I first met Kevin FitzGerald at a Friends of the Smokies dinner in 2006. He had just been appointed as deputy superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Recently I had the privilege to sit down in the new conference room in the old Oconaluftee Visitor Center to talk to him about his 33-year career in the National Park Service.
Kevin FitzGerald grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in the Piedmont.
When did you decide to become a ranger?
"I was a forestry major in North Carolina State. In the fall of my sophomore year, a friend came back to school raving about his summer job on the Blue Ridge Parkway and encouraged me to apply for the summer. I wanted to work on the Parkway. I got a seasonal job as a GS-3 at the campground at Crabtree Meadows. I immediately fell in love with the job. People are here because they want to be here."
He remembers living in a single-wide trailer, leftover housing from a flood long ago. He collected fees, directed visitors to evening programs, and walked the trails.
At the time, his long-range goals weren't clear. He was leaning toward community recreation. After the summer, he changed his focus to natural resources.
"I became more science oriented. Now I knew what I wanted. I was a more serious, more focused student. I went back to work on the Parkway the next summer."
He was in a co-op position in the SCEP (Student Career Experience Program). It allowed him to get an interview for a permanent position. He interned and now he was supervising Parkway sites at Linville Falls and Crabtree Falls.
He met his future wife Cyn (Cynthia) Slaughter, at Linville Falls. She was camping with her girlfriends.
And after graduation?
"I got a permanent job in the Smokies on the North Carolina side. To land a permanent job was not the norm. Normally it might have taken 7 to 10 years."
Mr. FitzGerald became a law enforcement ranger and was sent to FLETC (Federal Law Enforcement Training Center) for training. He considered himself a multi-skilled generalist. He joined the Cherokee Fire Department so he could learn how to deal with structural fires. He dealt with drunk drivers, poachers, and weapons infractions. He investigated arson, burglaries, and assaults. Now law enforcement problems are possibly even greater. There are more visitors and the gateway towns have increased in population.
But parks are extremely safe for visitors, one of the safest places you can go. You need to educate yourself. For example, if you're leaving your car at a trailhead, you don't leave a camera case on the front seat or blankets on the back, as if you're hiding something. Trails are very safe. Most of the problems are on the road.
Your next post?
"Cyn and I got married at the Smokemont Church in the Park and we left for the Everglades where I got promoted to district ranger. I took my wife who loved the mountains to the Everglades with all those bugs. We lived in Everglade City, a small town.
"There were three of us taking care of half-a million acres, most of it water. The Everglades are an incredible resource, but they were getting choked off by canals and rising populations. I educated myself on the issues. It's important to understand why this was happening."
And you didn't feel constrained to talk about the issues?
"If you don't understand the issues, you can't have the passion to protect it. I never felt constrained to talk about the facts."
Several more promotions and national parks, as well as time spent attending and graduating from the FBI National Academy, a national academy for advanced training in law enforcement, Mr. FitzGerald found himself back in the Smokies in 2006, this time as deputy superintendent. He doesn't carry a gun in his daily work anymore, but oversees park operations.
The Smokies received $80 million for facility rehabilitation under the American Recovery and Reinvestments Act and Mr. FitzGerald managed construction projects all over the park. In 2010, it might have seemed that all the roads were closed to visitors, but now we're enjoying the benefits of better roads and restoration projects. Clingmans Dome road is a pleasure to drive and the Roaring Fork Motor Trail is vastly improved.
At the same time that all this road construction was going on, Mr. FitzGerald was the park representative who oversaw the building of the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center. The Visitor Center, which is now enjoying a boost in visitation, was fully funded by the Great Smoky Mountains Association. Though the building was paid for by a park partner, Mr. FitzGerald provided overall direction to ensure the interests of the federal government.
How accessible are the higher-ups in the park?
"More accessible than years ago. When I worked here 30 years ago, I never met the superintendent."
When he returned to the Smokies and came into the headquarters building, Dale Ditmanson, the current superintendent, said "This must look familiar."
"No, never came down this hallway," replied Mr. FitzGerald.
When Mr. FitzGerald was here in the 1980s, he had to go in and out the back door of the headquarters building and straight to the office he needed to go to.
"Now people come into my office, including seasonal employees. Of course, there's a chain of command. But I want the staff to feel like they can speak up."
There are over 200 full-time employees in the park.
How has the job changed over the years?
The job of a park ranger has changed. Until the early 1990s, the National Park Service felt it knew best. Now it's essential that we interact with various park partners.
Mr. FitzGerald attends board meetings of the Great Smoky Mountains Association and Friends of the Smokies. He's involved with activities in the gateway communities of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina, and state and local government officials. He's even hiked with the Carolina Mountain Club, based in Asheville.
How do you meet park visitors?
"Three ways. Via the park electronic mailbox. The emails are distributed to various park employees and I respond.
"Through comment forms that visitors fill out. Many times I'll try to call the visitor who made the comment. If you spend the time with the visitor, you'll get a greater understanding of the problem.
"When I walk from the headquarters to Sugarlands on the trail, visitors are attracted to the uniform. They have questions. Also people come into the headquarters lobby."
The lobby has pictures of all the superintendents and paintings of iconic Smokies scenes. Unlike some other parks, park headquarters is not off limits to visitors.
What's the hardest part of the job?
"I don't think I have a difficult job. Maybe the hardest part is saying 'No' when you know it might affect a relationship. But we need to protect visitors and resources. Sometimes a predecessor didn't have the political will to say 'no', so you have to deal with the unattended consequences."
What's the most fun part?
"The whole job. I come to a beautiful place every day. I work with talented people who love the park and I get to solve problems."
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a full-time permanent ranger?
"There are so many avenues for a young person to get into the pipeline and work in the National Parks. There's SCEP, STEP (Student Educational Employment Program), SCA (Student Conservation Association). You can volunteer, get an internship or work on a trail crew. What will help you get a position is familiarity with the National Park Service. You need to meet qualifications and references on your abilities. It is challenging to move from a seasonal to permanent status."
Any specific college major you would recommend?
"If you're in resource management, you might need a degree in a science. Otherwise, we accept a broad range of degrees.
"Some parks get more applicants than others. I would encourage applying to places like the C&O Canal and Cape Cod National Seashore, untypical places, where you'll learn about the politics of land use. I learned a lot there. In your career, you'll spend more time in non-traditional parks. You'll learn more and get out of your comfort zone."
And what do you do for fun?
"I enter triathlons. I do all the distances. I also like to hang out at home."
He and Cyn live in the Weir Valley, a quiet place in rural East Tennessee. Cyn is a serious gardener and he helps her with the hard labor. Right now they have two cats and a dog, though at times, they've had several parrots and cockatiel.
Cyn was the first woman police officer at Western Carolina University campus. After a series of community planning jobs, she's now a very active volunteer, including for Friends of the Smokies.
Lynda Doucette, supervisory interpretive ranger on the North Carolina side of the Smokies, says, "Kevin has done a lot for the park. He understands all aspects of the operation. He has a good sense of humor and he's a fun guy to hang out with."
For a career of extraordinary achievements, Mr. FitzGerald received the U.S. Department of Interior's Meritorious Award, the department's second highest honor in April of this year.