Photographer. Craftswoman. Superintendent. There’s a spark between Connie Rudd’s left and right brain, an arc that connects the visceral to the scientific, the creative to the pragmatic.
“Eighteen below this morning!” she exclaims with a grin as we settle into a dark corner at The Bean, hands wrapped around steaming cups. My hair’s a wreck, smashed under a hat. Hers is perfect. “This is my seventh winter in Gunnison,” she says, understanding that’s the only measurement that matters in this place. “I was here last year, and in ‘07-’08, so I know.”
Indeed she does know, a lot more than the moods of this valley in late December. Rudd is superintendent of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Curecanti National Recreation Area, responsible for the oversight of more than 75,000 acres, spanning 100 square miles.
Work here is at least cheerier, if no less daunting than her last position at Chickasaw National Recreation Area and the Oklahoma City National Memorial.
“It was a profound experience,” she says. “I got there in 2003. The bombing happened in 1995.” The explosion at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City killed 168 people, including 20 children. The event still haunts Rudd, along with those directly impacted by it, the residents of Oklahoma City and the nation. “We are the keepers of the story,” says Rudd. “It was domestic terrorism, from one of our own. Our job in Oklahoma City is education, memorialization and prevention of terrorism. It was one of my toughest assignments.”
Rudd began her journey toward NPS stardom in the east. “I was an army brat,” she says. Her father and grandfather were both avid photographers. “Dad was a photo interpreter during World War II.” His job, she says, was to shoot images from airplanes and to discern what was going on down on the ground.
“Dad had a darkroom,” she recalls. For Christmas, age six, she received her first camera. “It was a little Brownie.” Rudd has rarely been without one since. “It’s my creative outlet. It always has been.”
English and geology were her majors at Ohio University, where her father was a professor and historian, a WWII expert. For a time after graduation, she taught English and photojournalism.
Graduate school took her to the University of Illinois and a master’s degree in fluvial geomorphology—“Landscapes created by water,” she explains.
“I came west 40 years ago, and with the exception of Shenandoah National Park, I never went back.” Rudd spent nine years at Grand Canyon National Park and short stints at Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks before Oklahoma City, and finally, Colorado.
At Curecanti and Black Canyon, she says, “It’s all linked to the river. Our primary responsibility is a healthy environment for wildlife and recreation.” To be clear, she says, “We don’t manage dams.” The Bureau of Reclamation handles that. Colorado Parks and Wildlife oversees the critters, to include the fish in the river and reservoirs. And if you see a moose, says Rudd, “It’s not a federal moose, it’s a Colorado moose.”
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Rudd’s charges include all concessions within the park and recreation area, mussel inspections on the lake, and a fleet of specialized rangers who oversee all activities, to include wilderness search-and-rescue and monitoring conditions on the river. “We are responsible for the river through the Black Canyon,” she says. This requires a close working relationship with other managing agencies, particularly the BOR and their scheduled releases from reservoirs along the Gunnison River.
In 2009, the NPS secured a legal water right for the canyon, based on hard evidence presented by scientists that guaranteed enough water to keep the ecosystem healthy. “We asked the question, ‘What amount of water would impair resources?’” says Rudd. “Then we negotiated an amount just above that line.”
Parties to the discussion included the NPS, the state of Colorado, representatives of parties to the Colorado River Compact, all water users and users groups, BLM, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, United States Geological Survey, three county governments, and the city of Delta. “Whatever we negotiated, we all had to agree not to inundate Delta,” she says. “It was a long, long conversation.” The final five years Rudd describes as “intense, science-based mediation.”
“We’re in what I call a 100-year business. The big decisions we make today must endure for 100 years,” Rudd notes. Negotiating and securing water through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison was just such a decision.
When she’s not ensuring the health, safety and ecological viability of vast lands held in trust on behalf of all Americans, Rudd takes photographs.
“I’ll give myself a shooting assignment. I’ll say, ‘I’m going to shoot blue and yellow today,’ or ‘I’m looking for reflections today.’” Her landscapes are stunning, but Rudd especially loves capturing images of wildlife. “You learn so much about the animals, their habits, society, natural history, what time of day they’re active.
“Every photographer teaches me something, just looking at their work,” she says. Donna Dannen, a wildlife photographer from Denver, is a favorite, as is Joel Silverman, an industrial photographer. “He understands light, angle. He has to tell a story from one image.”
Alan Ivy made the list. “He and I are good friends. Alan does all my canvas printing and he’s a wonderful critic. He sees the world differently in terms of composition, subject and technical aspects.”
Rudd has long admired the work of Ansel Adams. “The effort he went through to get those images is staggering. All the people he mentored, and still nobody came close to Ansel Adams.”
As if running a National Park and recreation area and composing beautiful photographs weren’t enough, Rudd also builds furniture. “When I first moved here, I looked at some beautiful pieces in furniture stores around the valley and frankly, I couldn’t afford any of them.” Her eye wandered toward the standing dead juniper trees on her own property. “I just thought, ‘I bet I can make one.’”
Rudd’s rule is that the tree must be dead and not home to any other creatures. She makes coffee tables and end tables, functional, rustic art. Her process? “It starts with a chainsaw and ends with a dental pick,” she says. Rudd insists the junipers here are different, more beautiful, sculpted by wind, sun and the extreme growing conditions of the Gunnison Valley.
Connie Rudd’s photography and furniture can be viewed online at www.connieruddphotography.com. She is also a featured artist at the Gunnison Gallery, 124 North Main Street, Gunnison.