Get To Know Rhonda Loh

Rhonda Loh is the fiercely intelligent and unfailingly kind Superintendent at HPPA partner Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park (HVNP). She knows the park the way you only can by having walked, and studied, hundreds of miles of its terrain over decades. For Loh, this is home territory. Hawaiʻi Volcanoes has been her home, and her career anchor, since she first volunteered here in the spring of 1989.

However, Loh was raised on Oʻahu, a very urban island. Before she arrived at HVNP to volunteer after graduating with a Master's in Chemistry from Stanford, she’d spent a short volunteer stint at Yosemite, something she calls “kind of a vacation,” but that place, and the work, didn't stick. She knew she wanted to continue to work in science, just not where or how. Her father, a professor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, suggested she call “a fungi guy” at HVNP, so she did. That person in turn suggested she volunteer with then Chief of Natural Resources Management Tim Tunison at the park. “So, I remember being on a call in a phone booth with Tim Tunison, asking about volunteering for him, and he said to just come on up,” she recalls. “He was such an open guy who was really upbeat and up for a lot of things. So I said OK. I just had a duffle bag of stuff and I came up to the park and started volunteering with him.”

When she arrived in the towering tree ferns at the summit of Kīlauea, something clicked. “When I came to be a volunteer, I was just out of grad school and I didn’t think I wanted to be a career academic for the rest of my life. I was exploring what was out there, wanting to continue working within the scientific approach but not sure of the field, and I instantly loved working at the park! I felt at home, really welcomed, like this was the place. Still being able to use what I learned while getting my degree was great!”

At the time, Tunison was studying how fire affects the native ʻōhi’a forests and pili grasslands. Loh jumped right into the work, making friends and developing colleagues against a grand volcanic backdrop. Her volunteer projects looked closely at the recovery of native grasslands and scrublands following wildland fires at the coastal sections of the park. In addition to the ʻōhiʻa and pili, she tracked the recovery of native plants such as uʻulei, ʻākia, and pūkiawe, “It was such a wonderful time getting to work outdoors and with a lot of people of different backgrounds. I loved the people that I was working with at NPS Resources Management, and I loved coming back home to Hawaiʻi, refamiliarizing myself with local culture.

Loh and Tunison, and their team, roamed the park, looking for the best ways to manage and steward its natural resources. HVNP is a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve, a planetary treasure. “I remember sitting in a sea of grass and hearing the wind blow, and we were eating lunch, and I realized that this was it; this is where I want to be. I mean, that was unexpected; to find how everything came together: the place, the people, the work, how often does that happen?” Loh was eventually offered a job, and took it. 

Many national parks professionals realize, later in their careers, that the lessons learned during volunteerships still guide their professional, and sometimes personal, lives. "I was very open to receiving new ideas when I arrived at HVNP, and being a volunteer is a very open experience because you can choose what you want to do, what you want to work on. And that's how I like to approach things as I go through work now, to have the same feeling—to stay open, curious, to be in the moment and fully experience it. That helps guide me."

Loh became the Superintendent of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park in 2020:

Interested in NPS careers? The NPS offers opportunities to work in more than 400 national parks and offices—from Maine to Guam, the Virgin Islands to Alaska, and anyplace in between. More information is here:

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Hawaii Pacific Parks Association Location Map

Hawaiʻi Pacific Parks Association. P.O. Box 74 Hawaii National Park, 96718 HI