University connections run deep with national and state parks


Both the National Park Service and North Carolina State Parks turn 100 years old this year. All things considered, Western Carolina University probably should help blow out the candles on those birthday cakes. WCU has contributed much to national and state parks, through research assistance, archival support and, perhaps most importantly, people. Beyond those working relationships there is another kinship born of proximity.

The National Park Service was established on Aug. 25, 1916 when President Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating a new federal bureau in the Department of the Interior. The state parks system had its beginnings on March 3, 1916, when Mount Mitchell officially became North Carolina’s first state park. State parks, much like the national parks, had origins in the conservation movements of the turn of the century.
A groundswell of public support for parks came about in the late 1800s because of concerns over environmental degradation, a lack of resource management and the desire for shared spaces that could afford an escape to the general public.

Coupled with an increasing desire for more outdoor recreation, the push for parks carried into the 20th century, including in the Western North Carolina region. Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1934 and construction began on the Blue Ridge Parkway in 1935, while the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site officially opened in 1974.

Today, the state park system has grown from the sole Mount Mitchell site to having 75 protected natural areas in its care, while the NPS manages 59 national parks and 352 other units, such as historical sites, trails, monuments and seashores.


Several majors offered by WCU can lead to a career with parks. Among the academic programs of interest to students pursuing such jobs are parks and recreation management, forest resources, hospitality and tourism, and natural resource conservation and management, along with geology and environmental science.

“A lot of the students attracted to the programs in the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resources   — natural resources conservation and management, geology, and environmental science — became interested in the major because they love spending time outside, like science and care about the environment,” said Mark Lord, WCU department head. “By earning a degree in one of these fields, they can pursue a career that will keep them outside and make a difference in the conservation and management, and understanding, of our environment and natural resources. The career opportunities are strong in these areas. A geologist, for example, shows up on almost all lists, of top outdoor careers.”

Harold Kelly ’09 returned to finish a bachelor’s degree at WCU after what he described as “falling in love with hiking” during weekend trips to the WNC mountains. “I left an office job where I was making a good living, but not happy,” Kelly said. “I started at WCU and began volunteering in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”

He later attended a national park law enforcement academy as an intern, then was a full-time student hire for a couple of years. Upon graduation with a bachelor’s degree in parks and recreation management, he was hired by the Natchez Trace Parkway. Recently, he transferred as a park ranger to Congaree National Park in South Carolina. Kelly also serves on the Southeastern Regional Special Events Team, performing dignitary protection details such as the papal visit to Philadelphia and commemorative occasions such as the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s march in Alabama and the 150th anniversaries of Civil War battles.

“The guidance and tutelage I received while at WCU led me to the career of my dreams,” he said. “I do what I do to try and serve my country and my community in the best way I know how. I want to make a difference in some small way. I found my calling, to protect these special places.”


Prior to becoming a WCU professor, Ben Tholkes worked as a NPS ranger. He still “works” for the park service, now as a volunteer.

While the parks and recreation management program ranks prominently, other WCU degree paths can lead to a parks career. Communications, fine and performing arts, and history also provide a foundation for jobs with state and national parks.

“I feel the graduate history program at Western was perfect for me,” said Tim Van Cleave MA ’03, an interpretive ranger with Cane River Creole National Historical Park in Natchitoches, Louisiana. “The program also made me realize the importance of American history and how to connect with people. Early in my graduate work, I realized a Ph.D. was not in the cards and the National Park Service felt like a perfect fit.

“My time at Western also made me realize I could travel all around the country, work at parks and study new eras of American history. To fulfill my degree requirements, I traveled to Alaska to work at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. That would be my first seasonal position with the park service and, as I reflect 16 years later, I’m glad I took the chance. It really paid off,” Van Cleave said.

Holly Jean Holst ’03 is a park ranger and coordinator for volunteers and Women’s History Month at Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia. As an interpretive park ranger, she develops tours and programs based on original research to provide meaningful connections between visitors, from all over the world, to the cultural resources at Independence National Historical Park. “The historical events I discuss are complex in nature and cover a timeframe of more than 300 years —  from early American history through the American Revolutionary War, Civil War, Civil Rights Movement and beyond,” Holst said. “In addition, I coordinate programming, exhibits and special events to commemorate women’s history from the American Revolution to Women’s Rights Movement. Occasionally, I receive requests for offsite presentations for teachers, community groups and civic organizations.”

As a history major, Holst said she was encouraged by Scott Philyaw ’83, associate professor of history, to minor in parks and recreation management, because she had an interest in working in public history at a historic site.

