By Autumn Alexander /Photos by Steve Lenz

Clara Dickinson-McQuary invites guests by the thousands to her “living room.” And she wants still more to come on in, locals especially.

Her living room is Lewis and Clark Trail State Park, home base for this program specialist’s official hospitality. Her welcome mat, however, stretches to encompass 10 state parks and more in Southeast Washington. The region is known as the Blue Mountains Area. The parks are among Washington State Park’s 100-site system for outdoor recreation opportunities, many of them with four-season access.

Now living in Walla Walla, Dickinson-McQuary is a well-traveled Dayton native. Six years ago, she became the regional parks’ first program specialist, headquartered with five other parks staff at the Lewis and Clark Trail State Park, just off U.S. Highway 12, along the route from Walla Walla, past Waitsburg and before Dayton.

The communications and operations concept she took on was so new that no handbook existed to help navigate, she recalls.

“I kind of got to create everything. It’s grown into way more than you can imagine; the work’s so diverse.”

With the Lewis and Clark Trail State Park gates swinging open to cars and campers as of April 1, Dickinson-McQuary is well rehearsed for come what may. Last year, the parks broke records for outdoor recreation, she says, probably because people aimed to avoid indoor virus spread.

As she awaited this year’s rolling guests, the 35-year-old Dickinson-McQuary spoke with Lifestyles:

LS: Over this past winter, you worked remotely a few days a week due to COVID-19 dangers and because you have middle school-age twins studying remotely too. But word is you even plow snow when needed. Normally your full-time office work is at the Lewis and Clark Trail State Park. How do you define your duties as program specialist?

Dickinson-McQuary: Anything can be a program. That includes organizing, publicizing and managing volunteer events and interpretive presentations at the museums.

Presentations can include up to 1,500 school children listening to native tribal members at Sacajawea Historical State Park talking about animal hides and demonstrating moccasin-making workshops.

At Field Spring State Park, in Asotin, we’re working on putting in environmental learning centers. And then there are a lot of work project requests throughout the park area. I follow any maintenance projects, changing a structure, or digging. That means working with the state archeology department too. It’s a challenge sometimes.

LS: What else can we envision you doing behind the scenes?

Dickinson-McQuary: Well, obviously there’s a range, from overseeing park facilities for cleanliness and setting up for big, special events such as the historical Heritage Days here. Then there’s the small listening events, such as public feedback in tiny towns or lands that lie adjacent to the 100 long-distance trails in the district. Those listening occasions cut two ways, with trail concerns such as spraying nearby, and for landowners, there’s public behaviors.

I work on permitting for the whole system too. I’m committed to developing a streamlined process where people can register online for photography or other workshops. I’ve gotten more into putting in requests for funding, doing grant writing, which usually flows to the Washington state recreation and conservation offices.

And there’s also recruiting, online marketing and maintaining relationships with volunteers such as the trail vegetation management by the Blues Crew (a Blue Mountain Land Trust group).

LS: What do you want to see for the future of the Lewis and Clark Trail State Park?

Dickinson-McQuary: I’m looking for special projects and additions, dreaming of an expanded riverfront area along this Touchet River stretch, adding bicyclist amenities and safe trails to keep them off the highway because the park extends on both sides of Highway 12. And then, in the future, possibly provide for full hook-up camping in addition to the primitive camping.

LS: How do you do manage all this, plus commuting and young family, too? You estimate you drive a couple thousand miles a year checking in on the parks and trails.

Dickinson-McQuary: I’ve kind of embraced it. I’m good at multitasking — I have to be! I’m good at seeing what needs to be done, good at talking to the public, and I follow through. I realized the public was assuming they’d get a typical government answer. I do my best to get the honest truth, to be real and honest. I think people recognize that.

LS: Not to be negative, but since you deal with both the public and nature, issues come up, right? From garbage dumpsters emptied into park waters to rattlesnake scares. There must be landscape degradation, too, when visitors go off established trails and trek wherever they please. And, of course, there are the four deaths at Palouse Falls, where visitors ignored the official viewpoints, ignored the signage and slipped off, only to drown. What’s hardest about this job?

Dickinson-McQuary: There are a handful of bad moments, but walking around a few of our parks after they flooded in February 2020 is one that comes to mind, and each of the deaths at Palouse Falls is another.

We’re moving forward on the Palouse Falls concerns, but there can only be so much education and signage. We can’t be everywhere at once. But we do have our second-level rangers who have law enforcement training if necessary. And we have interpretive activities for people to focus on. We try to direct the Falls visitors to move on to other areas, to go down to Lyons Ferry nearby, which has very safe water activities.

I’ve certainly seen rattlesnakes at Palouse Falls. But our staff is good at wrangling them. They’re fearless.

LS: Besides your capacity for driving so many horses in the traces at one time, is there anything about you that might surprise readers?

Dickinson-McQuary: People assume because I’m in an office, they think I don’t get my hands dirty. I really dabble in everything. When I’m not working an event, I go check the parks out on my own.

One of the reasons I was intrigued to get this job was that it’s one way to give back to the community. Local people don’t realize how special the parks are. I want to make parks something with non-motorized access, though already people can walk in even when the roads are closed for the season. I want to get the word out there for what we have to offer. I aim for more outreach for more visitors.