Regular readers know that I rarely comment on National Park Service appointments, replacements, or retirements here in Traveler. I’m going to make an exception here and discuss a recent appointment at Shenandoah National Park. It’s not just because Shenandoah is a big, heavily visited park with lots of managerial challenges, or because Shenandoah’s new superintendent, Martha Bogle is a superb manager. It’s personal.
I’ve known Martha Bogle for many years and am proud to call her my friend. A few years ago she was managing Congaree National Park, a park that I helped to create back in the 1970s.
Martha has more than three decades of experience of federal service during which she has worked in nearly a dozen national parks as well as one national wildlife refuge.
Martha, who has a bachelor’s degree in botany from the University of Tennessee, began her career with a stint as a seasonal park ranger at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. She then did seasonal stints at Everglades National Park and Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve (then Great Sand Dunes National Monument). In addition to Shenandoah, her permanent positions have included Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Obed Wild and Scenic River, Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, Congaree National Park, and most recently, Blue Ridge Parkway.
Sandwiched in there were temporary duty assignments to several parks, plus a stint with the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, a Fish and Wildlife Service-administered refuge that is the northernmost reasonably intact remnant of the historic Everglades ecosystem.
Like other high-ranking Park Service professionals, Martha served her time in the trenches and worked her way up. She’s been a dispatcher, park ranger, outdoor recreation planner, interpretive specialist, chief of visitor services, assistant superintendent, deputy superintendent, and superintendent.
Let me tell you about something that Martha did when she was superintendent of Congaree National Park – the position she left in 2005 to become deputy superintendent at Blue Ridge Parkway.
When Martha arrived at Congaree (then Congaree Swamp National Monument), she found a park that was short on visitors and long on problems. Nothing was more obviously wrong, or more frustrating, than the park’s lack of decent infrastructure.
The access road -- a dusty, bumpy gravel strip originally built for a hunt club -- was flanked by a variety of nondescript houses and a vegetable garden. There was no visitor center, just a little cottage-like ranger station pressed into duty for that purpose. If more than a few cars and buses arrived, the latecomers, like the park staff, parked in openings among the pines. It looked like a Park System backwater, and that’s pretty much what it was.
There was no room in the park’s budget for major infrastructure improvements, nor was there any reason to expect that the funds would materialize anytime soon. You could say that the situation looked pretty grim. You could say there was ample excuse for a new superintendent to just struggle along, doing her level best with what she had.
But Martha didn’t do that. What she did was to “think outside the box.” A few years later, in 2001, the park had a relocated (and paved) access road, three paved parking lots, and a 10,000-square foot visitor center that is drop-dead gorgeous, inside and out.
The access road, visitor center, and parking lots were constructed at remarkably low cost (about $2 million for the visitor center) through a unique arrangement whereby Richland County donated construction materials, a local NGO (the River Alliance) funded surveying and engineering services, and Air National Guard civil engineering units constructed the facilities as part of their training.
It was an exciting project, and it was executed with a very strong sense of purpose and pride. Some of the citizen soldiers who participated even returned to work on their own time and at their own expense. (Years later while working the front desk in the visitor center, I saw one of these guys point to the ceiling and tell a fellow visitor: “I helped to build this place.”)
Many of the people who worked with Martha on this project at Congaree can tell you stories about her boundless energy and relentless attention to detail. My personal favorites are anecdotes about protecting the trees put at risk by construction equipment. One man told me: “See those big trees that were left in place right next to the visitor center? It was hell on earth to maneuver equipment around them, but Martha would’ve had my hide if I so much as nicked the bark.” Another said: “You know all those twists and turns in the new access road? They weren’t put there just to discourage speeding. Martha made me detour around some trees I wanted to cut down.” A guy would smile when he told a story like that.
Partnering with the National Guard in such a fashion was an award winning idea that had never before been tried at a national park. Martha showed that it could be done, and for that we can all be grateful. The next time you hear critics claim that National Park Service managers are unimaginative and prone to waste taxpayer money, tell them what Martha Bogle accomplished at Congaree.
In mid-September Martha will take the helm at Shenandoah National Park, a 197,411-acre park with 250 employees and a budget of $11 million. I do wish her the very best.