Up to Interpretation

Episode 5 of Season 4 — Hosted by Save the Redwoods League.


Photo of Kyle Buchanan and Karla Jovel
Kyle Buchanan and Karla Jovel

In this fifth episode, host Emily Harwitz chats with Kyle Buchanan and Karla Jovel about Interpretation—the kind that blends science, art, and storytelling in the outdoors to help park visitors appreciate the natural and cultural histories of the places they love. We also get an inside look at the new and exciting project called Forests for All that’s bringing local communities out into Redwood National and State Parks to go on fun and meaningful excursions, from day hiking to days-long backpacking trips. Karla launched Forests for All in 2023 and soon brought Kyle in to support. Together, they’re shaping the way we interpret, understand, and love the redwoods.

About our guests

Kyle Buchanan

Kyle Buchanan is a California State Parks Interpreter located in the North Coast Redwoods District. Graduating with a BA in Sociology from California State University, Long Beach, Kyle focuses on bringing social equity into parks. Whether it’s a guided walk, virtual field-trip, campfire program, or kayaking trip, Kyle believes everyone should have the opportunity of experiencing it. Lastly, when he is not working then he’s probably out exploring another one of California’s 280 State Parks.

Karla Jovel

City girl moves to the coastal redwoods. Karla Jovel is an artist, naturalist, and educator based in Northern California. Karla received a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science and Management from Cal Poly Humboldt and is the Interpretation Supervisor for the North Coast Redwoods District. Karla is interested in participating in outdoor and environmental engagement projects that promote access to the outdoors for diverse communities.

Follow them on Instagram at @NorthCoastRedwoods

Read Transcription

Episode 5: Up for Interpretation


Emily Harwitz (host), Kyle Buchanan (guest), Karla Jovel (guest)

Emily Harwitz 00:04

Well well well, welcome to another episode of I’ll Go If You Go. I’m your host, Emily Harwitz. Today, we’re talking about something that blends science and art in the outdoors. We’re talking about natural and cultural history. We’re talking about storytelling. We’re talking about interpretation—and who better to talk with than Kyle Buchanan and Karla Jovel, who both work in interpretation in California parks. They’re currently working together on a new and exciting project called Forest For All that’s giving people the skills to connect with nature on their own terms. It sounds so fun! Though they come from different backgrounds and work in different roles, they both know that the world of Interpretation is exactly where they want to be.

We met up on a rainy day in the Save the Redwoods League office up in McKinleyville to record this conversation, so come along and find out what interpretation is all about.

[MUSIC fade]

Karla Jovel 01:00

Hey, everyone!

Karla Jovel 01:01

Yeah, excited to be here. I’m an interpreter within Redwood National and State Parks, mainly focused on the north end of it, and my current job title is an Interpreter I, and that’s fairly new. I’ve been in it for less than half a year, so I’m getting used to it. But I’ve been doing interpretation in the Redwoods for about two years now.

Karla Jovel 01:21

My role is actually pretty new as well. I am the Interpretation Supervisor for the North Coast Redwoods District, California State Parks.

Emily Harwitz 01:30

What is interpretation?

Kyle Buchanan 01:31

Yeah, I typically think about it as translating the importance, or sometimes the nuances, of these locations to park visitors. So instead of language translation, kind of like concept translation.

Karla Jovel 01:43

Yeah, we take complicated ideas and we try to make them a little bit more digestible to the general public so that they can have an appreciation for the cultural, natural, historical stories that we’re trying to tell. We just want people to essentially have a better understanding and appreciation for these places and resources.

Emily Harwitz 02:04

Cool. What kind of background do you need to get into interpretation?

Kyle Buchanan 02:07

Gosh, I feel like everyone on our team, at least, comes from a different background with it. A lot of people did go to the local university, Cal Poly Humboldt, and study interpretation, but we also get people that studied completely different things—myself included, I studied sociology—and then there’s people that chose a different route than college and really dedicated themselves to seeking different park opportunities and got familiar with the park system. So there’s a lot of different routes to get to interpretation. I think it is sometimes a personality as well, like if someone’s really outgoing and willing to meet someone wherever they are and translate these concepts.

Karla Jovel 02:46

I think that people, more and more, are starting to realize the importance of interpretation, and are actively trying to seek roles in parks or through nonprofit organizations to do this type of work, because they see the value in sharing these important stories of the places that they grew up in, or places that they love. So we’re kind of lucky to be interpreters, because if you think about it, we get to spend all day talking about the things that we love with the people who visit our parks.

