During his first week on the job as the new superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Dale Ditmanson met with the Friends of the Smokies and the Great Smoky Mountains Association -- nonprofits that support the park through fundraising.
It was the spring of 2004. Ditmanson, then a 27-year veteran of the National Park Service, had begun his career as a seasonal ranger at Fort Sumter National Monument in South Carolina and had gone on to serve as a park ranger out West at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Canyon De Chelly National Monument and Fossil Butte National Monument. In the early 1990s he was superintendent of Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in Colorado, and had served for four years as assistant superintendent of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Rainbow Bridge National Monument, both in Utah.
Ditmanson's park service career had taken him all over the country, but never had he experienced the level of passion and commitment that he witnessed among Smokies park supporters that first week.
"These were people with deep roots with the history of the park," Ditmanson said. "They had high expectations of how the park and the neighboring communities should pull together. I felt both challenged and embraced."
On Jan. 3, Ditmanson will retire after 36 years with the National Park Service. While serving as superintendent of the Smokies over the past 10 years, Ditmanson received the 2009 Southeast Region's Superintendent of the Year Award and the 2013 Associations of Public Lands' Agency Partner of the Year Award, which he shared with recently retired Deputy Superintendent, Kevin FitzGerald. He also received the Department of the Interior's Honor Award for Meritorious Service.
One of Ditmanson's first goals when he arrived was to complete the Twin Creeks Science and Education Center on Cherokee Orchard Road. Construction costs for the 15,000-square-foot building had escalated to more than $1 million over the original budget, but with help from Gatlinburg, Friends of the Smokies and the Great Smoky Mountains Association, the state-of-the-art facility was dedicated in November 2007.
Ditmanson also made it a priority to reach an agreement on the future of the summer cabins at Elkmont and the completion of the Northshore Road -- two of the park's most contentious and long-standing controversies. Working with neighboring communities, partner groups and NPS staff, the park reached a memorandum of agreement that calls for the preservation of select buildings at Elkmont for historical purposes. With the Northshore Road, a settlement was reached that called for $52 million to go to Swain County, N.C., in lieu of completing the 34-mile stretch of road.