By Jenny Neyman
In his role as Kenai area superintendent for Alaska State Parks, Jack Sinclair was well known to the Kenai Watershed Forum, especially as he oversaw the Kenai River Special Management Area. And vice versa, to the point that Sinclair thought the Watershed Forum might be a good next stop along his career path.
When he retired from his state job in 2012, the Soberg House at Soldotna Creek Park, which houses the Watershed Forum, was full. So he went on about his retirement — family, fishing, hunting and a rafting trip down the Grand Canyon.
When Executive Director Robert Ruffner announced his retirement at the beginning of the year, the board of directors first cast a nationwide net for his replacement, which hauled back disappointing results. So a smaller, more targeted net was cast. Sinclair was open to the opportunity, though a little wide-eyed at this particular job.
“Robert has personified this organization, and so I’m following in his rock-star shoes. It’s daunting. He’s done some great things. No one that has seen his work would not be impressed,” Sinclair said.
Waterproof shoes would be more appropriate, and Sinclair is jumping right in to getting his footing in those. He’s going along on a water flow-testing trip to Ptarmigan Creek in January.
“I’m getting my feet wet — hopefully not too wet. I’m just looking forward to learning every aspect here. It’s going to be fun,” he said.
That approach has served Sinclair well. When he worked for state Parks he tried out every position he could, from ranger to maintenance, interpreter and naturalist.
“I like doing all sorts of jobs to learn how an operation works. And I believe that’s what made me suitable for a superintendent job. I can’t do everybody’s jobs, but I certainly know kind of what they kind of have to deal with. And here I’d like to spend some time with each of the facets of this operation and get to learn it and know it and just kind of get a full measure of how much work this place does for the community,” he said.
His first official day was Friday, though he’s already spent time with Ruffner getting an overview of the Watershed Forum’s various research projects, staff positions, events, programs and other activities. Everything from water quality and quantity tracking and watershed mapping to youth education, Steam Watch community volunteering and the summer Kenai River and winter Frozen River festivals.
“There’s a lot of things going on that this group is involved in, lots of things that they touch, so I’ve got a lot of things to run around and get to know,” he said.
As a nonprofit organization, there’s also a lot more complexity to the Watershed Forum’s funding than Sinclair was used to.
“When I first looked at this it almost made my eyes cross with all the different funds that they have to work with. The state people are used to having maybe a capital budget and an operating budget, and with state Parks it was maybe one or two grants that we’d get to work with, too, to fund different projects,” he said.
But he’s not unused to the idea. In Parks he’d have to juggle a dozen or so small capital projects at any one time, each with a different earmarked funding source that needed to be tracked, and none of it happened in a vacuum.
“Much of what we did in state Parks required community support or the Legislature wouldn’t go for it,” Sinclair said. “I don’t think that’s much different as far as what we have to do. We need the community to support us, not only as members, but as signees to grants and also letters of support, so there are a lot of different things that are very much the same.”
And having been the Parks superintendent over KRSMA, Sinclair is already familiar with many of the Watershed Forum’s areas of focus, such as hydrocarbon pollution and turbidity in the river.
But he’ll be involved in a different capacity. Sinclair will be more of an advocate now, than strictly an administrator, and will be overseeing research, instead of responding to it.
“The research that this group does is, I think, impressive when you start to look at how much they’ve done and the good science that they’ve been able to put together and the federal agencies have accepted (it) to be incorporated into their national databases,” he said. “I’m looking forward to being an advocate and certainly hoping to keep on some of these bigger issues that they have been working on.”
One of Sinclair’s first tasks is hiring. The special projects coordinator position, left vacant by Lisa Beranek last month, needs to be filled immediately, and there’s still a hole left by development director Josselyn O’Connor earlier this year.
He’ll also be focusing on connecting with the many partners, members and supporters of the Watershed Forum. That’s no quick task.
“The (Watershed Forum’s ‘Currents’) newsletter reads like a who’s who of the community of all the people who’ve participated in the Watershed Forum,” Sinclair said. “I think people have always felt that this is an important organization. It makes the community more complete to have a group like the Watershed Forum helping with environmental issues and environmental stewardship issues and kind of being the canary in the coal mine to help people understand what the problems are before they may become bigger problems.”
But for the most part, Sinclair expects his early tenure to be more about learning the ropes than pulling in any new directions. Ruffner is staying involved to oversee a few projects that should wrap up this summer, and there aren’t any immediate snarls on the horizon to be untangled.
“One of the things that was pretty clear when I got here was that this isn’t an organization that’s broken. It doesn’t need fixing. They really just need to make sure things continue to operate as effectively as they are, so there’s not any big changes involved,” Sinclair said.
“This is going to be a challenge, but a good one,” he said. “It’s definitely a new hat to wear, but what a great bunch to work for and with. It’s about making a difference, and I think everybody makes a difference, either as a member or a staffer or volunteer — everyone is there to make a difference, either small or large, in what they’re doing. I’m happy to be part of it.”