Parkway Superintendent Phil Francis Retires After A Career of Parkway Firsts

Phil Francis looks to the future after retiring April 1st. Here he inaugurates a plaque at a Blue Ridge Parkway Overlook celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Weeks Act that created the national forests. Photo by Randy Johnson.

Phil Francis, the National Park Service’s superintendent for the Blue Ridge Parkway since 2005, is retiring on April 1st.

Francis spent 41 years with the Park Service and was appointed superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway in 2005.

When asked about his plans for retirement Francis said, “Good question! That’ll take some time to answer. I’ve been focused so much on the job, I really haven’t spent much time thinking about the future.”

When urged to noodle the question, he said, “ I love to play golf. I’d like to see my wife more ...” Francis’ wife Dr. Becky Nichols is a scientist employed by Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“I’ll get to do more travel that I’ve put on hold,” said Francis. “A lot of us don’t take the annual leave we get because we want to get our jobs done, so now I’ll be able to travel more. But I will not become unatttached to the mission and purpose of the NPS. Once you buy into that as a career, it’s something you do for a lifetime.”

Diverse Career

Francis joined the National Park Service in 1972 at Kings Mountain National Military Park—interesting in that he attended Kings Mountain High School and later graduated from Clemson University with a bachelor of science degree in administrative management.

Francis’ career has taken him from coast to coast, including Shenandoah National Park, Yosemite National Park, Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

After 11 years as deputy/acting superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Phil was asked to become the sixth superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Francis remarked upon several significant events during his tenure as parkway superintendent.

Accomplishments Are Many

Francis was quoted saying he thought a number of key events marked his tenure. “We’ve completed the parkway’s first General Management Plan that will be the guiding document for the Parkway for decades to come,” he said. “We had a very successful 75th anniversary celebration that brought together neighboring communities, parkway staff, nonprofit partners, the two states (Virginia and North Carolina) and volunteers. It was a great time and allowed for needed focus on Parkway issues.” He added that, “We strengthened partnerships with a number of organizations, states and communities. The visitor center in Asheville was constructed and is doing well.”

Challenges Remain for the Parkway

Francis retires as “we’ve lost 25% of our staff in ten years” and Sequestration cuts chopped another 5% off of 2013’s budget. Francis feels these cuts will at some point require the federal government to rethink funding of our parks.

“From my chair, I think we have to find a different way of doing our business,” Francis said in a recent news article. “It appears that funding will continue to be a great challenge and our capacity to serve our visitors and protect our resources will be diminished. While partnerships will allow us some opportunity to mitigate our lost capacity, I don’t think it will be enough. At some point, I think that the American people will see that maintaining our parks is essential to maintaining our pride in our country.”

Award-Winning Tenure

Over the years he has earned many awards and commendations from the National Park Service.

Francis is a 2003 graduate of the Department of Interior’s Senior Executive Service candidate development placement program. In 2005 he was awarded the Department of Interior’s Superior Service Award in recognition of outstanding contributions to the National Park Service as assistant superintendent at the Smokies and acting superintendent of the Outer Banks Group and Blue Ridge Parkway as well as numerous other performance awards during his career.

U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander honored Phil in the Congressional Record in 2006 for his service at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Discover Life in America, which is conducting the first all species inventory of a national park, named a new species to science after Phil in appreciation for his support of the project.

When asked about his favorite places on the Parkway, Francis said his would be a long list, but, “I certainly enjoy the area around Blowing Rock, Grandfather Mountain and Boone.