chan, the beauty makes up for the accommodations. “I live in a rustic tent cabin,” she explained. “Cold running water, electricity, and a tarp roof over my head — it’s pretty primitive.”
In addition to working in the field, Chan conducts educational programs pertaining to subjects such as geology, history, resource conservation, and climate change. For instance, in 2011 she created a project that chronicles the history of Chinese laborers in Yosemite. “There wasn’t much research about the topic” when she was asked to teach visitors about early Chinese contributions to the park, Chan explained. Eventually, she co-produced a short park video on the topic called A Glimpse into Yosemite’s Chinese History. “The Chinese really did a lot of hard labor in expanding early America,” Chan explained. “I’ve enjoyed bringing the unknown stories to light.”
Chan, a strong advocate of environmental consciousness, believes that one of the park’s most important roles is to educate visitors. “The environment is important for our health and the health of the planet,” she said. Her mission as a park ranger is two-fold: she strives not only to share the beauty of the park with visitors, but also to make them aware of the various threats that endanger its survival — invasive species, habitat changes, diminishing snowpack, and wildfires, to name a few. “To experience nature is both inspiring and humbling, and it helps people take into account how important it is to have places like this,” said Chan.
Although her work is primarily as a naturalist and an educator, Chan’s interests also lie in environmental policy, especially at the intersection between public and environmental health. “Working with a national environmental organization such as the Natural Resource Defense Council or the Environmental Defense Fund still potentially lies in my future,” she said. But for now, she is content to share one of the country’s most beautiful places with visitors from across the world. “It’s wonderful to see them experience it all.”
Cover Image: Chan spends her summers as a ranger in Tuolumne Meadows, an alpine region of the park open during the summer months. Courtesy of Yenyen Chan.