New Grand Teton official took international path to Wyoming
JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) — A Finnish mission trip early on in life didn’t do much to tamp down Jeremy Barnum’s hunger to branch out and experience the varied cultures, cities and wild places of Planet Earth.
Instead, two years in Scandinavia had the opposite effect.
“Having that experience living in a foreign country with a different language and culture, that really got under my skin,” Barnum said.
The yearnings to travel were apparent early on growing up in a lower-middle class American family on the Wasatch Front, where Barnum was raised by an outdoorsy delivery truck driver and orthodontist’s assistant, the Jackson Hole News & Guide reports.
“I was the cliche where I couldn’t wait to get out and explore the world,” he said. “I had never even seen the ocean.”
Post-mission and back in Ogden at Weber State University, the 43-year-old who’s now the chief of staff for Grand Teton National Park steered away from his previous fisheries and wildlife management major. He turned towards political science with an international relations emphasis. One professor in particular, Nancy Haanstad, influenced his career trajectory, exposing him to the model United Nations and having him sit down with a diplomat to talk about the U.S. Foreign Service.
Poli-sci degree in hand, Barnum walked into a think-tank job in Washington, D.C. with the Middle East Policy Council. That gig sprung quickly into an opportunity to again live abroad, this time in Delhi, India, where he accepted a U.S. Department of State post working public affairs. There were “dozens” of television stations he worked with in a metro area of 16 million people, which Barnum escaped from when he had the chance.
“India was a fascinating place,” he said. “I traveled all over. I rode camels in the desert in Rajasthan, saw tigers from the backs of elephants in Jim Corbett Reserve and met the Dalai Lama, who gave me a shawl and I swear looked straight into my soul.”
By this point in life Barnum was a married man, hitched to his college sweetheart, Melanie, who he’d met while on a rock-climbing trip at Southwest Utah’s Crawdad Canyon. For much of their 20s and 30s, they bounced around the world. Next up: Quito, Ecuador.
“We lived at 9,300 feet, and could see three different volcanoes from our balcony,” Barnum said. “There was an insurrection from the police against the president while we were there, and at one point the president was holed up in a hospital.”
Work was with the consulate, where Barnum interviewed Ecuadorians interested in coming to the United States to visit family or go see Disneyworld. The Barnums managed to chip away at their own South American bucket list, immersing themselves in one of the most biodiverse parts of the planet, the Jackson Hole News & Guide reported.
“There’s cloud forest, you’ve got the Amazon basin, the Pacific coast, the Galapagos islands,” Barnum said. “There’s one of the highest densities of bird species in the world, and we’d go on bird watching trips with the ambassador.”
The next professional pit stop brought Barnum’s globetrotting full circle. He headed back for Finland, this time as a political officer in a post that had him functioning as a go-between for the U.S. and Finish governments. The two democracies weren’t exactly at each other’s throats.
“We weren’t talking about issues that we had with them,” Barnum said. “It was cooperation — like, I worked with Finland to help destroy some of the effluent that was a result of the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons.”
Jeremy and Melanie were squarely in their 30s and loved life in the woodsy Scandinavian nation of 5.5 million people. He became an avid cross-country skier and bike toured through the Åland Islands. Once while solo trekking through Lapland in the Arctic Circle, he had to wait for migrating herds of reindeer to get out of the way before he could progress down the trail.
“I remember one time being out on a frozen lake,” Barnum said. “We sat on reindeer hides, drinking warm juice just watching the Northern Lights go over, watching them undulate and shift. It was pretty spectacular.”
Idyllic existence aside, plans were afoot to return to the United States and its familiar faces and spaces. All of their siblings and parents dwelled in Wyoming and Utah, but the draw wasn’t just family.
“Honestly, open space and outdoor recreation is a big part of what makes us tick,” Barnum said. “There’s nothing like the American West.”
First, however, came a second stint in D.C., where Barnum initially stayed within the U.S. Department of State. He actively pursued a sidestep to the National Park Service, applying for a job in the communications office. The voicemail detailing an offer popped up on his phone while he was returning from a backpacking back home, as he drove down a canyon dirt road.
“I can still see that view coming out of the high Uintas,” he said. “It just felt right.”
At the Park Service’s communications office, Barnum climbed and took a promotion to chief spokesperson for an agency of over 20,000 employees and 400-plus units. His job was essentially representing the Park Service on the thorniest of issues, like the government shutdown that dragged for 35 days.
“It would be naïve to think that kind of job would just be giving people good hiking recommendations,” Barnum said. “A lot of times, by the time it got to my office it was because there was some sort of controversy.”
It was a “cool job,” he said, although there were inevitable frustrations representing an agency amid the frenetic modern flow of information.
“I saw it a lot in DC with national media: The competition, the need to get eyeballs on your website,” Barnum said. “There’s just so much information out there and so much noise that trying to find something out there that’s newsworthy is a genuine challenge. And I think I experienced that on my side of the issue, too.”
The move to Grand Teton National Park was alluring because of proximity to family, but also because it allowed Barnum to reinvent himself professionally and take on an all-new challenge in nitty-gritty management. The chief of staff job, a retooled version of retired management assistant Gary Pollock’s position, began on an interim basis about a year ago, and turned permanent in the late spring. He worked through the 55-day period when the COVID-19 pandemic closed down Northwest Wyoming’s national parks, and then endured one of the most unusual summer seasons ever with a much-reduced staff.
“This isn’t how I would have envisioned my first year at Grand Teton National Park, by any stretch of the imagination,” Barnum said. “Everything that we’ve done since March has been with the backdrop of, ‘What do we need to do to keep our employees and visitors safe?’”
Barnum now spends his workdays as a messenger from the superintendent’s office, communicating with hundreds of front-line workers. He’s also the park’s point person for engaging with outside decision-makers, interfacing with everyone from Teton County commissioners to the Park Service’s D.C. headquarters.
In Moose, Jeremy and Melanie Barnum are now joined by a 4-year-old son, Gus, who’s toted along just about everywhere. Their first year in the valley saw car-camping roadtrips to places like Buffalo Bill State Park, Yellowstone and Medicine Lodge Archaeological Site, and canoe-camping on Teton Park’s own Leigh Lake.
Having a job and life that are both immersed in the outdoors back home has been satisfying. Barnum’s a big believer in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs psychological theory, and he’s found himself in the position of making progress toward the pinnacle: self-fulfillment.
“For me,” Barnum said, “it’s really easy to get up in the morning knowing that I can do whatever I can to protect and share a spectacular place like Grand Teton National Park.”