NASPD 2017 in Missoula, Montana




Executive Director Of National Association Of State Park Directors Discusses Cyclical Nature & The Success Of America's Parks

NASPD Executive Director Lewis Ledford at a Senate Hearing and on his home turf in North Carolina. [Courtesy: Lewis Ledford]

Lewis Ledford was the first state park director to rise from entry level ranger to the top spot in the North Carolina park system. After retiring from that position in 2014, Ledford took on the role of Executive Director of the National Association of State Park Directors. In advance of the 2017 NASPD Conference in Missoula, Montana, Ledford spoke with The Buzz about balance, the future and keeping connected.

The Buzz: NASPD is coming up in Montana. Can you talk about the aspect of having it there, the importance obviously with what's going on in the nation, and how Montana's a great place to sort of focus on that?

Lewis Ledford: I think the country already recognizes Montana in its great beauty, and being well-known as the great sky country with the spectacular scenery, and the mountains in the western part of the state, and all the natural resources that's associated with that. It'll be the first time that the National Association of State Park Directors has met in Montana in over 30 years

The Buzz: In the past year that there's been a lot of discussion on protecting the public lands. Montana is obviously part of that. Have you had to do certain things in order to keep your eye on the point?

LL: Well, I think there's one way of saying this. Perhaps there's never been more demand, and certainly the visitation records indicate, it's never been more popular for state parks in America. But at the same time, there's quite a bit of demand and challenges to be efficient and so forth with managing resources and making the accommodations available, protecting the landscape and all the scenic quality and the recreational components [therein]. I would say it's a challenge, but I think at the same time we have never had more support for parks from the general public than we enjoy today.

The Buzz: Can you talk about the balance between the aspects you have to interact with on Capitol Hill but also connecting to what is on the ground and the aspect of protecting these elements for the people?

LL: Well, just to give you a frame of reference…in America's State Parks there some 10,300-plus areas deposited over 18 million acres that make up the American State Park system, so to speak. It's an incredible array of diverse places. From the highest mountains in the east to the largest stalactite in the world, to the second oldest river thought to be in the world, to the highest sand dune on the Eastern seaboards, to the numerous heritage sites where Europeans first came to America in Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. All of those things rolled together. But, of those 10,000 areas, I would say there's probably just over 4,000 that we think of as the traditional state parks where you go hiking, camping, biking, swimming, those kinds of [activities]. Those are more popular than ever. And, of course, trails. Trails is the number one activity in any survey that I've ever reviewed or read or conducted…walking and hiking for pleasure is the number one outdoor activity. And let me follow up a little bit more on this, Tim. The American State Park system is 50 sovereign units. So to speak, each state has its own administration…obviously its own governing and administrative priorities. A lot of folks are talking today about the economy and the challenges facing governments as a whole. In large part, parks are at record levels of attendance, and funds continue to be strong, but the states where there's been a reliance, in particular, a very sole reliance almost, in their states on energy resources, those are the states where you're probably having the most challenges. But like so many other things, I think it's cyclic. I think as we will call on more corporate and individual support.  Truly parks are also an economic engine. We often times think more about health and wellness of the recreation or the environmental conservation side, but truly parks are little economic engines in our respective communities.

NASPD Executive Director Lewis Ledford posing with many of the state park directors at the 2015 NASPD conference in South Carolina. [Courtesy: Lewis Ledford]

LL: We have folks from the full compass of state legislature, a state senator, a commissioner from another state, as well as a lawyer that's a champion for a fringe group of a respective state, coming together to share ideas across the board about what's working in those states. And what necessarily works in one, doesn't work in all, but, at the same time, you gain an understanding and an appreciation for it.

The Buzz: Your experience earlier in your career was coming in as state park director of North Carolina from being an entry-level ranger. Can you talk about that experience and how that reflects how you look at some of the new directors coming in?

LL: Well, I think there's certainly a value to having come up through the system and all the different levels. There's rangers, there's park managers, there's superintendents. Having those kind of background experiences is important for a leader, but at the same time, there's the striking of balance…like maintaining those important directors of park systems that have connections…that have capability to bring resources and support to the park system. I think the bottom line is making sure that everyone is grounded in solid park management understanding in order to be effective in managing public resources. I gave testimony in Congress recently, and we talked about the efficiency of state parks. America State Parks now are doing more than ever in terms of generating as an institution. We have about ten state systems that do not charge. They appropriate. They serve a variety of people. Access to parks is something they want to provide but charge for meal services, campsites, cabins, or whatever, but all in all, when you evaluate how they're serving the public and how they bring those together, it's quite important to have that heritage and understanding of good management principles. When managing a public resource, we've got to be accountable to our citizens and those that we are serving. Let me emphasize one other thing:  there's people that support parks by our surveys, whether they ever plan to step foot in a park or not. Sometimes I think we always get this mentality that those who support parks are those that are going and using. There are surveys that have been conducted over and over that validate that people value parks and folks support funding those parks, whether they actually use them or not.

The Buzz: Now as an executive director overseeing this association, can you talk about current changes and what you do to make all this work efficiently as a leader.

LL: There’s been quite a bit of change. The average tenure of a state park director now is just over four years. We’ve had a couple of folks that had iconic careers and lasted 25, but that's probably not going to be the case in the future. I think this year we’ll have six or seven new members that will be directors attending the conference for the first time. We'll certainly assign [state director] mentors to those, to mentor in a positive way.

The Buzz: When you first came in as North Carolina State Park Director, who did you learn from? Who got you into this idea of becoming a park ranger and eventually state park director?

LL: I was majoring in chemistry in college and had ideas of working in chemicals. But I worked seasonally in a park [Metro State Park] one year, and frankly I drank the Kool-Aid. And it was a tough economy when I got out of college. I ended up taking a position with the park system and advanced, and within just a few years, I was in a super-team kind of job and then later head of the operations and construction programs. I was very fortunate to have been provided the opportunities to serve as the first director that came in from the entry level of a park ranger in North Carolina. I served in that capacity 11 years before retiring in 2014.

The Buzz: You talked about engagement with the outdoors. It is a physical action but also a mental one.

LL: We are in the memory making business. I think that's a phrase that I've heard a number of folks say. It's the experiences that you get as a child or the outdoors or the health benefits or the mental improvements. There's so many studies, not just on physical health, but on mental health about the value of the outdoors, and just the inspiration and the understanding and the healthy lifestyle that you get from taking a few minutes to get outdoors and appreciate the nature in addition to this business world. We're so connected in ways that I guess we've become disconnected in another way. But if we’re out there connecting with nature like generations before us hopefully we will be able to enjoy those same kinds of experiences.

Tim Wassberg

A graduate of New York University's Tisch School Of The Arts with degrees in Film/TV Production & Film Criticism, Tim has written for magazines such as Moviemaker, Moving Pictures, Conde Nast Traveler UK and Casino Player. He enjoys traveling and distinct craft beers among other things.

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