By C.V. Moore
The new superintendent of New River Gorge National River says her upcoming move to Fayette County feels a bit like coming home. Patricia “Trish” Kicklighter is a native of the Missouri Ozarks, an area that bears a certain similarity to West Virginia in terms of landscape and culture.
The Park Service announced earlier this month that Kicklighter will succeed former Superintendent Don Striker, who left New River for Denali National Park earlier this year. She is currently the superintendent of Assateague Island National Seashore, off the coast of Maryland, and her experience includes former posts at Shenandoah National Park, Harpers Ferry Design Center, Point Reyes National Seashore, Cabrillo National Monument, and Ozark Scenic Riverways.
Kicklighter and her husband Wayne plan to move to Fayette County in late May. They’ll start their life here in the heart of the New River Gorge, living in Thurmond while they look for a longer-term home.
In a recent interview, Kicklighter stressed the importance of building partnerships with local communities, an emphasis shared by Striker before her. “National Parks are about a sense of place that’s shared with everybody in the community,” she says.
Why did you choose to apply for this job? What drew you to the position?
It’s a fabulous resource. I’m from the Missouri Ozarks and spent my summers on the Current and Jacks Fork rivers, so I’m really drawn to being out in the country and to rivers. I just thought the New River reminded me of home.
I’m also very interested in expanding partnerships and working closely with partners to build support for the parks and help each other achieve our goals. I was very intrigued by the various partnerships at the New River.
You were a river ranger at Ozark National Scenic River at the start of your career. Can you talk about that?
I was an interpreter, which is the Parks Service’s term for a naturalist. In the summer months, my job was to be on the river, canoeing as much as three times a week and making visitor contacts and helping people canoe the river safely and doing any rescues that needed to be done.
And you continue to canoe and raft. As a boater yourself, so you have ideas about how to make the park experience better for boaters?
It has always been a big part of our lives. We love to canoe and then we got into whitewater rafting. I have not rafted the New or Gauley yet, but we’ve done a lot of rivers out west. It’s too early to say. I want to experience what it’s like on the river before jumping in and making any suggestions.
I think you’ll find that’s a theme for me. I’m not going to come in with any preconceived notions about how things need to be changed. It’s really about looking at the park’s General Management Plan and meeting with park neighbors and park staff to hear their concerns and hear what’s working. If things are working, there’s no need for change. I don’t want to come into a park and make a lot of changes immediately.
… This summer I’ll be out there experiencing the resource and meeting a lot of neighbors and getting a sense of the place before I presume to make any changes.
Do you have any experience — maybe in the Ozarks — with residents being upset about control over traditionally wide open spaces, like the old fishing hole or the hunting grounds?
I do have a lot of experience with that at several parks, starting with the Ozarks, a new park that was created I think in 1964. A lot of people’s land, including my family’s land, was bought to make that park. So a lot of the access points, because of protection of resources, have been closed down.
Then at Shenandoah National Park, where I was deputy superintendent, once again a lot of private land was purchased by the National Park Service. Then here at Assateague we have a lot of traditional uses like offroad vehicle driving. Once again, it’s all about finding that compromise of how do you protect the resources for future generations while still allowing people to be able to use their favorite fishing hole, or whatever the case may be.
The message to give folks is the one thing we both have in common is love for a resource. People who live along the New River or in that area use the river because they love it, and that’s the same reason it’s a national park. And our goal is to preserve it so their kids can enjoy it as well as they can — by making sure the water remains clean. That really is the goal of a superintendent and the Park Service. So to do that we may need to protect some areas a little more than they had been previously been protected, but it’s for the love of the resources.
At Assateague National Seashore, you incorporated a response to climate change into the park's General Management Plan. Can you talk about how that issue was reflected in the plan?
Climate change is one of those things some people believe in and some people don’t. I think the point we tried to make to people is if you’ve got a bunch of scientists in the room and you asked how much is the sea rising, you’d probably get different answers.
But what everyone would agree on is things are changing — weather patterns are changing, plants are blooming early, migrant species are moving through at different times. So you really have to start to think about what the change is and what the impacts on the environment are.
So here at Assateague we are seeing the sea level rise, hurricanes later in the season and coming much further north than they would traditionally. So we’re designing our structures so they’re mobile and can actually come off the island. If there is something permanent, we’re elevating it. And we’re also trying to make sure we can make the environment and island itself as healthy as possible so maybe it has a fighting chance to keep up with climate change and increased temperatures. So any way we can make the place more resilient, by improving the hydrology and things like that.
When you look at a park like the New River, you need to make sure you’re not putting new facilities in flood plains, and that you’ve got those plans in place. You also try to improve the environment so the resource itself has a better chance to tolerate the pressures that it’s going to be getting such as warmer temperatures and different changes in precipitation. So you ask how to remove the stressors, whether it’s air pollution or runoff from construction sites or invasive plant species.
I’ll have to work with park staff to understand what they anticipate to be the stressors on the environment. With a river park, it’s kind of similar to a seashore because water quality can be affected by things that happen outside the park boundary. Water runs down hill. So it’s working with park neighbors to make sure the water going into the rivers is as clean as possible.
Water is obviously the centerpiece of this park. How do you plan to ensure that our waters are clean?
The resource has to be protected, not only for the park but for the economic viability of the area. That’s what’s driving visitors to the area. It’s tied to much to the economy.
