Annie Esperanza (1956 ~ 2020): Longtime park scientist dies after heart transplant

Sequoia National Park and the Three Rivers community has lost a beloved friend and colleague. Annie Esperanza passed away Sunday, March 29, 2020, at Stanford Hospital from complications after a heart transplant. She was 63.
Annie is survived by her brother, Henry Tolentino; her sister, Eddi (Edwina) Tolentino; their families; many dear cousins; countless friends; and her two much-loved dogs.
Born in Porterville on August 9, 1956, to Alex and Roberta Esperanza, Annie grew up on her family’s rural farm in Terra Bella. She attended Terra Bella Elementary then Porterville High School, where she was active in the Panther Band (she got to play her saxophone in the Rose Bowl Parade). She was also Student Body President in 1974, her senior year.
Annie earned a B.S. in Natural Science from Humboldt State University in 1978. She always credited her grade-school experience at SCICON, the outdoor science school in the Sierra foothills, with focusing her interests on the environment.
Annie found her niche in the National Park Service the next year, when she became one of the first female firefighters at Lassen Volcanic National Park. When she moved to a Sequoia National Park engine crew in the summer of 1982, her heart found its long-term home. 
In 1983, Annie joined the park Research Office. She took the first of many trips to Pear Lake, on foot and on skis, to participate in major studies of the Kaweah watershed. Ultimately, she played a key role in establishing long-term research programs and data sets measuring atmospheric deposition, climate, and human-induced changes in high-mountain lakes and watersheds.
In 1994, Annie became a USGS ecologist when the parks’ research program was moved to a US Geological Survey field station housed in the park, but in 1998 she returned to the NPS as the Air Quality Specialist for Sequoia and Kings Canyon. That was the year Annie was diagnosed with a rare and deadly heart disease that sapped her strength and limited her physical activity. Despite that, she continued to give her all to the parks and its people.
Starting in 2010, Annie served as the Chief of the Physical Sciences Branch in the Division of Resources Management and Science. In that role, she managed diverse programs, including monitoring and research related to air quality, wildland fire smoke, hydrology and water quality, caves and karst, dark night skies, and soundscapes.
Annie oversaw the snow-survey program in the parks, providing information used by the state to understand the availability of water to its citizens, human and aquatic. Many of the studies Annie helped initiate or manage have compiled almost 40 years of data that are instrumental in understanding how air quality and climate change are impacting the Sierra Nevada. She worked to build national recognition that the starry skies and incredibly diverse soundscapes are critical parts of the local park environment.
Annie’s perspective on air quality was invaluable. From an agricultural family, she understood the needs of farmers and the damage done to crops by pollution. As a former firefighter, she knew the logistics and importance of controlling fire. As a scientist, she understood the irreplaceable role fire plays in renewing the ecosystems we depend on.
She operated the park weather and air-quality stations, whose data support the need for clean-air policies, and she shared the information through public outreach and scientific publications. She worked closely with managers to build support for prescribed fires, burns that not only maintain giant sequoia groves and other park ecosystems but help limit uncontrolled wildfires. Throughout, she worked to help fire managers recognize smoke hazards and to minimize smoke output to the extent possible.

Annie had a talent for building strong relationships with people and groups outside the parks, and she had a soft spot for researchers drawn here by amazing resources and a supportive staff. The scientific projects she facilitated continue to inform and strengthen resource management in these parks. She was particularly proud of the Western Airborne Contaminant Assessment Project, which documented how and where airborne contaminants are transported and deposited in western national parks and what ecological and public-health impacts they may have.
Annie joyfully shared her curiosity and knowledge about the natural world, mentoring countless young biologists and communicating with the public about national parks. As a local kid herself, she loved connecting people from this area, especially youth, with science and nature and the parks in their backyard. She understood the importance of connecting children and adults with the natural world around them and encouraged her employees to do the same. 
And she loved team sports, her community, and community sports. In Three Rivers, she played volleyball and women’s softball (and continued to cheer them on after she couldn’t play anymore), and helped coach Three Rivers kids. She supported the school and volunteered at fundraising events.
A constant at the heart of the park community, Annie became a touchstone for past and current staff and their families. She organized many events, both official and for fun, and cooked up a storm for many of them. Her “giga-watt” smile could light up a whole room. Her generous spirit, love of life, humor, and her passions for mentoring and for this environment will continue to ripple through the lives of those who met her.
Annie built a legacy over her 40 years with the National Park Service and at Sequoia-Kings Canyon, and she wasn’t ready to give up. Her colleagues’ and friends’ task now is to light the path she had to leave.
In caring for the air, water, and dark skies, you, too, will continue to support Annie’s passion. Donations in Annie’s memory may be made to the nonprofit Sequoia Parks Conservancy at sequoiaparksconservancy.org  (select “In memory of Annie Esperanza” under “Program to support”). And when it is again safe to do so, we will gather to celebrate Annie’s generous, feisty, whole-hearted spirit.

4 thoughts on “Annie Esperanza (1956 ~ 2020): Longtime park scientist dies after heart transplant

  • April 24, 2020 at 7:16 am
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    Oh I am so sorry to learn of Annie’s passing! She was a warm and friendly person who I remember fondly. She passed on my birthday. Very sad news indeed

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  • April 24, 2020 at 8:34 am
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    I’m so shocked and saddened. Annie was always so charming and delightful to be around. I share everyone’s grief. Brian Newton

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  • April 24, 2020 at 12:59 pm
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    Annie you will be deeply and greatly missed. So many of us loved you beyond what words can say.. Much Love my friend

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  • April 24, 2020 at 1:24 pm
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    I am very sad to learn that I will never see Annie’s radiant smile again. I considered her a friend as I’m sure anyone who knew her did. Both Three Rivers and the National Park Service, actually the whole world has lost a gem.

    Reply

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