Mary Risser was named the Natchez Trace Parkway’s new superintendent in November and started her new role in December.
A veteran of the National Park Service for more than 30 years, Risser was most reentry the superintendent of Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado and Utah.
Daily Journal Business Editor Dennis Seid spoke with Risser last week at the Parkway’s headquarters in Tupelo on the heels of the National Park Service’s report that the Natchez Trace Parkway had a $126 million economic impact on the communities along its 444-mile stretch that crosses across Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee.
She oversees a staff that peaks at about 150 during the summer with seasonal hires, and a budget of less than $11 million. The Parkway is the eighth-most visited National Park Service site in the country, but its budget is the 23rd-largest.
Q. Have you gotten settled yet?
A. I’m still getting settled. I’m still getting to know about all the places. When I hear Philadelphia, I’m still thinking about Philadelphia, Pa., not the one in Mississippi.
Q. From your perspective during the short time you’ve been here, what have you discovered about the area and how does the Parkway tie into it?
A. The more I learn about the Parkway and its significance, the happier I am about applying for this job. There are so many different stories to tell, so much history involved with it. I grew up in Pennsylvania, and history was a very big deal for me.
There’s so much to learn here, going back to the very first Native Americans and the three tribes that are recognized here in the Natchez, Choctaw and Chickasaw; the history of the Trace and the boatman who used it: Andrew Jackson using it. … it’s a really, really fascinating place to be.
Q. So you’re almost like a tourist yourself?
A. Right now I am. And that’s kind of interesting. A superintendent years ago told me the best eyes in the park are the ones that are freshest. … So, yeah, I can look at it with fresh eyes and say ‘why didn’t we do things this way?’
Q. Is it your goal to go down all 444 miles of the Parkway and make every stop soon?
A. That was my goal within the first two weeks, to see all of the Trace and to meet all the employees. I was able to do that. We went down to Natchez my first week and visited all the district offices and met the employees that were working. My second week we went up to Nashville. So I’ve seen the whole Parkway and met most of the employees.
Q. What’s the feeling, the attitude of the employees as they face the reality of a tighter budgets, sequestration, etc.?
A. I think it might be a little harder for some of them to recognize that we can’t offer the same level of service that we were able to do 10 years ago when we had twice as many people. So many of them have worked here so long, and this is how they’ve identified themselves. They’re very passionate about it. And that’s an exciting thing to see. We’ve got a great staff, and I’m really excited about them. The management team is just outstanding, every single person on it.
So it’s exciting for me to get here, see the staff work with the staff and work with the potential we have here.
But I think we would be lying if we said that the sequestration and budget cuts didn’t hurt. We did get some portion of those cuts back. Most of the divisions that were identified are what we called the most efficient operations. What we’re trying to identify now are the most sustainable operations. So just because we got the money back doesn’t mean we automatically throw money at it. We want to do what’s best for the long term. and make best use of the money.
Q. You’re responsible for quite a lot on the Parkway – you have a large scope of responsibility.
A. We really do. We have the law enforcement issues, whether its speeding, vehicle accidents. We have the deer, and farther south we have feral hogs. Then there’s resource management issues like threatened and endangered species, water drainages throughout the parkway, and dealing with four to seven different life zones from Mississippi to Tennessee.
Q. How big is your staff?
A. Including our seasonal employees during the summer, I think we’re at 150 to 160 total employees.
Q. That’s not a lot – probably less than people think.
A. It might seem like a big number, but when you spread it over 444 miles, it’s really not.
Q. Have you had a chance to meet with area convention and visitors bureaus to see how they and the Parkway can work together?
A. I’ve scheduled a meeting with Neal McCoy with the Tupelo CVB for this coming week
We’re also involved wit the Mississippi Hills Heritage Alliance and Muscle Shoals Natural Heritage Area; I’ve attended the Natchez Trace Compact meeting in January, so I’m slowly making my way around the area.
Q. Besides the budget, are there any other issues that bubble to the surface that concern you?
A. One thing is bicycle safety. We put in a for a grant with the National Park Foundation to get what is called a transportation scholar. It’s someone from college, higher education level to come in and help us design a program. We’re partnering with the Adventure Biking Association and hope to have a pilot program worked out to enhance biker safety. It’ll probably be something we can introduce in the fall. We’d like to introduce two pilot programs, one here in Tupelo and one up north.
We want to reach out and help educate people about bike safety.
Bikers, it’s a little easier to reach those groups, but here in Tupelo, for example, we’re dealing mostly with commuters, so it’s more of a challenge.
Q. What are your short- and long-term plans for the Parkway?
A. I think I need to be here awhile and get a feel for things rather than come in and make any snap judgments. I also have to learn a lot more about the South.
What worked well out west won’t necessarily work here.
I have a very understanding staff that will tell me, ‘No, that really won’t work here.”
Q. You were out west for many years – how do you feel your experience there translates to your work here?
A. The parks I worked in were all very different. There have been common threads through all of them, but I think the differences have given me a broad perspective and given me a knowledge base to rely on as a manager.
But every now and then something pops up that I haven’t heard before.
Q. And you’ve been with the Park Service for more than 30 years. What’s that been like?
A. I had the privilege to live in the Grand Tetons for six years, and for many that’s a trip of a lifetime. I worked in Yosemite Valley, too. I’ve just had a wonderful career that’s taken me to all these great places. You get a chance to get to know a place.
People associate the National Park Service with Glacier National Park, Yosemite, Grand Tetons. … but there’s also Vicksburg, Shiloh, the Natchez Trace Parkway, and they’re here, they’re in our backyard. … some people just don’t realize it.