Emily Harwitz 03:16

How did you two both know that you wanted to be interpreters?

Karla Jovel 03:20

I didn’t. I didn’t know that I wanted to be an interpreter. My background is in Environmental Science and Management. I got a Bachelor of Science from—at the time it was called Humboldt State University, now known as Cal Poly Humboldt—and as a college student, I sought out a job in parks and I initially worked for an organization called Redwood Parks Conservancy. I worked at the bookstore. I sold books, I answered questions behind the desk, and I started to realize that I actually really enjoy talking to people. So that is how eventually I got my foot in the door with working with the National Park Service.

Kyle Buchanan 03:57

Yeah, I mean, like in the same vein, I really didn’t understand or even know about interpretation until I started working for California State Parks, and my first role working for our agency was in the kiosk and helping out the campground. Throughout that experience, I met interpreters that worked for our agency and was given the opportunity to help out on some of their programs. And seeing the sort of excitement that you can create in people’s visitation of that park was just, I mean, it’s almost addicting, like you completely want to throw a good program working with kids or adults. Like seeing people get excited, seeing people learn and build that deeper connection with that park was ultimately what led me to go further down this route.

Emily Harwitz 04:43

I would love to hear more about your story with the outdoors, Kyle. You started working in a state park. Was that from a love for the outdoors? And where did that come from?

Kyle Buchanan 04:52

It was definitely love from the outdoors at that point, and also being in this lucky position where I grew up in the outdoors and my parents really valued it. So visiting state parks, they would always mention that working in the kiosk would be the perfect summer job or the perfect college job. So once I was getting towards the end of high school, I started working at my local state park and kept with it throughout college. And at that point, I was studying sociology a lot, and I really realized that I wanted to hold a position in my professional life in which I would be diversifying whatever field I was in. Working for state parks throughout my college career, I realized that this really wasn’t the most diverse workplace. It was something that I wanted to to be a diverse face within that community, and also offer people that are visiting the parks that might be coming from my community—I mean, I’m black Brazilian in Nicaraguan—so being like a representative as a brown person or Black person within these communities, I wanted to diversify these spaces and make people feel comfortable in them.

Karla Jovel 05:55

For me, growing up in Los Angeles and living there for 23 years, going to national parks and state parks was not something that I grew up doing. When I initially started to seek a higher education, I didn’t even consider it as an option, and it wasn’t until I attended Pasadena City College to get some credits to be able to transfer to a state university—I had to take science class, and I was definitely leaning towards liberal arts to start, but after I had a class that required me to do field work and be out in the fields in a non traditional classroom setting, that was mind blowing for me. I didn’t know that this existed. I didn’t know that these were options for for people like me, who were city girls. So after that experience, I decided to pursue a career in environmental science, which is what led me to Humboldt State University, also known as Cal Poly Humboldt, which was a big shift for me, because I grew up in a place where there were more people than trees, and now I’m living in a place where there’s more trees than people.

So I wanted to just say that there’s a lot of people out there that often think, ‘oh, that will never be me, because I didn’t grow up going camping with my family, or I didn’t grow up in the outdoors.’ But it can be, and you just have to find your community, find the resources. There’s so many resources out there to move into a career in interpretation, and I think that especially if you think that that place is not for you, it might just be that that’s the complete opposite.

Emily Harwitz 07:28

It might be that’s the place that really needs you the most.

Karla Jovel 07:31

Well said, Emily. I think that that is very true.

Emily Harwitz 07:37

And now for a quick note from our friends.

Karla Jovel 07:39

Hey, Kyle, what are you doing this summer?

Kyle Buchanan 07:41

Gosh, I don’t know. I have some time off from June 12 to June 16.


Ooh, well, you know what we should do? We should go to our local state parks.

Kyle Buchanan 07:50

Yeah! And if you actually visit casstateparks.org you can find events happening up and down the state, Karla.

Karla Jovel 07:56

This is such a good way that we can celebrate our local California State Parks, and see all the cool trails, beaches, parks, campground areas. We should probably go to that.

Kyle Buchanan 08:07

Shoot. I’ll go if you go.

Karla Jovel 08:10

I’ll go if you go.

Emily Harwitz 08:16

I’d love to hear about the Forests for All program that both of you are involved with. Can you tell me what that is and what you what your roles have been?

