ASHEVILLE — Tracy Swartout takes on a massive 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 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 in the parkway’s 86-year history to lead the world-famous park on the North Carolina-Virginia border.
But Swartout, 48, 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,” said Swartout, who will soon leave her current post as deputy superintendent at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington. “We’re just deeply connected to the area.”
Swartout was born and raised in Columbia, S.C., and 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.
Swartout served as the superintendent for Congaree National Park in South Carolina, working closely with the park’s community partners to expand the Congaree’s acreage.
She was recognized as the southeast region’s Superintendent of the Year in 2012.
Swartout 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 the 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.
“The parkway has been my dream park for my entire Park Service career,” said Swartout, who is married and has two young children. “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.”
But 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,” she said. “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.”
The parkway is long and linear, 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.
In many cases on nice weekends, parkway traffic was bumper-to-bumper during summer and fall foliage season, as people sought refuge from the coronavirus pandemic 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 report from the National Park Service 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 — 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,” she said.
Swartout said she is a “people person” and expects to get out in socially-distanced ways this summer to meet with people up and down the parkway corridor.
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,” she said. “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.”