When Dale Ditmanson moved from Philadelphia in 2004 to take over the Superintendent duties at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, he received a valuable bit of advice from former superintendent Karen Wade. “She told me, ‘be prepared to be embraced by the community,’” Ditmanson says.
That single comment set the stage for the next ten years of his life, a span of time during which he would become intensely familiar with the passion folks in this region have for the country’s most-visited park. “I’d never seen that in any other park area I’ve worked with,” Ditmanson tells WUOT News. “It’s not that it’s not there, but it’s just that I hadn’t seen it to that level and it made me realize the task I had in front of me to live up to that expectation and to take care of this place.”
As he prepares for his retirement, Ditmanson now has the luxury of looking back on some of the accomplishments of his tenure. Aside from a series of infrastructure improvements made possible by the Recovery Act and the celebration of the park’s 75th anniversary, Ditmanson points to the resolution of two long-running issues: the Road to Nowhere and the Elkmont Historic District.
In 2010, the federal government agreed to pay out $52 million to the residents of Swain County, North Carolina. The payout was in lieu of a road promised to the community after the main access road into Swain County was buried during the development of Fontana Lake and the park. For decades, the road remained unfinished while officials argued whether it would destroy some of the park’s character to build a road through it. Although, the government has yet to fulfill its financial obligations, Ditmanson says he knows it was the right decision. “It is an agreement that I fully believe is the right answer to that issue of not building that road and preserving the back country of the Smokies.”
Ditmanson also takes pride in the compromise that eventually resolved a dispute over a group of rundown historic cabins in the Elkmont area of the park. The cabins were built just after the turn of the 20th century as summer getaways for some of the region’s wealthier residents. But over time, they fell into disrepair and a park management plan adopted in the mid 1990’s recommended their demolition. Preservationists objected and the resulting compromise will allow the Park Service to tear down some of the cabins, while preserving others. Two of the buildings have already been renovated and are available to park visitors.
During his 36 years with the Park Service, Ditmanson and his wife Suzanne never spent more than five years with any one park, except the Smokies. And he thinks he’s found a place to stay for this next stage in his life. “We’ve got some roots that have been placed and we love East Tennessee,” he says.
Despite his constant involvement in the park over the past ten years, Ditmanson says he’s comfortable with his decision to retire. “As someone told me the other day, 'You’re going to step off at the train platform and the train’s going to keep going.'”
Ditmanson’s retirement is effective at the end of the day January 3. Last month, the Park Service appointed Big Cypress National Preserve Superintendent Pedro Ramos to serve as GSMNP’s acting superintendent.