As a child, John Neary caught the wanderlust bug early as he traveled often with his family on road trips across the United States. The upstate New York native eventually found himself in Alaska where “the landscape is overwhelmingly beautiful,” while continuing to travel around the world – for work and for pleasure. As a Forest Service employee, Neary has had the opportunity to travel several times to Africa on behalf of the agency’s International Programs office. Recently, he returned from Uganda after working closely with the Uganda Wildlife Authority to improve trails and recreational facilities. Today, the former Peace Corps volunteer loves his job as a wilderness manager on the Tongass National Forest in Alaska that involves two of his favorite activities: traveling and contributing to society.
It seems that your childhood experiences were major influences in developing your interest in natural resources and travel.
My father had a love for the West and always wanted to live in Colorado. I gained an interest and exposure to the outdoors during our family trips. You load all the kids in the back of a station wagon and drive to California. We hiked and often stopped in parks, and we traveled through landscapes that were so different from the East. When I was in high school, I wanted to be a park ranger. A friend of mine told me he was going to study forestry and that sounded interesting. I connected that with my exposure to national parks my parents gave me.
What eventually led you to the Forest Service?
I was first exposed to the Forest Service as a volunteer. In college in Colorado, I studied parks and recreation administration, and minored in environmental interpretation. I spent about a year’s worth of volunteer months with the Forest Service. My first experience was in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho. I began working as a winter recreation intern in the south end of the state near Twin Falls. I went back to school and returned to the north part of the mountains as a volunteer wilderness ranger. I volunteered several more times throughout college. I eventually came to Alaska to work for a contractor, and later for the Forest Service. I fell in love with Alaska. The landscape here is overwhelmingly beautiful. There are some really beautiful spots in Alaska and I’ve only seen a handful of them.
You mentioned your commitment to service, which I understand began in Africa and launched your career to involve international work.
My wife and I joined the Peace Corps in 1989 and we wound up working in a park in south Rwanda. It was a great learning experience and I was able to contribute a lot quickly. During our time there, we decided that it would be nice to stay in one place and contribute our time.
We were later evacuated by the Peace Corps, who also closed down country operations due to civil war. We returned to Alaska and I still had all my re-entry rights because the Forest Service has an agreement with the Peace Corps that allows you to volunteer and stay a federal employee. I had my same wage, the same town, similar position – it was like slipping back into an old life.
Soon after, you began working with International Programs?
After returning to Alaska, I began working with International Programs and I started getting facilitations for various assignments. In 1995, I went to Uganda for three weeks on behalf of the Forest Service to help the Peace Corps figure out how to better train their volunteers. I not only went to the cool parks that were being managed in Uganda with its new leadership, but I also got to reconnect with an African country that had gone through its own genocide. In 2000, International Programs asked me to go to South Africa to work north of Durban to train reserve and refuge managers on how we manage wilderness in the United States. I was there for three weeks. South Africa has a high caliber of natural resource management, and I interacted and learned just as much from our South African partners as much as we were teaching.
Clearly, you have a global mindset. Do you foresee continuing to work with foreign partners with the Forest Service?
I’d like to continue to work with foreign countries as much as possible because of this expertise I’ve developed, especially in east Africa now. I’ve worked and traveled in Uganda, South Africa, Gabon, Rwanda and Malawi. I can really start to pull in my experience from multiple countries and bring them to a specific assignment related to parks and forests.
I’m starting to develop a specialty, a niche that might be valuable to International Programs. When I show up in Uganda, I come with a long history and I can bring some depth of understanding to the issues. I can help people relate to their landscapes and help provide that service. I enjoy exploring cultures and learning about how people adapt to their landscapes.
In your Sourdough Notes article about your recent experience in Uganda, you mention observing a group of local Ugandans enjoy the simplicities of life while preparing dinner over fire. What did you find striking about that?
When I was watching that cooking scene, I also wrote about my observations of an older man who was cutting the trail for us every day as he led us through the forest. He was dressed in western clothes and looked like an ordinary man, but as you look closer, you can see through a layer. He would cut down a certain tree and begin peeling all the bark and make rope. Only he would know which tree would make the right rope. He showed a connection to the place. The men preparing dinner over the fire were making the simplest of foods using boiling water, flour and goat meat. They were hungry and anticipating, and they were lively, exchanging banter that appeared to involve humor. As an interested observer, I saw the joy they got from their conversation. There was no alcohol, nothing being smoked and there was no electronic screen in sight. It was just them out there in the forest, sharing food and recounting what were probably funny stories. They had a connection between the traditional and the modern.