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School of Environment and Natural Resources


Alumni Career Spotlight: Bret Henninger

Bret Henninger
Fisheries Management ‘94
Chief Operating Officer, Great Parks of Hamilton County

Headshot of Bret Henninger with a suit in natureBret completed his undergraduate degree in SENR in 1994 after majoring in Fisheries Management. During his time in SENR, he worked as a student employee in the Fees and Deposits office in Lincoln Tower and interned with the Ohio EPA’s Ecological Assessment Section. After graduation, Bret worked a few different jobs and finished a Master in Public Administration from Northern Kentucky University in 2008. He is now the Chief Operating Officer at the Great Parks of Hamilton County. 

Read the full interview with Bret:

A Glance at Bret’s Current Work  

I am the Chief Operating Officer (COO) at Great Parks of Hamilton County, which is a park district in Cincinnati, Ohio. I am responsible for park operations, natural resource management, programming, recreational facilities, planning, human resources, and law enforcement. Great Parks protects 22 parks spanning over 17,700 acres of land serving over 817,000 residents in the county. By agency policy, over 80% of the park district’s land holdings remain undeveloped and managed for ecological benefits.  

What does a typical day in your job look like?
I am usually working with staff or external stakeholders on designing or implementing a system that delivers a certain outcome in public parks. Everything we do requires human minds to understand problems and hands to deliver solutions. Often we are talking about an organizational system that helps us be more effective. Much of what makes it to the COO’s desk are multi-faceted problems that require staff to engage across disciplines, departments, or constituent groups.Bret lighting a prescribed fire at a prairie in 2010  

Running a public agency is a microcosm of what I learned in Dr. David Culver’s Limnology (study of freshwater systems) class in 1994. He taught us that limnology is a blend of physical, chemical, and biological sciences. A change in one always drives changes in the others. I have found it to be useful to apply this approach in public service, as well. No problem exists in a vacuum and one-dimensional approaches to problem solving are not usually effective.  

What is the most rewarding part of your current job?
First, I have had the good fortune to spend most of my career with the park district. I was hired in 1995 as a Technician. Later, I moved up to Crew Leader, Manager of the Biological Assessment Program, Director, Division Chief and now have served as COO for just over a year. I have been hands-on in monitoring projects and various wildlife projects, became certified as an Ohio Prescribed Fire Manager, and have worked to support others who do these tasks now.  

I am very fortunate to work alongside some talented and hard-working people. With all these wonderful experiences, I love going back to restoration projects that I have worked on in the past to enjoy memories of the people, project successes, and to remind me of the failures that have been the best learning opportunities.  

"Embrace experiences that round you out as a human being."  

Professional Development  

What were you involved in during college?
I worked quite a bit to support myself in school and had a great student employment gig. I was a student employee in the Fees and Deposits Office in Lincoln Tower, which meant I never, ever had to wait in a line to pick up my student loan check or to pay my fees. That was huge in an era where most administrative tasks that students faced were not yet able to be done online.   

Bret stocking fish in a culture pond in 2013In addition, I was fortunate to work an internship with Ohio EPA’s Ecological Assessment Section at the end of my undergraduate career. I got to work with some of the most accomplished aquatic ecologists in the state, and those six months were transformational. I got practice and coaching on doing habitat assessments and identifying fish and invertebrates in nearly every corner of the state. This experience helped me gain a big picture perspective on how a robust assessment of the physical, chemical and biological components of streams can help inform restoration and preservation efforts in my career.  

What advice would you give to someone who is still in college and hoping to do what you do?
Embrace experiences that round you out as a human being. Once you find your academic focus in Natural Resources, it’s easy to want to focus on your passion for that part of your college career. I received an outstanding education at Ohio State. My classes in SENR and other science coursework were top notch in giving me the basis for my career. However, I routinely lean on knowledge and skills that have their roots in the humanities, communication, history, social identity and cultural diversity. I would not be the same person without those experiences as an undergraduate.

What experience do you feel was most valuable in your professional development?
One of my first duties as a new Environmental Technician with the park district in 1995 was to coordinate a volunteer stream monitoring program. It was great to work with so many people who care about streams, but these first experiences recruiting volunteers and building teams were important in helping me learn how to motivate people and communicate to large groups. It’s really where my first seeds as a leader were sown. 

"Bringing human beings along on the journey is critical to success in public land management."

What was a challenge you faced in your professional development and how did you overcome it?
There was a point in my career when I came to understand that implementing  thoughtful, science-based solutions is not enough. Because we serve communities that value natural and physical assets differently, social and economic factors surround environmental problems. This caused me to focus more on my communication skills and to involve stakeholders more in problem solving. Bringing human beings along on the journey is critical to success in public land management. I believe that most species are predictable, if you have enough context. Human beings are fairly unpredictable, given the same level of context. Realizing this was important in rethinking problem-solving strategies.    


What did you do immediately post-graduation?
I worked for a medical lab, a land surveyor and a few other jobs before landing my full-time gig at the park district. Each gave me skills that I used later. I went to graduate school about ten years after finishing my undergraduate degree, while I was in-career. I finished a Master in Public Administration from Northern Kentucky University in 2008.

What was most important to you in your job search?
Finding the fit that is best for you may require you take an alternative path. If you can’t find the best fit, take the opportunity in front of you and apply yourself. See where it takes you. Even though it doesn’t fit your interest, you will learn something that will help you when you do finally reach your destination.



How to connect with Bret:


Post created October 2021