Working in the National Park Service has taken Tracy Swartout all around the country. But in many ways, her new role as superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway, based at the service’s office in Asheville, is a homecoming. Swartout grew up in Columbia, S.C., and has many fond memories traveling along the park’s 469-mile route through North Carolina and Virginia as a child with her parents.
Swartout continued exploring the parkway during a year at Montreat College. In adulthood, career demands took her from Washington, D.C., to Congaree National Park in South Carolina to, most recently, Mount Rainier in Washington state. But Western North Carolina always stayed close to her heart: Not only did Swartout get married in Hendersonville, but she and her husband named their children after locations on the parkway.
“When this opportunity opened, I wanted to throw my hat in the ring because Blue Ridge Parkway is my dream park,” Swartout says. She started as the park’s superintendent in May and has spent her first few months traveling up and down the parkway to meet with staff and constituents.
Swartout spoke with Xpress about making history in her role, the threat to the parklands caused by heavy visitation and a camping experience on the parkway that pivoted from terrifying to cute.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
How does it feel to be the first woman superintendent for the Blue Ridge Parkway?
I appreciate the recognition because it’s important, but I’m quick to think about the women who are about 15 years older than me in their careers and who broke ground in ways that I didn’t have to. They really climbed to get to where they are, and it’s on their efforts that I got here.
Another thing I think about is gender not being the only diversity in our leadership ranks that we need to improve. We are really behind in terms of racial diversity in leadership in the Park Service, not unlike many other organizations. So, I want to pause for a moment and say, yeah, that’s awesome — I didn’t know when a female superintendent would happen here and I’m really glad to have it happen, whether it’s me or anybody else. And let’s keep going.
What’s special to you about the Blue Ridge Parkway?
The fact that this park is so long, connecting through two states, you see what the Appalachians are like and get to experience the culture in an intimate way that you don’t when you’re on a highway and every exit makes you feel like you could be in any state in the country. It’s unmistakable where you are when you travel the parkway — the viewshed, the amazing places you can see like Mount Mitchell. The highest point on the East Coast, you can visit right here off the parkway.
What are some of the issues at the Blue Ridge Parkway that need to be addressed?
Heavy visitation. This park, along with the Great Smoky Mountains, is right at the top in terms of amount of visitation. It thrills me that so many people want to be connected to their national parks. It’s deeply meaningful to know people are doing that, and it can compromise the resources if people are hiking off-trail or parking out of where they’re supposed to park. It can impact their experience by causing traffic jams or accidents. That’s a challenge that all the national parks are facing.
Climate change is another big one. We have a number of species in this park of concern. When we change the climate, we change food availability and where plants can grow. If the only place some plants can grow is at Craggy Gardens in this really small space — and yet more and more people want to be in that small space — those plants that were critically endangered before may go completely.
Some people say heavy visitation is “loving it to death.” I don’t know if I love that language. Sometimes you want to have an experience and you don’t know your actions are harmful. Part of our job is to educate people about how they can interact responsibly with the space. I think most people want to do the right thing; they just don’t know how.
What do people want to do in the park that has made visitation so heavy?
The scenic drive — drive a while, get out a while. And people, particularly those who are not from the area, want to understand what Appalachian culture is like. They want to learn about music and the arts and get a glimpse of what life was like. Part of our work is helping people understand that it’s not a quaint photo album of the past, but an active and engaging present. There is a current music scene, there is a current arts scene. There is something that is vibrant and creative and demonstrates great ingenuity all along this road.
Do you have a favorite place to camp or hike?
I like to hike where I can’t see another person. I find that being able to get into wilderness areas of our country, or paths where there are fewer visitors, is where I’m able to find a quietness and reflect. Whether you’re an attorney, a painter, a teacher or an emergency worker, your work life might be kind of busy and loud. Being out in nature gives us a chance to strip that away. It’s you and the elements, and it’s only in that quiet that I think people can look within a little better.
That might mean being at a busy place on the parkway, but being there at 6 o’clock in the morning. This morning, I came in on the parkway at about 7:30. I pulled off into an overlook. There was not another person. I passed maybe three cars in 10 miles. I had a really nice solitude experience in the busiest park in the country.
What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you in a national park?
When I was in my 20s, I was driving with friends along the parkway late at night, trying to find a place to stay, looking on Forest Service land, looking on Park Service land. We were going camping and we couldn’t see in the clearing where we hiked into to set up our tents. Right about dawn, I heard snuffling and snorting and I was, like, ‘Oh no, it’s bears!’ They were grunting and pawing at the tent. I was terrified that I was going to get eaten by a bear.
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to see what was going to kill me and I unzipped the tent a little bit. We’d set up on forest land, but we were adjacent to a pasture. Someone had left a gate open, and there were miniature ponies that had surrounded the tent. They were the cutest little things!
That sounds like a dream come true.
Yeah, it was a dream, but it was a nightmare! I was sure it was going to be a bear. It was kind of funny that miniature ponies scared me so much.