RICHLAND COUNTY, SC — While the new superintendent at Congaree National Park doesn’t expect major changes at the park, his background in cultural rather than natural resources hints at another way to celebrate what most visitors see as a natural wonderland.
Tracy Stakely will take over as the park’s top administrator in January, replacing Tracy Swartout, who left for a position at Mount Rainier National Park. Stakely, 46, currently is the chief of cultural landscapes in the Atlanta regional office of the National Park Service. His focus in his 14 years with the NPS has been on documenting history of parks and facilities.
He has served short-term assignments at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield and Mammoth Cave National Park, which whetted his appetite for working in a park.
“My (park service) experience has been all in regional office settings,” Stakely said. “Other superintendents usually start in parks and stay in parks. I wanted to get out into a park.”
He has walked only the boardwalk portion of the trails at Congaree. He looks forward to exploring the other trails and the off-trail portions of the 26,000-acre park in southern Richland County.
“I’m not going to come in and change things up,” Stakely said. “They’ve been running smoothly.”
Congaree’s nearly 11,000 acres of old-growth forest in the bottomlands of the Congaree River are touted as the largest such expanse in the country. The massive trees and diverse wildlife in the forest engenders have prompted the park to be honored as a Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Globally Important Bird Area.
The area also has a rich history. Native Americans gathered near the convergence of the Congaree and Wateree rivers. Important trade routes passed through the area during the Colonial period. Soldiers camped in the swamp during the Revolutionary and Civil wars.
The community surrounding the park had some of the highest rates of African-American landownership in the state in the decades after the Civil War. And finally, the timber industry vs. nature lovers battle that led to the formation of the park is a classic tale of the environmental struggles of the 1960s and 1970s.
The park began exploring new ways to tell those stories with a Congaree Campfire Chronicles living history program in the past few years. With his background, Stakely suspects he will be encouraging more historical story-telling and research in the park.
“The park’s cultural history has received some well-deserved attention lately, and helped the park to forge stronger bonds with Lower Richland in particular,” said John Grego, president of Friends of Congaree Swamp. “Selecting someone with Tracy’s background is a strategic and far-sighted choice on the part of the National Park Service.”
Of course, the natural wonders of the park are so great they’ll never take a back seat to the cultural history. In fact, another new leader recently took over the Old-Growth Bottomland Forest Research and Education Center, which is housed in the park’s former visitors center.
Frank Henning, who started in the position last month, has a doctorate in horticulture. He has focused on water resource issues and has worked as a liaison between federal programs and land grant universities.
Henning said he is “amazed by the depth and quality of research” done out of the Congaree center, which hosts scientists studying in the park and coordinates research projects in other Southeastern parks.