Grand Teton National Park superintendent leaves 'political' post

Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 2:24 PM

Angus M. Thuermer Jr., The Jackson Hole News & Guide

JACKSON, Wyo. — Retiring Grand Teton National Park Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott has had a parks career that saw her serve in places like San Francisco and New York, where bashing officials was a blood sport.

She had the wind knocked out of her long before she came to Grand Teton, where she also got plenty of advice — and criticism too. Serving here wasn’t the first time she experienced “body blows,” she said last week.

Of all the places she’s been a public servant in the past 33 years, “this park,” she said, “is one of the most political animals I’ve ever seen.”

She leaves after serving as the first female superintendent of Grand Teton and the third-longest-serving superintendent of the reserve. She started her job here in 2004, her career in 1980.

”The Park Service had just started allowing women to wear the same uniform as men,” she said of the era when she joined.

She came to Grand Teton as a member of the elite Senior Executive Service of the National Park Service, a group of 10 officers. With her retirement, that cadre will have no female members, which riles her.

Why there aren’t more is “a question the agency should be asking,” she said.

Grand Teton is sometimes called a “bastard” park because of its many incongruous uses, including a commercial airport, hunting and grazing that are allowed by law.

Some of those bring pressures on the superintendent, as when unnamed Wyoming residents floated the idea of swapping state lands inside Grand Teton for Jackson Hole Airport.

The topic came up during consultation with representatives of the Rockefeller family, which donated more than 14,000 acres to the government to expand Grand Teton decades ago. The meetings continue because the donation contains a “reverter clause” that stipulates the property will return to the family if it is not used for park purposes.

While under political pressure to propose actions like a swap for the airport, the superintendent also answers to Rockefeller heirs who guard their family’s “investment” in the Grand Teton gift, Scott said. She assured trustees of the Rockefellers’ Jackson Hole Preserve Inc. that any notion that Grand Teton would cede its airport property was a “nonstarter” in discussions about the landing strip, the only such commercial facility in a national park.

”We don’t give up park land,” Scott said.

The park prepares an annual report on the status of Rockefeller gifts to Grand Teton, including the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve. The family donated 1,160 acres around Phelps Lake that used to be a family retreat.

”It’s a different relationship than anywhere else I’ve worked,” she said of the ties with the family. “It’s a marriage. It’s been a very delightful part, and very enlightening part, of this job.”

Keeping the airport in the park through a lease agreement also allows Grand Teton to have a significant say in operations. Swapping it out of the park would undermine the superintendent’s ability to control activities there, she said.

Criticism sometimes comes from people with different perspectives on natural resource issues, or those expressing emotional reactions, but it often is misplaced.

”There’s a huge need for improved understanding on how the government works,” Scott said.

The park’s elk reduction program — a hunt — is an example. It is authorized by law “when necessary.”

When is it necessary? “Let’s ask that,” she said. It will likely be necessary as long as there is supplemental feeding of elk on the National Elk Refuge and possibly also state feedgrounds.

”It’s distasteful to our staff,” Scott said of the shooting of elk in Grand Teton. “It creates a lot of anger.”

That shouldn’t be directed at the park, at her or at rangers, she said.

”If you don’t like the law, people should move to change it,” she said. “I think it’s misplaced to take it out on somebody.”

With a community of 20,000 living at its doorstep, including high-powered business leaders Jackson Hole has attracted in recent years, the park hears from a lot of people who have strong opinions and think highly of them.

”There’s not a time they don’t hesitate to tell me what to do as superintendent,” Scott said.

On her list of accomplishments, she includes reducing the park’s infrastructure backlog by $100 million, improving relationships with the airport board and setting a course for the purchase of state school trust lands in Grand Teton. She also saw the return of the David T. Vernon collection of Indian artifacts and the transfer of the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve to the park.

Operating the park in a “crisis” budget mode is frustrating, Scott said. She hasn’t had a budget in advance of the fiscal year in half a decade. She can’t plan ahead, buy in bulk.

She’s had to put up with sequestration cuts, a government shutdown during which she couldn’t go to work. The latest budget agreement in Washington is good for 105 days.

”That’s not a solution,” she said. “We need to get government functioning.”

Grand Teton is looking at a budget that’s down 8 percent in the coming year.

”The cuts and all that are taking our parks backward,” she said.

Personnel in Grand Teton are tops, Scott said. Jenny Lake rangers, who are famous for their derring-do, are emblematic of the dedication of the rest of the troops, she said.

For example, when rangers rescued more than a dozen climbers after a lightning storm on the Grand Teton, more than 80 park personnel, most of whom weren’t climbing rangers, were on hand to assist.

Grand Teton remains magical. Her favorite spot is Moose-Wilson Road.

”I was awe-struck,” she said of her first trip down the byway, unparalleled in the country in her view.

If she could wave a magic wand, she would produce $91 million and buy the two remaining school trust sections in the park.

”We would go out and sit on new park property and enjoy it,” Scott said.

She would restore more agricultural acreage on the east side of Grand Teton to its natural, sagebrush condition. She would see the feeding of elk end. She would spend more money on grizzly bear research.

She also would see her NPS Academy, a program she started for students to learn about parks, flourish. It has expanded beyond Grand Teton.

”That’s where we are going to build our constituency in the 21st century,” she said.

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