Don Striker, the superintendent of New River Gorge National River, will soon leave his post for a new position at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska.
Striker confirmed the news on Tuesday, calling the move “bittersweet” for he and his wife, Gretchen.
“We’ve really grown quite fond of our West Virginia family and I feel like we have a tremendous amount of really phenomenal partnerships that we’ve forged between the Park Service, the state, the local community, and neighbors,” he said. “All of those are really important to both my wife and myself, so it was a really complicated decision.”
What it came down to was timing. Striker says a position as superintendent of Denali only opens up every 10 or 15 years. Denali is one of the NPS’s premier parks, and also one of its most remote.
“In the Park Service, there are certain positions you can obtain that people seek for their entire careers. Denali would be among them,” says Robin Snyder of New River Gorge National River. “It's a contrast from a younger, more progressive park to more of your traditional Parks Service experience in a wilderness area. I think there are parallels and issues that superintendents deal with across the board, but certainly this will be a distinct change for him.”
For one — the logistics of transporting one’s self and one’s pets 4,500 miles in the middle of winter across an ice shield.
Striker says he expects to depart for Alaska in mid-January.
In making the shift, he will move to a park with one-third the number of visitors but over 80 times the acreage as New River Gorge National River. Denali, with 404,581 visitors per year, has a budget of $13.8 million, compared to New River’s $8 million.
Thinking back on his 5-year tenure in West Virginia, Striker says he is most proud of his work forging partnerships with others in the state and locally.
“What I am most proud of is how we collectively worked together to dispel the myth that somehow there was the park, which was an island, and the community surrounding the island,” he says. “And we really forged ahead (...) working together to place-make and protect, promote, and polish the place we all think of as special.”
He says he saw the region transform into one that works and thinks together, tackling regional issues as a team.
“We saw, in my mind, the incredible power and leverage that comes out of working together and, rather than competing with ourselves community on community, figuring out that there’s overlap where we can agree.”
The most clear and resounding example of the success of that strategy, he says, was the Boy Scouts of America’s selection of the area for their permanent Jamboree site and high adventure base.
As for the future, Striker says he hopes the park will continue to move forward as one of many partners in a collective agenda.
He says pivotal issues for the park in years to come will likely include “the thorny balance between good paying jobs and extractive, resource-based economies and rehabilitating, conserving, and preserving (...) what is spectacular about what it is to live in southern West Virginia.”
A continued focus on water quality, too, is crucial for the river-centric park, says Striker.
Finally, he sees education and engagement of youth in outdoor activities as central to the park’s future.
One of Striker’s signature initiatives during his five years of service at New River Gorge National River, Gauley River National Recreation Area, and Bluestone National Scenic River was the Rangers in Training Program.
The initiative allows local youth the opportunity to explore the park and participate in activities like rafting, climbing, mountain biking, fishing, and archery at no cost. This led to a pathway for local youth to obtain seasonal positions in the park.
“As a park superintendent, there is no more important goal than to make sure you are relevant to your neighbors,” Striker told the National Parks Conservation Association this year.
“And that’s why paying attention to local economic conditions is important. It’s also why it’s so important to pay attention to kids and their education. My goal is simple: I want every child in southern West Virginia to be a steward of their public lands by the time they graduate.”
Snyder says she appreciated Striker’s focus on education and youth programs and hopes that whoever follows behind him will take on some of the same initiatives and understand their significance in reaching out to the local community.
“He did a lot to build partnerships here and improve the park’s relationship with the community,” says Snyder. “I think that’s still in its growing phases and we really need someone to follow behind him and move that forward. In this budget climate we’re really in a position where we need to look at volunteers and community partners to continue the work that we do.”
Striker was also closely involved in efforts to bring the Boy Scouts of America to their new home in Fayette County, recognizing early on the magnitude of what their purchase of an adjacent property would mean for the park and the area more generally.
He was instrumental in the formation of the Bridge Walk, another major attraction for people visiting the area.
In 2011, the Citizens Conservation Corps of West Virginia honored Striker with the H.C. “Kit” Lewis Leadership Award for his positive influence on West Virginia.
Striker was selected as the new superintendent at New River in the spring of 2007, replacing Calvin Hite.
His background is in accounting and financial management, and he pioneered the use of business plans for NPS units. He came on board at NPS in 1990, serving as a consultant to implement their financial systems.
Prior to landing his leadership position at New River Gorge, he worked as the superintendent of both Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota and Fort Clatsop National Memorial in Oregon.