One of the things I find when trying to improve water quality is you can’t start young enough with kids. It really comes down to environmental education and driving home the point about what differences they can make. Then it becomes a conversation around the dinner table.
So I think you really have to put a lot of your energy there. After all, these kids are going to grow up to be the protectors of the park as well, so you need to start talking to them at an early age. That’s one thing I really encourage at whatever park I’m in, and that’s certainly something I’d like to continue. As well as working with park partners — towns and the county — to make sure any runoff is mitigated.
Do you have any plans to try to reduce the park’s carbon footprint?
That is a mandate from the National Park Service. I really think that there’s no better role model for anyone for reducing their carbon footprint than the National Park Service. That’s what we should be doing. If we’re going to be pointing our finger at folks to say, “Thou shalt do better,” we have to have done it first. So I’ll be looking at ways that operations can reduce our footprint.
It’s a real passion of mine. (...) I think a national park is just as strong as the partnerships are, and it’s just as well protected as the constituents around that park want it to be protected. It's nothing I or my staff can do on our own.
We have a lot of uses at the park, whether it’s biking, boating, hiking, fishing, or climbing. What’s going to be your strategy for working with these stakeholder groups to make sure park resources are shared and enjoyed by all?
I had experience at Shenandoah with rock climbing groups. It’s really a matter of looking at resources and figuring out what are the fragile resources that we need to perhaps isolate from a use, while also designating climbing routes that can continue without too much or any impact to the environment.
It’s really working with these groups to determine what’s the best way for you to continue your recreation, and usually you can find a compromise for what works. Obviously there are going to be some areas that are so fragile — especially like rock outcroppings that may have vegetation that only grows there. So it’s mapping those places and understanding what needs to be protected, but what still can have the recreational use take place.
Here at Assateague we have off-road vehicle driving on the beach. Some times of year we close it for the nesting of shore birds. Other times of year, it can continue. In each example, it’s sitting down at the table with recreational users and figuring out how can we do both.
With mountain bikes it’s the same thing — designating trails that are hopefully designed so it’s not an impact to the environment and working with groups to establish what is the proper, ethical way to mountain bike in those areas. It’s all about conversations and communicating.
In the face of budget cuts to the National Park Service, what’s your plan for the park to accommodate those cuts and remain viable in the next several years?
Each park had to come up with their 5 percent budget cut plan prior to March 1, so the New River has their plan. Normally what I do is I’ll go into the park and do a budget exercise to set the ground rules for division chairs and ask them to formulate their budget so I understand what’s in there and everyone is playing by the same set of rules. So that sets the baseline. Then we figure out where we have flexibility.
It’s my intention to do that at New River to get a sense of how each division uses money. And if need be, coming up with our highest priorities. So I’m sure, like any other park, New River has already tackled the low-hanging fruit to come up with a 5 percent cut. Depending on what the 2014 budget looks like, the park may have to find an additional pot of money to look at.
You may have heard by now that the Boy Scouts of America is settling in Fayette County. How do you envision that partnership working?
First of all, I think it’s wonderful for the community. I would suspect that it will bring in a lot of money and economic improvement to the area. Not only is it going to be a great destination for whitewater rafting, but it will be a tourist destination for families associated with those Boy Scouts.
As for the park, it sounds like the Boy Scouts are doing wonderful things with building trails. Eventually it will shift to maintenance so the Boy Scouts can continue to maintain their wonderful investment in the park.
The other thing is what a great opportunity to have access to so many youth who love the outdoors, to be able to instill in them leave no trace training, etc. What other superintendent can have access to so many young kids in one fell swoop?
I think there’s a lot of other ways to work with the Boy Scouts besides doing environmental education. We’ve recently got a request from the BSA about a group of kids with mobility issues who wanted to do a service project during the Jamboree, and the park is in the process of finding some opportunities for them.
What’s going to be your strategy to make sure that local uses aren’t overwhelmed or overshadowed by these potentially large groups of Scouting visitors?
It’s a little too soon for me to be thinking about that. I would assume the Boy Scouts have been at the table with this in planning. I think there will be a lot of what we call after-action reviews after the Jamboree has taken place, really having a lot of conversations with Boy Scout groups and, if local communities haven’t already been involved, making sure they are at the table as well and hearing their concerns about that.
The Boy Scouts are going to be finding a lot of uses for the park. For example, quite a few will be rafting the river and I understand they are using the outfitters that exist. It will be interesting to talk to outfitters to see how they are dealing with other people wanting to come during that time period, and how they will accommodate that.
I think a lot of planning is under way and has to go full steam ahead. There will have to be a lot of discussions afterwards to make sure we’ve done everything the best way we could. I understand the concern.
When I speak of leave no trace, that’s not only just the physical impact of your trash, it’s also any impact on the viewscape or soundscape. That has to be a part of that training. It’s instilling positive outdoor behavior and I think that’s a place where the park can make a real impact so that other people using the park don’t get that sense of loss.
Any closing thoughts?
I have lived in West Virginia once before, in the panhandle, but I know a lot of people from other parts don’t really count that. It’s such a gorgeous area and I’m just really excited about getting back to the mountains and the river. It’s really where my heart is. It’s the environment where I grew up. I love the country; I’m no city girl.
I can’t say how excited I am to get back to that type of environment and get to know the people there. I’ve also been a quilter for years and I know there are quite a few quilters around there. I think the whole area is a fabulous fit and I hope the people there think so as well.
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