Francis, who was admired and well liked by rangers in the Smokies, is uniquely equipped to forge an increased spirit of cooperation between the Smokies and the Parkway. In fact, when the subject of cooperation between the parks came up during a recent phone interview with Francis, he was able to pass the phone to Smokies Superintendent Dale Ditmanson, who had driven over from Gatlinburg for a visit. The two worked down the hall from each other for a year and a half.
“What that relationship will do is when one of us is thinking of a project or looking for resources, it will be just as easy to pick up the phone and talk to each other as it used to be to walk around the corner,” Ditmanson said.
Francis said the two parks have worked together in the past to catch poachers and enhance visitor outreach.
The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway terminates at the doorstep of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park outside Cherokee, making the two national parks intrinsically linked.
“But we are spread out along 469 miles through 29 counties,” said Francis. “So there are more communities and neighbors to get to know along the Parkway. So it is incredibly important to have good relationships with our Parkway neighbors to help us protect the beautiful views people have come to appreciate with the Parkway.”
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park with more than 9 million visitors, while the Blue Ridge Parkway is the most visited unit in the national park system with about 20 million visitors.
Francis twice served as interim superintendent for the Smokies when the park was in between leaders for stretches of up to a year.
The two parks share the mission of teaching visitors about the ecology and culture in the Southern Appalachians. They also face similar environmental threats, such as air pollution, hemlock woolly adelgid infestation and encroaching development.
“The very purpose of the Blue Ridge Parkway was to connect the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Shenandoah National Park,” Francis said. “We would like for it to be a seamless network of parks from the Smokies up the Parkway to Shenandoah.”
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is massive, with a territory of more than half a million acres, while the Parkway has far less land — only 100 yards wide in some places. But that long and skinny nature presents its own challenges.
“Phil has a very distinguished career and a long line of success in protecting the resources of the Smokies, and he will carry that on at the Parkway,” Ditmanson said.
Francis grew up in Grover, N.C. He started working for the National Park System in the early 1970s. By the early 1980s, Francis had worked his way up to leadership positions, serving at a sequence of parks of increasing size and complexity. Francis came to the Smokies in 1994.
“The Blue Ridge position is an excellent fit for Phil’s skills, but we will certainly miss him here at the Smokies,” said Bob Miller, spokesperson for the Great Smokies. “He’s made many friends in both North Carolina and Tennessee. Phil has provided the Park staff with consistent guidance and direction. He has also helped steer us through some major and often contentious planning processes.”
The Parkway traditionally has not placed a heavy emphasis on reaching out to neighboring communities. Doing a better job connecting with Parkway neighbors is not only a priority for Francis, it is also the forte of the Parkway’s new deputy superintendent, Martha Bogle, who was also hired this year. Bogle’s success in drumming up community support and forming local partnerships at her last post at Congaree National Park in South Carolina earned her the Fran Mainella National Park Service Award this year.