Katie Hunds stands outside in front of a windowed building.

Every day, Katie Hund wakes up ready for the next adventure at her dream job. Some days, she might be getting her hands dirty as she removes fallen trees, and other days, she might be giving a tour to a group of schoolchildren. The best part of working at a state park is that no two days are the same.

Hund, who graduated from the UNI Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences in 2007, has worked for the Iowa DNR the past 14 years, and currently manages Cedar Rock State Park near Quasqueton, Iowa. The park is home to hundreds of acres of forest, trails and riverfront public land, along with the famous Walter House – one of only two Frank Lloyd Wright-designed structures in the state that’s open to the public. Each year, the park and the house draw around 20,000 visitors from across the nation, and the globe.

This year, the Iowa State Parks system is celebrating 100 years, and Hund is taking this time as an opportunity to reflect on the importance of state parks, her role as a public servant, and how UNI helped prepare here for it all.

Growing up, Hund had always found herself drawn to the great outdoors – with a particular interest in the cross-sections of nature, history and storytelling. But she never realized her passions could be a career until she found her way to UNI – where she joined the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, and majored in earth science with a natural history interpretation emphasis.

“I was always interested in environmental education, but more so informal education; I didn’t want to be stuck inside a classroom. I wanted to be outside,” she said. “The program I studied at UNI aligned really well with my interests and strengths, and I knew straight away it was the right fit for what I wanted to do.”

Hund worked her way through the program, taking on side jobs working with the UNI Museum and interning at Cedar Rock State Park as a student. Before she even graduated, Hund had secured herself a coveted position with the DNR, working at Cedar Rock, where she’s been ever since.

“Iowa DNR positions are pretty competitive, especially positions at state parks,” she said. “It really is a dream job for so many people; it’s a dream job for me. You can see why so many people want to do this type of work, which can make it difficult to stand out in the field. I truly believe my experiences and education at UNI is what helped me stand out, and get the job. Plus, I had so much support from professors, who really took a vested interest in me and my future, and really pushed for me to pursue my dreams.”

With the historic Walter House as the focal point of the park, Hund’s work is a little different than most state park positions. Sure, she’s outside helping maintain the park grounds, but she spends much of her time tending to partnerships with support groups like the non-profit Friends of Cedar Rock, local colleges and other organizations that are involved in the educational, planning, promotion and restoration aspects of the site.

Interacting with the public is a big part of Hund’s job, whether it’s giving tours of the house or leading educational programs.

“With most parks you just go in, experience the park by yourself, and never interact with any staff,” she said. “Because of the historic house we have here, the level of interpretation we share with the public is higher than most parks. We give guided tours of the house, and tell them about the history of it, the architecture, the grounds and the park itself. We meet people from all over the world who come to see the house. A big part of what I do is dealing with the public, and it’s really fun to be able to educate everyone about the site, and share some of our history with them.”

This year was meant to be full of celebrations at state parks across Iowa – including Cedar Rock State Park – but like everything, the COVID-19 pandemic foiled many of those planned activities. In a somewhat ironic turn of events, though, 2020 ended up being a record year for attendance in state parks across the state, as people turned to nature to find joy in tough times.

From her perspective, Hund says this is a testament to the importance of public lands – and why we need spaces where people can go to relax, get outside and enjoy nature.

“The pandemic showed us that people want to get outside, and need to get outside,” she said. “Parks have been filled to the brim, and that goes to show how people seek out these experiences when times are tough; so many find nature rejuvenating and re-energizing. With so much land privately held in Iowa, parks are important spaces for the community to use and enjoy, and it’s important to conserve them for future generations.”