Karla Jovel 08:23

Yeah, the Forests for All project is a National Park and State Park effort that was initiated in 2023. It’s a program that is designed to support underserved communities that are adjacent to the RNSP [Redwood National and State Parks] park boundaries. What we’re hoping to accomplish with this program is to bring communities into our parks that otherwise would not have the opportunities to. We are offering backpacking trips, day trips, and in order to make these programs as accessible as possible for these communities, address challenges that limit access to our parks, like transportation, access to equipment, such as backpacks, tents, camping equipment, that is, if you really don’t have that stuff, can be expensive to attain. So through the Forests for All project, we’re trying to create an impact in our local communities by creating new experiences and creating elevated experiences that bring people into our parks, not just to come and experience the redwood forest or the coastline, but also gain the skills so that they can continue to come back to these parks and do this on their own. We want to empower people to feel comfortable, to come to these spaces that maybe at one point in time they didn’t feel so welcomed to recreate in.

Kyle Buchanan 09:47

Yeah. That’s definitely the gist of the program. And in regards to roles, a lot of this was spearheaded purely by Karla herself, going after the grant to get the money to provide people with the right gear to go on these trips, develop plans to teach people about introductory backpacking courses. I got drawn into it halfway through the development process and have been kind of like the right hand man for Karla along that way. And it’s been a really cool opportunity to have a mentor through the process of seeing how people go after grants and develop programs like this.

Emily Harwitz 10:21

So it sounds like you both had a great time working together with Forests for All. Where did you—what parks did you go to? And what was your favorite thing about it?

Karla Jovel 10:29

We’ve done programs at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, which is the second largest contiguous section of old growth redwood forest in the world. So there are old growth redwood forests there that have trees that span 200 to 1,000 years old. So we definitely wanted to use this as a setting for our programs to highlight the importance of the old-growth redwood forest and another feature of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is the beautiful coastal bluffs and beaches that are at Gold Bluffs Beach. So when we started planning, we were in initial planning phases. We had decided that we wanted to highlight this park because it has so much ecological, historical, and cultural value, and there are really awesome trails there that first time backpackers can trek without having to feel like they are. You know, going on these long distance, really hard hikes, they’re really manageable for first time backpackers, which is why we wanted to focus our programs in this area. But with that being said, they’re also getting to experience these places and for some of these people, it’s their first time backpacking. It’s their first time wearing a backpack. It’s their first time in the redwood forest. And so we definitely wanted to make sure to highlight these really special places.

Emily Harwitz 11:50

How long were the backpacking trips?

Kyle Buchanan 11:52

Yeah, typically they were just one-night backpacking trips to get people comfortable with the idea of staying out in the backcountry for a night, and based on mileages, that would really depend on the group that we were working with. We were doing at least four to five miles to get to the base camp, and from there, we would often ask the group, like, ‘How does everyone feel? Do we want to do a couple more miles with the backpacks, without the backpacks?’ and really gauge it to design the program to be molded for their experience. Prairie Creek is just such a good location for that because there’s a spider web of trails there. And then also, it’s one of the locations that students can take the bus to—there is a bus stop at the prairie—and be able to recreate that trip without Karla and I, if they’re able to gather the gear. Often their school or some sort of resource near them will have a gear library that they could use also. 

We’re putting a lot of emphasis on the backpacking portion of it, but really what we’re hoping for are for the students to get the benefits from backpacking and that sort of solitude, that sort of mind space that you’re able to detach from whatever you have going on at home and be like a real person with the people you’re around and not put up any sort of filter. You’re purely yourself when you’re out backpacking.

Emily Harwitz 13:06

I love that. So you mentioned that for some participants, this was their first time to the redwoods. I’d love to hear a little bit more about that from the perspective of participants. What kinds of conversations did you have with them? What did you see them experience? How did this impact them?

Kyle Buchanan 13:19

Well, I think for Karla and I, one of the most impactful trips was with Latino Outdoors. It was just such a vibrant group, and it was a lot of fun. Karla and I both come from Latin roots, so all of that kind of played into it, of course. But along that trip, we were doing programs teaching people about introductory backpacking stuff, but around the campfire at the end of the night, something that was completely not planned by Karla or I, and just very conversational—we all went around and talked about our experiences as a Latino or Latinx person, and while going around the circle, we all realized that, whether you speak Spanish, whether you don’t, whether you’re first generation, second generation, or you immigrated here yourself. There’s so many different experiences, yet we still have this connection, and that, like really left such an impact on everyone in the group, including Karla and I. The next morning, we had a nature sit activity planned. We took the group down to the creek, and all separated to where we couldn’t see anyone, and spent 30 minutes alone in silence. And once we finished up that nature sit, we all gathered up as a group, and there were multiple people crying, multiple people like—

Karla Jovel 14:32

It was kind of wild!

