An Interview with Phil Francis, Board Chair for the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks
“As a retiree, I knew that I wanted to protect the NPS, its parks and programs…”
Phil Francis served as a National Park Service employee for over forty years. His numerous assignments in national parks across the country have given Mr. Francis the wisdom and experience of a career employee. His status as an NPS retiree gives him the freedom to speak openly and honestly about NPS-related matters. Though he retired in 2013, Phil remains heavily engaged in the current issues and policies impacting our national parks, especially in his capacity as Board Chair for the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.
We asked Mr. Francis a few questions about his time with the NPS, the challenges facing our parks and public lands today, and his vision for the Coalition’s future.
You’ve been with the NPS since 1972. How did you start your career in the Park Service?
Phil Francis: I began my career as a seasonal GS-4 Park Ranger at Kings Mountain National Military Park and continued as a seasonal employee until I graduated from Clemson. Working in a small park required me to do a range of duties such as working the visitor center desk, presenting hundreds of interpretive programs to the public, and performing basic law enforcement duties and maintenance tasks. I remember one of my assigned duties was to down diseased hazardous pine trees with axes. My blood turned green quickly as I thoroughly enjoyed the public interaction and became committed to the NPS mission.
You spent forty-one years as an NPS employee in numerous parks and capacities. Could you tell us a little about where you’ve worked and what positions you held in your years with the NPS?
Phil Francis: After graduating from college in 1974, I was very fortunate to obtain a permanent position as a GS-5 Administrative Services Assistant at Kings Mountain. My duties included the full array of administrative responsibilities and I was able to attend management team meetings along with the division chiefs. In the summers, I volunteered to also serve as the camp director of a Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) program in addition to performing my administrative duties. It was my first experience as a supervisor and I loved working with young people to accomplish maintenance work, as well as teaching environmental education programs.
In 1977, I applied for an internship and was lucky to be selected as an intake trainee in the National Capital Region (NCR). In addition to working in various administrative offices in the NCR Regional Office, I was assigned to work at several parks, including Prince William Forest Park, Harpers Ferry Center, Harpers Ferry NHP, and National Capital Parks-East. I attended the Introduction to NPS Operations at the Albright Training Center. I also volunteered to teach NPS classes, which I enjoyed and did for several years thereafter. All of these diverse experiences were of great benefit as they broadened my skill set and allowed me to form new relationships that would help me later in my career.
After completing my internship, I was selected as the Administrative Officer of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, where I served from 1979-1984. I also served as the camp director of a YCC program again. My time at Chick-Chatt exposed me to external partnerships for the first time and I saw the power and potential risks associated with these relationships. In 1984, I was selected as the Administrative Officer at Shenandoah National Park, and 1989 I became the Administrative Officer at Yosemite National Park. My time spent working in Shenandoah and Yosemite was a period of tremendous professional growth. Those parks placed such great emphasis on protecting natural and cultural resources, and Yosemite was by far the largest and most complex park I had worked in up to that point.
In 1991, I was selected as the Associate Regional Director of the Southwest Region where I served for two years. Santa Fe was a great place to live and I was able to work with wonderful people in the regional office and the 38 parks that it served.
In 1994, due to a major NPS reorganization, the Santa Fe Regional Office was one of three to be abolished. Fortunately, I was offered the position of Deputy Superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where I served for 11 years until I was selected Superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway in 2005. In the Smokies, I was very involved in external issues, as we managed four environmental impact statements concurrently and we had strong relationships with local communities. We amended the General Management Plan (GMP) at Great Smoky Mountains NP and completed the first GMP for the Blue Ridge Parkway during its 75th anniversary year.
During my career, I was fortunate to work with many excellent employees and was very lucky to have had so many great assignments.
What drew you to the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks?
Phil Francis: As I assumed greater responsibility throughout my career, I was exposed to numerous external issues that affected our parks. As managers, I noticed we were often required to follow talking points developed by political employees who seemed to be less committed to the NPS mission than we felt appropriate. Many of my peers agreed, and we became more and more frustrated with the political realities of the time. As a retiree, I knew that I wanted to protect the NPS and its parks and programs. For the first time in years, I could speak out in a completely open and honest fashion.
CPANP is known as the Voice of Experience regarding parks. Do you feel that your career in different parks and positions has given you a broad understanding of the issues facing the NPS today?
Phil Francis: Definitely. In addition to my assigned career duties, I volunteered to take on additional responsibilities which helped me to gain important experiences and develop friendships. All of this work helped me to better understand NPS issues and the various ways to address them.
What are the biggest challenges facing our parks and public lands right now?
Phil Francis: The budget is a mess. With increasing interest on the rapidly increasing national debt, “discretionary” budgets are being squeezed to the point that the NPS may never receive adequate funding. This financial challenge, combined with increasing use of the parks and recent policy changes, greatly challenge the ability of the NPS to meet its fundamental mission of resource protection and visitor enjoyment.
What sets CPANP apart from other organizations working to protect our parks and public lands?
Phil Francis: I think that the fact that CPNAP has so many retirees as members, and the willingness of these members to get involved, has made the Coalition extremely credible and effective.
How can members become more involved? What does CPANP need to continue to succeed?
Phil Francis: We need to develop our capacity to effectively address timely issues, improve our communication, and expand our partnerships. CPANP members can contribute in a variety of ways – by sharing their thoughts with members of Congress and the current administration, helping the Coalition financially, signing on to Coalition letters, encouraging other eligible people to join, and by volunteering to help spread the word on specific issues through letters to the editor, interviews with the media, and visits to representatives on Capitol Hill.
What are your goals for CPANP as the current Chair?
Phil Francis: My goal is to expand the capacity of our organization to ensure our effectiveness in accomplishing our strategic plan, ensuring the continued to growth of our membership, and continuing to strengthen our communications with Congress, our partner organizations, the parks, and Americans across the country.