Then there are the careers created by parks through tourism. “WCU is fortunate to have these natural resources areas close to serve as a great laboratory for student learning,” said Steve Morse, director of WCU’s Hospitality and Tourism Program. “This makes WCU the closest four-year institution to the most-visited national park in the U.S. Having a natural resource laboratory close to campus and all the private sector hospitality and tourism businesses and organizations has provided many internship and work experience opportunities for students in both the public sector and private sectors, including the lodging, restaurant and food service, attractions, and the ever-growing outdoor adventure tourism industry. The winners of this location advantage are public sector and private sector hospitality and tourism businesses, and WCU students who gain valuable experience in building their careers in the hospitality and tourism industry.

“The support WCU has received from both the public sector and private sector hospitality and tourism businesses associated with tourism in the national parks and state parks has been a great success,” he said. “Many schools around the country would love to have the advantage of having these natural resources so close and a private sector that values sustainable hospitality and tourism and values the students provided by WCU. Time and time again, the national and state parks have reached out to WCU for support from faculty and students.”


WCU approaches internships as an integral part of a student’s education and an opportunity for professional development, with parks-related opportunities being no exception. Myranda Sherrill, a senior from Granite Falls majoring in parks and recreation management, did an internship with GSMNP from September to December 2015 at the Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center. “I loved greeting people when they walked into the center and talking with them about their travels and hearing their stories,” Sherill said. “Seeing the mountains every day and watching the elk roam through the fields was majestic. I never grew tired of it, and the people that I worked with were wonderful. I learned so much from them and have carried lessons I’ve learned with me ever since.”

Erin Baker is another senior majoring in parks and recreation management. From Nebo, she also is the secretary for the WCU Parks and Recreation Management Club and has done two internships with Lake James State Park. “I did anything and everything that was needed of me,” Baker said. “I cleaned bathrooms — you have to start somewhere, right? — mowed grass, did trail maintenance, worked in the concessions stands, led interpretive programs. I was an office assistant when needed and on top of all of that, I was able to work with angry customers and solve their problems to the best of my ability.”

Looking forward to a December 2016 graduation, Baker is interested in becoming a park ranger with a state park or working with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

“As part of the Parks and Recreation Management Program requirements, I had to do several internships,” said Rebecca Whalen ’07, now the chief ranger for visitor experience at Pocahontas State Park in Virginia. “I was lucky enough to land an internship with Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. The following summer, I was able to work at Goose Creek State Park in Washington, North Carolina, and the following fall semester, I was able to work in the Smokies again, this time as a paid employee, with a ranger hat and everything.”

In her position, Whalen develops, manages and presents special events, environmental education and visitor experience programs at Virginia’s largest (8,100 acres) and most visited (about a million people a year) state park. Her intern experiences both steered and prepared her toward her current job.

“In both the Smokies and at Goose Creek, I led environmental education programs and provided visitors with park maps, brochures, and locations of restrooms,” Whalen said. “I really enjoyed meeting people and providing excellent customer service. Teaching people about the natural world came easy to me and I loved to talk.”


Numerous working relationships with state and national parks, from conducting analysis on how land use
affects national parks to service learning projects in salamander monitoring and terrestrial invertebrate studies to facilitating youth outdoor programs in state parks, as well as
numerous others.

Brett Riggs, WCU’s Sequoyah Distinguished Professor of Cherokee Studies, is working on an NPS-sponsored project to document associated sites in Tennessee with the Cherokee Removal of 1838, better known as the Trail of Tears. “My class last semester worked on a sign plan to mark the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail from Nantahala Lake down to Murphy,” Riggs said.

WCU’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines has a national reputation for its work, as faculty and students have worked collaboratively with the NPS for more than 10 years. Founded at Duke University in 1986, the program conducts research focusing on beach replenishment and other forms of shoreline stabilization, hazard risk mapping on barrier islands, sedimentary processes on shorelines, and mitigation of hurricane property damage on barrier islands. The program relocated to the WCU campus in 2006. Rob Young, the program’s director, has been instrumental along with his students in changing how coastal parks are planning for the impacts of rising sea levels and maintaining infrastructure.

WCU’s Forensics Science Program assisted GSMNP with rapid-response DNA testing following an incident of a black bear biting a man. Maureen Peters Hickman and Brittania Bintz, program forensic research scientists, conducted lab tests to determine if any bear found in the proximity of the May attack scene was the bear that actually inflicted the injuries. The desire to avoid the unnecessary killing of wildlife while balancing public safety is an important issue for park staff.


For the past four years, WCU’s Hunter Library staff worked with the Smokies and the state’s Western Regional Archives to select Smokies material to scan, describe and upload for easy access. The collection is extensive, with almost 10,000 pages and images, including photographs, historic documents, government reports, maps, surveys of land, letters, journals, booklets, artifacts and administrative records.

“A lot of this material is fragile and otherwise inaccessible,” said Anna Fariello, WCU associate professor for digital initiatives and project director. “Having it online definitely increases accessibility to the material and fulfills the preservation aspect that is incredibly important.”