Kyle Buchanan 14:33

Yeah, like completely reflecting on their life experiences, and for that specific group, what it meant to be part of that community, and being able to experience that—I mean, that that really impacted my life, just being able to be a part of that, and it had to have impacted other people’s lives that were there.

Emily Harwitz 14:50

So what’s next for Forests for All?

Karla Jovel 14:53

Gosh, well you know, in 2024 Kyle and I will be leading this effort. We’re expanding the training opportunities to other staff within California State Parks and National Park Service so that we can provide these career development opportunities so that we can keep the program going, so that it’s not just Kyle and I bringing this expertise and this background into the program. We’re hoping to expand it beyond us. Another thing that I’m really excited about is that we’re going to be also exploring some new locations to take our participants to. So new locations, new staff members to be joining us.

Kyle Buchanan 15:30

Yeah, hopefully more trips throughout the year.

Karla Jovel 15:34

Yes, definitely!

Kyle Buchanan 15:35

Yeah, and developing intermediate backpacking courses and just expanding Forests for All because it’s such a delight to like be a part of those programs. So getting more people to be a part of it would be the goal.

Emily Harwitz 15:48

Bringing it back to what y’all were saying about interpretation—giving people the tools to interpret nature and to interpret parks when they visit. It sounds like an experience like Forests for All would give people the frame of mind to interpret their experience.

Kyle Buchanan 16:01

Yeah and I think, like anyone who does interpretation in any sort of agency, one of the things that you constantly hear is the Maslow’s hierarchy—

Emily Harwitz 16:09

—which is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the theory in psychology that says basically, people’s needs for survival, like physical safety, emotional safety and so on, must be met before they can have the full capacity to seek maybe less urgent stuff, like self actualization—

Kyle Buchanan 16:26

and that really is aimed at making sure that anyone that’s on any one of your programs has the right conditions to learn and get to that self actualizing point. So some of it is the simpler stuff of like, does everyone know where the bathroom is? Does everyone have water? Does everyone have food? But with the Forests for All trip, even though it’s not part of Maslow’s Hierarchy, how I kind of think about it is you’re providing someone the environment to take in that knowledge. So if I was doing a single day program and we did a nature sit, I think the product of that would be a lot less than if someone spent the night in the outdoors.

Emily Harwitz 17:03

Yeah. I think it’s so different when you feel comfortable in nature. Programs like this and interpretation programs help people feel like they can go [be in nature] themselves.

Karla Jovel 17:15

Absolutely. That’s Thanks for saying that, Emily. It’s really cool to also witness that. You know, people being like, ‘whoa, this is okay. I know what I need to do now, in order to do this on my own, in order to come out here with my friends,’ make it so that they can feel comfortable to do this on their own.

Kyle Buchanan 17:32

And what could be more empowering than finding out that you can live life out of a backpack? And that you can find these experiences, and all you need is what you can carry? So witnessing that yeah, it’s—

Karla Jovel 17:46

Yeah, and then I also just want to point out: it’s a different experience when you’re driving up to the redwoods and then hiking a three mile hike, but when you have your whole life on your back and you’re being nourished by these trees as you walk the trail to get out to the coast, you set up your tent on a windy day—how do you adapt to that? You’re going to sleep listening to the waves of the Pacific Ocean crashing along the wave slope. You wake up the next morning, you make breakfast in this beautiful campground where maybe you’ll see Roosevelt elk on the horizon. After you pack up your tent, you’re walking back through the redwoods, and you start to kind of get a little sad, like, ‘Oh no, this is about to end.’ And I’m just hoping that people can walk away feeling like they accomplished something, that they did something that they’ve never done before, and that, ‘oh my gosh. When am I going to do that again?’ You know what I mean? [MUSIC]

Emily Harwitz 18:49

We’ve made it to the lightning round of today’s episode [lightning bolt] so these are gonna be quick. If you could be a redwood anywhere, where would you be and why? I

Kyle Buchanan 18:58

I think I would be at the prairie at Prairie Creek, the very entrance of the Newton B. Drury [Scenic Parkway] right there. There’s that massive prairie and it’s one of the few spots where you can actually look at redwoods from the base to the very top of the trees. And then—

Kyle Buchanan 19:13

You want to be seen.

Kyle Buchanan 19:14

Yeah, I would fully be seen. And like, people would be marveling at how tall I am. But on the vice versa, I would be seeing everyone else too. I mean, that prairie is like such a hub for people to meet up, and like being able to witness that, like seeing the crowds of people come every summer just to spend some time with you. And yeah, I think that would make me feel special.

