The Untold Stories of Interior’s Heroes


Heroes come in many forms. Every day, public servants at the Interior Department demonstrate tremendous commitment to their jobs -- whether they are risking their lives, working on groundbreaking science or protecting our public lands. Through all their hard work, the impact of these incredible men and women is limitless. 

Every year, Interior recognizes employees who go above and beyond the call of duty. They are ordinary people, but their extraordinary work is the foundation of our Department.  

Fleeing the Flames

As smoke and soot filled the air on November 28, 2016, winds ranging up to 90 miles an hour hurled branches and burning embers on park staff. They were exposed to snapping trees and falling live power lines while responding to a historic wildfire. Despite these dangers, the staff at Great Smoky Mountains National Park forged ahead. 

“No one asked that night what needed to be done. They just did it,” said District Park Ranger Jared St. Claire.

Orange sky and smoke behind bare trees.
Wildfire consumes trees in a fiery blaze. Photo by Jason Willette, National Park Service.

Over the course of four hours, they evacuated over 14,000 residents through the park, one of only two escape routes for the neighboring city of Gatlinburg. 

Rangers and staff had to avoid falling trees while pushing broken-down cars and burning trees from the evacuation route. To clear the roads, they used chainsaws and snow plows to remove boulders, trees and other debris. If they had it, they used it to get the job done.

Some were rendered temporarily senseless, blinded by smoke and deafened by explosive noises. One ranger was injured after a falling tree limb hit him on the head. Yet, that didn’t stop him from completing the mission. After he received aid from another ranger, he picked up where he left off and continued clearing the roadway of debris.

“It affected everyone’s home and family, but nobody asked to go. Everyone stayed and pulled together to get it done,” said Jared. 

Despite the significant risk, they saved countless lives during what would go down as one of the largest natural disasters in Tennessee's history. For their courage and heroism, the team was awarded the Valor Award -- one of the highest honors at Interior. 

The Eruption of Mount Pinatubo

On June 10, 1991, Mount Pinatubo, a volcano that had been dormant for nearly six centuries, erupted in the Zambales Mountains of the Philippines. While halfway around the world from the U.S., this eruption took place 10 miles west of Clark Air Base -- one of our country’s largest of overseas air bases. The eruption turned the morning sky into a firmament of thick ash and steam, threatening the safety of nearly 15,000 men, women and children. 

U.S. Geological Survey scientist John Ewert played a critical role in saving these lives. He was one of the scientists on the USGS-PHIVOLCS teamwho forewarned of this cataclysmic event, allowing for the evacuation of everyone stationed at Clark Air Base and the locals in the surrounding area. The predictions made by the USGS team also saved $250 million in property damages

Volcano erupts in blue sky.
Mount Pinatubo erupts east of Clark Air Base. Photo by U.S. Geological Survey.

Since that day, John has devoted himself to improving volcanic activity warning systems and minimizing destruction from volcanoes. “It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when,” said John. “We need to be ready to respond.”

He is a founding member of the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program, which designed a successful approach to reduce the loss of life and property during eruptions. He also established an accurate methodology for ranking volcanoes based on their societal threat. And -- while serving as the Scientist-in-Charge at the USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory -- John created a binational exchange for state and local officials to meet with their foreign counterparts in South America. 

The wreckage left from the lava flow.
Lava flow wiped out bridges and other infrastructure in the nearby areas. Photo by U.S. Geological Survey.

“The binational exchange is about having them meet with people and talk about their experiences. Firefighters meet firefighters. Teachers meet teachers. It’s about meeting people who lived through the firsthand experience,” said John.

John’s lifelong dedication to the research of volcanic activity and protection of human life has earned him international recognition and Interior’s Distinguished Service Award. 

Fighting a Flood

For four park rangers at Ozark National Scenic Riverways in Missouri, it was an unforgettable experience when they responded to a massive flood and rescued stranded residents. They carried over 30 men, women and children to safety that day, earning them Interior’s Valor award for their dedication to the community’s safety. 

Park rangers on boat drive through water flooded up to trees.
Rangers navigate flooded waters. Photo courtesy of Lindel Gregory.

No one predicted the devastation that would rain down on April 29, 2017. The area had never flooded and local residents remained in their homes expecting a normal rainfall. What transpired that weekend was anything but typical, and the response was even more extraordinary.

The skies poured 15 inches of rain onto Ozark National Scenic Riverways in 48 hours. The rivers flooded and rose 39 feet, pulling houses off their foundations and barely falling short of the hanging power lines. A call for help was sent out to rescue residents trapped in their homes and four rangers -- Joshua Gibbs, Patrick Jackson, Lindel Gregory and Daniel Newberry -- immediately responded.

Relying on training and safety equipment, the team navigated around leaking propane tanks and downed power lines in the rushing waters to reach stranded residents. Despite the dangers, they jumped in and rescued over 30 community members. 

Man on boat opens door to flooded house.
Rangers rescue stranded residents from their flooded homes. Photo courtesy of Lindel Gregory.

Cut off from their own homes and families, the rangers didn’t stop until all those affected were safely evacuated. Thanks to their extraordinary efforts no lives were lost and there were no major injuries.

Herding Grizzlies

For many years, Mark Haroldson lived as an old-western cowboy -- riding a horse across the rugged landscape of Wyoming and Montana. But instead of wrangling cattle, he tracked and captured grizzly bears. 

What started as a work study job when he was 20 years old developed into a lifelong career of studying grizzlies. “It’s been a dream of mine as far back as I can remember,” said Mark. 

Since he first started working with grizzly bears in 1976, Mark has served as a field biologist for USGS, responsible for the handling and capture of bears throughout Yellowstone National Park. He currently spearheads the Interagency Grizzly Bear Team, a group of scientists responsible for long-term monitoring of the species. Mark will also be honored with the Distinguished Service Award for his impactful work and lifelong dedication to grizzly bear research. 

Each time Mark captures a bear, he tries to obtain all the scientific information possible to “do right by the bear.” He first drugs the animal, takes fur samples for DNA and isotopic analysis, and marks it with a GPS collar -- all of which help to derive survival estimates and population projections. 

Mark Haroldson places a collar over a bear's head.
Mark places collar over grizzly bear's head. Photo courtesy of Mark Haroldson.

He then opens the bear’s maw and reaches between its massive teeth to pull out a small premolar in the back, which typically falls out naturally over time. By analyzing this single tooth, scientists can determine the bear’s age. 

The sight of a bear’s open jaws would terrify most, but Mark works with calm and steady hands. “I’m anxious until I know the bear is ok and up and out of there.” 

Only then does he feel a sense of accomplishment.

Mark’s work was integral in reviving the grizzly bear population and bringing them off the endangered species list, which he views as a team accomplishment. While the grizzly’s recovery has had tremendous impact, he continues to work towards long-term conservation of the Yellowstone ecosystem. 

Given the chance, he wouldn’t trade anything for the field time he had in the Yellowstone backcountry. “It was the sense of being in the wilderness on horseback,” said Mark “My boss would point to an area on the map and say go find some bears.” 

Mark Haroldson rides a horse in the snow.
Mark on horseback during snowfall. Photo courtesy of Mark Haroldson.

Like a cowboy rambling across the Wild West, Mark continues to explore America’s great wilderness, still chasing the wild and magnificent North American grizzly bear. 

These remarkable men and women are the underpinning of Interior, and their work will continue to impact Interior and local communities for many years to come.

Check out photos from Interior’s Award Ceremony this year