Mary Gibson Scott is retiring from superintendent of Grand Teton National Park on Friday. She talks grizzly bears, wolves and the current state of government. (Wikimedia commons)

Mary Gibson Scott retires from leading Grand Teton National Park

— November 5, 2013

After 33 years with the National Park Service, Grand Teton National Park’s superintendent Mary Gibson Scott is retiring Friday.

Kelsey Dayton

Scott became superintendent of the park in 2004. Her career has taken her from Santa Fe to the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia to Golden Gate to the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, among other stops, before she arrived in Grand Teton.

Before leaving she talked with Peaks to Plains about the challenges of rising to leadership roles as a female in the park service, delisting wolves and grizzly bears and why the current state of government isn’t working.

Why did you decide to retire?

I accomplished a lot of what I set out to do, like opening the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center and the John D. Rockefeller preserve.  … The Craig Thomas Visitor Center needed approval from Washington. I took it and got it approved.

What will you do in retirement?

I plan to see a lot more of the park than I got to as superintendent. … I’ll get to hike and climb more. As superintendent of Grand Teton you don’t get too much of the backcountry experience.

Why did you go into the Park Service?

I decided I would be the superintendent of a large western national park when I first visited Yosemite while I was in graduate school in UCLA. … It was the first National Park I’d been to, but when I saw the efforts of the staff and the issues they were dealing with, I decided that’s what I’d do. … I was accepted into law school but I decided I wanted to work in land management policy and work on land management issues.

You are the only female on the Senior Executive Service, with the National Park Service. Why aren’t there more women in high positions?

It was very difficult for 30 years being a female leader and growing in leadership. It’s never been easy. (The Park Service) tended to be quite more focused on men in leadership. We’ve still got a lot of work to do. The fact that I’m now leaving … there are going to be no females in the senior park management group and that’s something the park service needs to look at.

You said being a woman in the park service and trying to be a leader was hard, how so?

When I started in the Santa Monica Mountains and (I) was supposed to be leading an interagency group on a field trip to explain the issues of the day — well imagine being told then next day, when I reported to my boss, that I hadn’t been professional because I didn’t wear a skirt. Well that didn’t set well. … Things have changed, but they really haven’t.

What do you see as your legacy in Grand Teton?

Besides creating a good relationship with the airport and opening the Rockefeller Preserve, I’ve reduced the maintenance backlog by $100 million, which is very significant over just 10 years. We’ve done a lot of infrastructure work in the park. The two legacy issues that I’ve left that are unique to Grand Teton include the creation of the Wildlife Brigade. In 2007 a jogger was mauled (after surprising a bear and cubs) … It was at the point that the park management team talked about what we could do better to protect wildlife and we created a wildlife brigade. They help educate people about when they see wildlife and keep (people) at a safe distance. The other thing is the NPS Academy, a conservation program we started. … We recruited diverse college-aged students and introduced them to public lands careers. Now other parks are doing it. … To grow something in a park that other regions and parks want because it’s successful is really rewarding.

In your time at the helm, what are the major changes you’ve seen?

The big thing is since 2004 we’ve seen a spiraling into more governing by crisis. … We’ve had shutdowns that were over the weekend or for one day in the past. … But in the last four years we haven’t had a budget in advance of a fiscal year – since 2009. I’d challenge any business owner to run a business without knowing what your budget is month-to-month. That’s not how government is intended to work. (There is) this theme of governing by crisis rather than actually working hard across party lines to get things done. Some people say you get the government you deserve and maybe that’s what’s happening here and people need to tell the people in charge if they don’t like it. During sequestration I took calls from brides that couldn’t have a wedding where they wanted (because it was closed due to sequestration) … we accommodated them elsewhere … and I’d explained how I had few options this late in the fiscal year to make changes. I’d say ‘Have you talked to your elected officials?’ And they’d say ‘No, they don’t listen to me.’ And that to me is an alarm that people aren’t demanding the government we deserve.

The state is asserting its authority to hunt wolves in the John D Rockefeller Parkway. How do you feel about that?

Park superintendents don’t have feelings. We have thoughts on it. … The delisting of wolves and potentially hunting in the parkway has not gone unnoticed by the park service. … I think that is something under discussion in Washington and in other places and it wouldn’t affect just wolves, it would be grizzly bears. … Certainly we do not want to see iconic wildlife like wolves and grizzly bears hunted in the parkway so we should take proactive steps as land managers.

Grizzly bears are likely going to be delisted soon. Will we see an impact on park wildlife when bears can be hunted, if they are hunted outside the park boundaries?

You can take out one wolf in a pack and decimate an entire pack. … Having lost four wolves that frequented Grand Teton and the John D. Rockefeller Parkway … (we’ve seen) that has a ripple effect. I’m concerned about grizzly bears being hunted on our boundaries as well. … The concern is for the bear families that are used to people.

One criticism of your tenure is in regards to the elk reduction program in the park. What do you say to those who oppose the hunt?

It’s in our establishing laws. Eighty percent of the law was about elk reduction and the other part was the legal boundary of the park. That is something I don’t have complete discretion over. I would ask the question ‘Why are we having to hunt elk and do the reduction in Grand Teton when you have a completely restored population of wolves and grizzly bears?’ And the answer is supplemental feeding outside the park and that has resulted in an unnatural situation and created a big population. It is extremely distasteful for our park staff. … There is no appetite for hunting in National Parks. … We would like to see natural regulation of species, but without ending supplemental feeding, that’s not possible.

What is your hope for the park system in the future?

This whole government shutdown, government by crisis — the park service has been caught in the crosshairs. It needs to change. I think it’s naïve to think I can operate a park without funding. … You can go ahead and take the easy way out and wail on a park manager but I don’t make laws, I don’t have that authority, nor do I make appropriations. Here we have a system increasing in visitation and declining in budgets. … Don’t complain to me about sequestration and having to close a road, that’s not a decision I had the latitude to make. I had to make a hard decision in 48 hours. We shouldn’t be running the parks this way and we shouldn’t be running the government this way.

If you could do anything in the park without political recourse or worry about a budget, what would you do?

I don’t think you have enough time to hear what I’d do. If I was unfettered by the politics and the controversy and the cost I’d buy the state lands in a heartbeat, I’d return the Vernon (art) collection to the park, I’d be doing restoration at the hayfield, I’d be doing active restoration of white bark pine in the high country. I’d be doing a lot more research on resource management. … I’d be doing active bear monitoring and bear management and understanding what they are doing and understanding a lot more about how people use the park and how we can educate them. … There is no end to what we could do to keep places like Grand Teton safe and that’s what we should all be working toward regardless of political cost. … Why is this place special and how do we keep it that way? Everything we do should be in the best interest of the park. That question should guide all our policy.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com. Follower her on twitter @Kelsey_Dayton

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Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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  1. Kelsey – Great interview of a great leader in our park. Mary has done fantastic work and had meaningful accomplishments. It is a shame that some have created controversies about things far beyond her control. She has always done what is in the best interest of the park and the majority of its visitors.

    Her comments about the wolves and bears should be heeded. We need to be proactive or we will see these high-order carnivores decimated.

    All of us in Western Wyoming who love the park will miss her.