Karla Jovel 19:36

I definitely—I don’t know where exactly I want to be a redwood, but I definitely would want to be a redwood in Northern California, because it’s just got all of the perfect environmental and climatic conditions for redwood tree to thrive.

Emily Harwitz 19:48

Okay. And now last question, you’re gonna spend a day in the redwoods. What three things are you taking with you?

Kyle Buchanan 19:55

Gosh, I mean, that’s like part of Karla and I’s job with Forests for All, like what are you gonna bring with you? And I feel like first, we do have to mention the three safety items that everyone should be bringing with them, which—

Karla Jovel 20:07

Know before you go.

Kyle Buchanan 20:08

Yeah, exactly. And definitely enough water, bring some sort of light, a headlamp, and rain gear definitely up here. And like, extra gold star if you bring a first aid kit as well. I mean, that’s pretty important. But in regards to fun items, I feel like I would definitely need my hand lens because there are so many cool and different forms of lichen.

Emily Harwitz 20:33

A hand lens? Is that a magnifying glass?

Kyle Buchanan 20:35

Yeah, pretty much a magnifying glass. I actually go out with, like, a jewelers hand lens. So it’s one of those that have a light on it, and you could get really close up to things.

Emily Harwitz 20:45

That’s such a good idea. I’ve never thought of that before.

Kyle Buchanan 20:47

Yeah, and I mean, perfect for looking at rocks. It’s literally a jeweler’s hand lens. And then besides that, binoculars, maybe not for only looking at birds, but also just seeing those massive fern beds that are like 200 feet above you. And I guess, lastly, if I would bring one more item, I’ve said like seven items already, but probably—

Karla Jovel 21:11

[Laughs] Your backpack’s probably pretty heavy, Kyle.

Kyle Buchanan 21:17

Yeah, pretty heavy. Probably a camera to capture any flowers that I’m seeing, and like, do it in a nice, safe manner, because it’s best to take a picture instead of taking something. So my camera, yeah.

Karla Jovel 21:30

I’ve learned the hard way that when I don’t take my camera, it’s just—I feel really silly at the end of the day. So definitely, my camera. I will also be bringing my nature journal. I always have this in my backpack because if I just feel a sense of inspiration when I’m in the redwoods, I want to write it down, you know, bring my my mechanical pencil with me, and that’s all I really need to be able to document the cool things that I’m seeing.

Emily Harwitz 21:55

Oh my gosh. This makes me feel like I cheated with mine because I clipped my pen into my journal. I counted that as one item!

Karla Jovel 22:03

I’m gonna—yeah, dang, those three items now. So I guess that’s it! [Laughs]

Emily Harwitz 22:06

All right. Well, thank you so much for joining us today on I’ll Go If You Go. This has been so much fun.

Karla Jovel 22:12

Thank you so much for the opportunity, Emily, this has been fun.

Kyle Buchanan 22:15

Yeah. Thank you guys for having us here.

Karla Jovel 22:18

And we hope that for all the listeners out there that you make your way down to the redwoods eventually, and if you haven’t, it’s time.

Emily Harwitz 22:25

It is time.

Emily Harwitz 22:25

It is time. 


Emily Harwitz 24:17

Thanks for joining us on I’ll Go If You Go, a Save the Redwoods League podcast. This season is produced by Leslie Parra and hosted, edited, and sound engineered by Emily Harwitz. Thank you to Adam Kaplan for tech support, and Caleb Castle, Marcos Castineiras, and Mary McPheely for graphic design and media support. Theme song and music by Nhu Nguyen and Anni Feng. You can find seasons one, two, and three wherever you listen to podcasts or on savetheredwoods.org where you can also find transcripts of each episode. 

If you like our show, please rate and review. It helps more people find us and join in the conversation. For behind-the-scenes and bonus content, follow us on Instagram @IllGoIfYouGoPod. If you have comments or questions, you can email us at [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you and maybe even share your comments on the podcast. That’s all folks. Catch you next time!

About the podcast

I’ll Go If You Go, a Save the Redwoods League podcast.

On I’ll Go If You Go, we have thought-provoking conversations with emerging environmental leaders from diverse backgrounds who explore and work in the outdoors. By examining how we think, work, and play in the outdoors, we’re building community and illuminating how Californians from all walks of life experience nature and conservation, in the redwoods and beyond.

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Since 1918, Save the Redwoods League has protected and restored redwood forests and connected people with their peace and beauty so these wonders of the natural world flourish.

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