A walk through the redwoods can change a life. Just ask Marlene Finley.
“I was studying at UC Davis to become a veterinarian when I took a job at Muir Woods. I found that I loved working with visitors and seeing how nature had such a profound effect on their spirits, their attitude. That’s when I decided to change my major.”
Thirty years later, her greatest joy is “seeing that spark of curiosity” when visitors explore parks and open spaces.
Now she will bring that passion to San Mateo County as the new Parks Director. She begins November 10.
Finley has spent decades in the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service preserving open space and encouraging visitors to explore their parks. She is moving to San Mateo County from Utah, where she has served as Deputy Regional Forester, overseeing 34 million acres of national forests in six states.
Finley will face immediate challenges and opportunities in her return to California.
San Mateo County is rebuilding its Parks Department, turning it from a division under the Public Works Department to a stand-alone department on the organization chart.
“We have high expectations and we believe Marlene Finley is a great choice due to her experience and enthusiasm,” said Don Horsley, President of the Board of Supervisors. “Our residents have told us time and again that they want the best park system in the state and we share that same goal. We think Marlene is the right person to lead us.”
One of her first jobs will be leading one of the highest profile parks projects in California: development of the Devil’s Slide Trail.
Now that motorists can bypass the crumbling section of Highway 1 known as Devil’s Slide in the new Tom Lantos Tunnels, the state turned the 1.3 miles of asphalt over to San Mateo County. The County over the next six months will repave it and improve safety.
Once the trail opens, visitors will enjoy bike lanes and a hiking and equestrian path along with stunning views of the Pacific Ocean.
“I want to have a world-class park system,” Finley said. “That’s a park system that’s well cared for, that has a thriving ecosystem that people can come out and enjoy and learn more about nature.”
Finley will lead a department with a budget of approximately $10.4 million and 60 employees. The department operates 17 separate parks, three regional trails and numerous other trails encompassing a total of 16,183 acres.
The parks range from Fitzgerald Marine Reserve with tidepools and curious seals to Memorial Park with camping and nature trails to Coyote Point with slides and swings.
Finley will be closer to her daughters upon her return to California. One studies the impact of climate change on coral reefs at the University of California at Santa Barbara and one studies music at San Francisco State University. She and her husband plan to move to San Mateo County as soon as possible.
And yes, they know about the high cost of housing. “We plan to rent, at least for awhile,” she said.
Finley graduated with honors from U.C. Davis and has a masters degree in Forest Recreation from Oregon State University.
She has a reputation as a champion for partnerships and collaboration. She received the Career Achievement Award from the Society of Recreation Professionals and Federal Employee of the Year award from Federal Executive Association.
One of her goals is building on the strength of current partnerships with the various “friends of” groups that support local parks.
“I am thrilled to return to my home state and to work for a county park system with such a strong base of public support,” she said. “Being able to manage these special places and provide public recreation services with county staff and volunteers in so many friends groups is a major draw for me. I can’t think of a better place to be.”
Finley is an avid equestrian and mountain biker. And knows first-hand how the outdoors can bring people together.
She met her husband, who now works as a planner for the Air Force, when she worked at the Cumberland Island National Seashore off the coast of Georgia. “I was a ranger,” she said with a laugh, “and a visitor caught my eye.”
Information in this article was provided from the San Mateo County Newsroom.