New park superintendent David Szymanski has gained global experience

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Open spaces should be accessible to everyone, said David Szymanski, the new superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

Source of this article: The Thousand Oaks Acorn, November 15, 2012

OUTDOORSMAN—David Szymanski is the new superintendent for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Szymanski has worked with parks throughout the country as well as in Madagascar. He also knows the ins and outs of dealing with Congress on park issues.

The recreation area is an urban national park encompassing 154,000 acres of mountains and coastline in Ventura and Los Angeles counties. About 35 million visitors a year use the network of local, state and federal parks interwoven with private lands and communities.

While the National Park Service is known for its iconic parks, such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, the federal agency also owns many smaller parks like the Santa Monica Mountains that are embedded in the communities they serve.

“We can’t get anything done unless we work with those communities,” said Szymanski, who is brainstorming ideas to acquire more land, protect resources, enhance park access and signage, and improve outreach efforts to people who don’t visit open spaces.

“As the demographics of the country change, we want to make sure that we’re relevant and they see the parks as an important part of their lives,” he said.

Szymanski, 44, began his new job in mid-October. He is staying at the Homewood Suites Hotel in Agoura and will soon move to a home in Newbury Park with his wife, Elaine, and two children.

“There was no job in the park service that I was more interested in than this one,” said Szymanski, who hopes to stay in the region for at least seven years.

“I get really attached to every place I am and want to make a difference. In a more complex place like this, there really is not a lot of value in someone here for just three or four years,” he said.

Former park superintendent Woody Smeck, who transferred to Yosemite National Park last spring, said Szymanski’s solid background in legislation and partnerships will serve him well in managing the patchwork of jurisdictions in the local mountains.

Szymanski was one of six finalists for the job.

“I expected David to build on past successes and achieve great things for the mountain resources, visitors and communities,” said Smeck, who was on the selection committee that chose his replacement.

Smeck began his career in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in 1991 as a landscape architect and environmental planner and became superintendent of the area about 10 years ago.

He said Szymanski will receive support from a “dream team” of elected officials and government partners who are devoted to preserving local open spaces.

Szymanski formerly worked at Lewis and Clark National Historical Park in Oregon and Washington, where he used a cooperative management style modeled after that used in the Santa Monica Mountains’ area. The concept promotes exchanges of goods and services among partner agencies.

Szymanski studied engineering at University of Michigan. During his senior year, he took a class on the literature of the American wilderness, which altered his career path.

Szymanski has 19 years of experience working with communities, parks and protected areas, including 14 years with the National Park Service.

In the 1990s, Szymanski spent two years with the Peace Corps in the newly established national park system of Madagascar, which is vulnerable to development and the customs of local populations that need farmland and tree fuel to subsist.

“There weren’t any visitor facilities and very limited opportunities for the local communities to make any revenue off of the park. We wanted to work with them to see if there was some way to stop forest clearing for agriculture and see what we could offer to help (develop commerce).”

He worked at Everglades and Voyageurs national parks, and was a Bevinetto Congressional Fellow, working on a Senate subcommittee where he provided analyses and briefings for bills that affect federal open spaces.

“Every park requires an act of Congress to change their boundaries,” said the park superintendent, adding that the experience in D.C. taught him to collaborate with others and understand how politics affects wildlife refuges and national parks.

On Nov. 10, Szymanski joined community leaders at the new King Gillette Visitor Center south of Calabasas to honor Margot Feuer, Sue Nelson and Jill Swift, who spearheaded the movement to preserve the Santa Monica Mountains, and to commemorate the 34th anniversary of the National Recreational Area.