Welcome to the better side of the Smokies
The new Smokies superintendent got his introduction to the North Carolina side of the park amid plates of snacks and the homey trappings of a bed and breakfast in Bryson City last week.
“This is the way I want to come into a community,” said Cassius Cash, who took up his post as superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Feb. 9. “Not some meeting, not some flip chart. It’s about community.”
A group of about 30 politicians, outdoors enthusiasts and community members — representing Swain and other Western North Carolina counties — gathered at the Historic Calhoun House for a two-hour meet-and-greet that featured a few words from Cash and some welcome-to-the-Smokies speeches from the movers and shakers gathered in the room.
But that was about as formal as it got, with the afternoon quickly turning into a more casual forum for attendees to grab a cup of hot cider, munch on a cookie and chat amongst themselves until the opportunity came to bend Cash’s ear for a few minutes.
Diane Cutler, co-owner of Bryson City Bicycles and membership coordinator for the Nantahala Area Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association, liked that.
“It’s a great casual meet-and-greet forum to get to meet people and really feel like you’re going to have a good relationship,” Cutler said.
Cash comes to the park following a year in which a string of three different acting superintendents took the helm while the Park Service sought out a replacement for former superintendent Dale Ditmanson, who retired in January 2014 after 10 years as head of the Smokies.
Good communication will be a hallmark of his time in charge, Cash told the group.
“Good science doesn’t always make good management decisions,” he said, so knowing the communities surrounding the park will be key to success. “Don’t test me on names, but I want to eventually learn every name in here.”
That sentiment — and Cash’s presence in general — left an impression on Bryson City Mayor Tom Sutton, a man whose childhood was spent enjoying the park surrounding his native Bryson City.
“I never met the old superintendent, so we’re glad to have him on the North Carolina side,” Sutton said.
The group did its best to impress on Cash during his time in Bryson City that Swain County is an important park entrance in its own right, that there’s no need for the North Carolina Smokies to play second fiddle to Gatlinburg and Townsend.
“I think there is a perception that the front door of the park is over there, and over here is the backdoor,” Sutton said.
Swain County residents are proud of the museum they established last year in the historic courthouse building, and of the Great Smoky Mountains Association bookstore that now occupies a portion of it. So proud, in fact, that they presented Cash with a painting of the building by Bryson City native Jackie Smith.
“We’re hoping the superintendent will place this in his office, and when he looks at it he’ll think of the good people in Western North Carolina and Swain County who support him and support the park,” said Luke Hyde, owner of the Historic Calhoun House and Friends of the Smokies board member.
“I think our interest at this particular point is just trying to make sure that visitors to the park understand that there’s another big world out here that would be of interest to them,” said Swain County Commissioner Ben Bushyhead.
From what he saw last week, Bushyhead is hopeful that Cash will be willing to partner with gateway communities like Bryson City so that the park helps send tourists into the community and the community in turn points tourists to the park.
Another priority, said Friends of the Smokies board member Steve Woody, needs to be figuring out ways to get more kids out in the park.
“It’s a great big classroom,” he said.
Fortunately for Woody, Cash agrees.
“A lot of folks talk about diversity and the people who come to my park or don’t come to my park,” Cash said. “In my mind it’s a generational issue, and that cuts across all ethnicities.”
Attendees also brought up some more specific issues, like lack of parking at Deep Creek or the possibility of developing mountain biking trails in the park.
Cash said he looks forward to working through these and other concerns.
“Will there be bumps? Probably so, but that’s what all relationships are about,” he said.
Who is Cassius Cash?
New Smokies superintendent Cassius Cash comes into his position as head of the largest national park east of the Mississippi with only five years of experience in the National Parks System under his belt, but park supporters don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing.
Prior to taking his post as superintendent of the Boston National Historical Park and Boston African American National Historic Site, Cash spent 18 years working in various leadership positions in the U.S. Forest Service. Luke Hyde, board member for Friends of the Smokies and Bryson City native, applauds Cash’s experience.
“I respect the man greatly because of his background in forestry, and I think that gives him an insight someone else might not have,” Hyde said.
As superintendent of the Boston parks, Cash worked with the city to open a new visitor center that now welcomes more than 5 million visitors annually, and he also helped secure $4 million to reopen the African Meeting House, the nation’s oldest black church still in its original location.
While working with the Forest Service, with which he began his federal career in 1991, Cash served as an administrative officer in Nebraska, district ranger in Georgia, civil rights officer in Mississippi and, before transferring to Boston, deputy forest supervisor in Oregon’s Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
Cash, a Memphis native, holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Arkansas and completed a non-degree-seeking program in wildlife management at Oregon State University. He’s excited to put his knowledge and experience to use as the Smokies’ 16th permanent superintendent.
“This is the Yellowstone of the east. This is the crown jewel if you want to be east of the Mississippi,” Cash said. “It’s not only a job, but it’s an honor.”
Meet the new superintendent
A second North Carolina meet-and-greet hosting new Smokies superintendent Cassius Cash will be held 4-6 p.m. Thursday, March 5, at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center on U.S. 441 north of Cherokee.