Tracy Swartout takes on a major role and makes Western North Carolina history as she becomes the new Blue Ridge Parkway superintendent this spring.
Swartout, a 21-year veteran of the National Park Service, takes over reins May 23 of the busiest unit of the National Park Service, with its challenges of ever-increasing visitation and concurrent crumbling infrastructure, while also becoming the first woman to lead the world-famous park on the North Carolina-Virginia border.
She comes to the role, left open since J.D. Lee retired last August, with a strong knowledge of the region, the distinct challenges and the enormity of the role.
"Probably even before I could walk I've been traveling on the parkway," Swartout, 48, told The Asheville Citizen Times from her current post as deputy superintendent at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington.
"My family and I just all through my teen years, 20s, 30s I went backpacking and camping at the Smokies and Shenandoah and all along the parkway, the Peaks of Otter, hiking up at Mount Mitchell. We're just deeply connected to the area," Swartout said of her husband and two young children.
Swartout was born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina, and at age 17 attended Montreat College just outside Asheville. She then transferred to the University of South Carolina, earning a degree in geography. She also holds a master's degree in environmental studies with an emphasis in natural resources from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.
She completed postgraduate work in environmental management and coastal geology at Duke University and completed the U.S. Department of Agriculture's executive leadership program.
Swartout served as the superintendent for Congaree National Park in South Carolina, working closely with the park's friends group and community partners to expand the park's acreage and deepen the shared history of the park with important cultural sites nearby, according to a NPS news release.
Swartout was recognized as the southeast region's Superintendent of the Year in 2012.
She then led the NPS Business Management Group in Washington, D.C., providing management consulting for parks across the country. She recruited, hired and mentored teams to develop business plans for more than 75 parks across the country, including Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks.
Since 2012, Swartout has served as the deputy superintendent at Mount Rainier, where she was responsible for operations and leadership at the iconic 250,000-acre national park with designated wilderness, six affiliated tribes and a complex National Historic Landmark District.
"We are excited to select Tracy to lead one of the country's most visited parks in the National Park System," NPS South Atlantic-Gulf Regional Director Stan Austin said in an April 16 statement announcing Swartout's appointment.
"Tracy is an exceptional leader with a solid record of performance, managing multi-faceted park operations and collaborating to achieve important agency and community objectives. Her experience, commitment to operational excellence and passion for inclusive public participation make her well-suited for this role."
Swartout is in the highest pay grade, known as GS-15, for those working for the Department of Interior, which oversees the NPS. Her current salary is listed at $146,000.
"The parkway has been my dream park for my entire Park Service career," Swartout said. "There are so many things about Blue Ridge Parkway that inspire me – the landscapes and communities that the parkway weaves around and connects together. I look forward to connecting with them again. It is just an amazingly beautiful landscape," she said.
She acknowledged the challenges and difficulties the parkway, as well as all national parks have faced over the decades with stagnant budgets, shrinking staffs and increasing visitation and infrastructure repair needs.
"There are also special challenges associated with a park like Blue Ridge Parkway that really appeal to the things that I have a lot of experience in. In Mount Rainier we have hundreds of miles of roads and trails and utilities and historic infrastructure and all of these are things that also exists at the Blue Ridge Parkway. They are both really complex operations," she said.
The parkway is a long, linear park, stretching 469 miles from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, across the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains – containing the highest peaks in the Eastern United States – ending at the entrance to the Great Smokies in Cherokee.
Last year 14.1 million people visited the parkway, which runs straight through Asheville. The number was down 6% from the 15 million in 2019, but still a remarkable figure considering the parkway was closed for about six weeks during last year's COVID-19 shutdown.
But the parkway still out-paced the second-most visited park, Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, which had 12.4 million visitors, by almost 2 million.
In many cases on nice weekends, parkway traffic was bumper-to-bumper during summer and fall foliage season, as people sought refuge from coronavirus in the relative safety of the outdoors, at iconic spots such as Craggy Gardens, the Mount Pisgah area and Graveyard Fields.
In addition to a growing crush of visitors, expected to continue this year, the park faces one of the highest maintenance backlogs in the country, with some $500,000 in deferred repairs to roads, tunnels, bridges and buildings, many built during the Great Depression.
The parkway is a huge economic driver to the region. A 2020 NPS report showed that the 14.9 million visitors to the parkway in 2019 spent $1.1 billion in surrounding communities, which supported 16,341 local jobs and had a total economic impact of nearly $1.4 billion.
Swartout said she will work with staff – there are now 151 permanent and 125 seasonal employees – to communicate with visitors about "recreating responsibly."
"This is a national initiative around helping guide people to have safe experiences, whether it means masking up when you're going to come within 6 feet of people, picking up your own trash or ensuring that you leave the place in as good or better state than you found it. Those are some things are going to help everyone, have a better experience," she said.
Swartout said she is a "people person" and expects to get out in COVID-19, socially distanced ways this summer with people up and down the parkway corridor.
"I love the idea that much of what we get done is not just with the government's work but it's also through our partners through the conservation trusts, through our not-for-profit partners, working with Federal Highways," she said.
"I get great personal value out of those relationships, building them, sustaining them and extending them. And we're at a really great pivot point with the Legacy Restoration Fund of the Great American Outdoors Act, giving us an opportunity to really invest in some areas of the parkway, which has needed work for a while."
On becoming the first woman in this role, Swartout said "I'm honored to be the first female superintendent. There was probably always going to be one. I just happened to be the first."
She said she understands the importance and the weight of that distinction, however.
"I think it means that women have opportunities to lead in public service. I don't want to overstate the importance of me being a female but I hope that what it says to all the young women in our area is that you have a place in leadership, whether it's in public service or in private industry, you're valued and you're important.
"I hope it serves as an inspiration to little girls who are looking at park rangers. When our leadership represents the community, both in terms of diversity, of all kinds, not just gender diversity, we will have achieved greatness."