A big part of Special Collections is the personal correspondence, maps, photographs and other belongings of Horace Kephart. An Ivy League-educated librarian who came to WNC in the summer of 1904, he was a leading proponent to establish Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Kephart wrote numerous outdoors articles for national publications and authored the classics “Our Southern Highlanders” and “Camping and Woodcraft,” both remaining in print, and a posthumously published novel, “Smoky Mountain Magic.” A peak in the park was named for him and he remains well-regarded figure in Smokies history. He died in 1931. The Mountain Heritage Center will open a major Kephart exhibit in the center’s Hunter Library gallery this fall.

Crucial aspects of the formation of the Great Smokies as a national park, the groundwork and building of trails and infrastructure and much more are preserved at Hunter Library. The digital archive makes available to the public a collection of almost 100 maps, including several showing proposed park boundaries at various points in time, and includes maps hand-drawn by Kephart. More than 600 photographs document the activities of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, an influential regional group, then and now. Over 300 photographs, drawings, and documents tell the story of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Construction photographs show the building of the “Skyway” from Newfound Gap to Clingmans Dome, and documents relating to the Cataloochee Valley include land surveys, title searches, maps and interviews with families associated with the community. While the images are protected by copyright, they can be used for research, education and personal use. All images and documents can be found at digitalcollections.wcu.edu.

Library staff also produced a brochure based on its digital collection “Great Smoky Mountains: A Park for America.” North Carolina welcome centers are distributing the tri-fold brochures, which provide illustrated, at-a-glance information on the history of America’s most visited national park and how to get more information through the digital collection housed at the library. The nine welcome centers are located on interstates and promote attractions, accommodations and events to travelers.


Providing volunteer opportunities is part of the NPS centennial goals to get communities around national parks involved and invested.


WCU faculty, staff and students adopted a section of Deep Creek Trail and four campsites in 1994 and continue to care for those areas.

“The greatest reward in my current position is supervising a strong core of volunteers, from senior citizens to college students, who make many programs and special events possible for Independence National Historical Park,” Holst said. “They are passionate about history and driven to serve the National Park Service. In recent years, we’ve had an increased number of college students from area universities who want a career with the National Park Service or in the field of public history. This allows me to train and prepare the next generation of historical interpreters. That is something very personal for me, because I began my career with the National Park Service through volunteer opportunities.”

University students, faculty, staff and alumni make major volunteer contributions to neighboring parks from. “We’ve made use of volunteer hours from WCU students and faculty for many years on a great many projects,” said Paul E. Super, science coordinator with the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center at Purchase Knob in GSMNP and the park’s research coordinator. “I can speak about projects that relate to the park’s research program. In 2004, faculty and students from WCU helped us build tent platforms for our Purchase Knob field station, which have been used by hundreds of students and researchers since that time. Volunteering through Discover Life in America, hundreds of volunteers from WCU and elsewhere have contributed over 60,000 hours to the park’s All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory, a project to identify and map the distribution of all species found within the park.”

In 1995, the WCU Parks and Recreation Management Club adopted the Deep Creek Trail and four campsites in the Smokies near Bryson City, and have maintained them regularly ever since. “The trail adoption on Deep Creek was one of the simpler things we have come across,” club secretary Baker said. “One of our professors, Ben Tholkes, actually is in charge of that.”

Tholkes, an associate professor in the Parks and Recreation Management Program, has a long-standing history with the NPS, having spent seven years on staff, beginning with a ranger career at Mount Rainier National Park before coming to WCU. And he could well be the poster child for park volunteerism. “For the past 20-plus years, I have worked as a ‘VIP: Volunteer in the Park’ with the Great Smokies,” Tholkes said. “I began working in the Oconaluftee Visitors Center and, over the years, I have worked with the elk programs there and in Cataloochee Valley. I have assisted with searches in the park, I have trained trail crew, interns and park rangers in first aid and CPR… And I’ve played music at various park festivals.”


Parks are places of refuge and solace, preservation and conservation, research and rediscovery. Those assets are recognized perhaps more now than ever. “Our programs at Western benefit tremendously by our location,” Lord said.
“We are situated in the heart of the Southern Appalachians and surrounded by 6,000-foot peaks, state and national parks,
and some of the highest biological diversity in the world. Students in all of our programs will spend lots of time outside as part of their courses. Past their studies, a lot of our students love the area for the outdoor recreational opportunities at their doorstep.”

Those doorstep opportunities were cited when WCU was named “Top Outdoor Adventure College” for the third straight year by a Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine online poll. The monthly magazine for outdoor sports, health and adventure travel in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic announced the results in May.

“It’s not surprising that WCU has taken the Top Adventure College Contest honors for the third year in a row,” said Travis Hall, author of the magazine’s feature article on the win. “Amidst a backdrop of Appalachian peaks, crystal clear trout streams and rivers, and seemingly endless singletrack, WCU has cultivated an outdoor culture that only gets richer with each passing school year.”