WNPA’s New CEO Loves Sweets and Sharing Her Passion for Public Lands

Marie Buck, former chief operating officer of Grand Canyon Conservancy (GCC) and an Arizonan for most of her life, has been appointed CEO of Western National Parks Association (WNPA). Marie was selected following a national search to lead WNPA, which since its founding in 1938 has provided more than $126 million to its 70+ partner parks to fund educational programs, initiatives, and scientific research.

At GCC, Marie not only managed operations and special activities that supported one of America’s most iconic parks, she served on its board of directors. Prior to GCC, she was senior director of business operations at Phoenix Raceway (NASCAR) for 20 years, leading a $180 million facility modernization and taking on many duties of the president during her final years there.

WNPA’s new CEO Marie Buck has taken 30 whitewater rafting trips down the Colorado River.

Outside the office, she’s lived much of her life outdoors enjoying camping, hiking, fishing, and rafting. By her count, she’s rafted the Colorado River 30 times through the Grand Canyon, and finds immense pleasure in sharing that passion with others as a guide.

The following is a Q&A with Marie, who began her tenure with WNPA on July 11.

Tell us a little about your background?

I’m the only child of Swedish immigrant parents and was born in San Diego. I moved to Arizona when I was 7 years old. I graduated from Arizona State University (ASU) with a Bachelor of Science (BS) in Accountancy. During the pandemic, I got my CPA license—just to have it.

What’s your favorite Monopoly piece, and why?

I think the car, because it can race fast around the board.

Desert, Mountains or Beach?

This isn’t fair, because I like them all. I would have to say desert, because this is my home and I love the desert so much.

A person you admire, and why?

When I was at ASU, I worked in a male-dominated athletics department. I was in my 20s and had no experience navigating that type of environment. I was shy and introverted. Dr. Christine Wilkinson was my supervisor, and while she wasn’t a mentor, I learned so much watching her. She led by example and was just so impressive with how she navigated that culture. She was professional and articulate, and spoke her mind, standing up for what was right but not in an offensive way. Rather than fight the culture, she built collaborative partnerships across the organization and the community. She was the daughter of famous ASU football coach William (Bill) Kajikawa, so she had the foundation to navigate that male-dominated arena.

Marmots became Marie’s favorite animal during hikes with her Dad in Sequoia National Park.

You found a lottery ticket worth $10 million. What do you do?

This is a trick question, right? Because I found it, it’s not mine. I would try to figure out who it belonged to, because I wouldn’t want to cash it in if it didn’t belong to me. If I couldn’t find the owner, I would donate the money to charity.

What’s your favorite animal, and why?

The marmot. When my Dad and I used to hike the higher altitudes of Sequoia National Park, we would see them. They’re like big beavers with no tail, and they’re just so playful and cute. They used to terrorize our camp, but I love them.

When you were 10 years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Either an astronaut or a park ranger. Both are explorers. But I found later in life that my super power was creating life-changing experiences for other people as an administrator. Seeing someone experience the outdoors and making a deep connection is what really excites me and motivates me.

What is your favorite type of music?

I was in high school in the mid-’80s, so I’m going to have to say heavy metal hair bands.

Favorite band?

I’ve never missed a Bon Jovi concert!

Sweets, says the new CEO, are her “downfall.”

Favorite song?

“Purple Rain” by Prince. It’s very soothing and spiritual for me. I like to listen to it at night on the river.

Worst song?

“I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”. Hate it. Don’t know why.

Salty or sweet?

Sweet. I love sweets. They are my downfall.

Favorite quote?

“You are never too small to make a difference.” Greta Thunburg.

Favorite hobby? 

Rafting in the Grand Canyon. I’ve been fortunate to work as a guide for a commercial company every summer for most summers. For 17-18 days, I just disconnect from the world and get into a state of just being in every moment that I’m in the canyon. I also love helping people experience the canyon and share that connection.

What do you love about your work?

I love that we create experiences. Whether they are on a rafting trip, or hiking, or visiting a park, and people learn something about cultural resources, indigenous people or just make that connection with the natural environment—it changes them emotionally and impacts them for a lifetime.