Cassius Cash, the Smokies’ First African-American Superintendent, Aims to Help the Park Evolve

In Cover Stories by Clay Duda2 Comments

Streaks of early morning sunshine cut through the trees, casting long shadows across the gravel parking lot as kids pile out of a bus near the start of the Little River Trail. Dew still clings to leaves and rocks. The forest is mostly still on this burgeoning spring day, the silence cut only by the dull roar of the Little River nearby. Today these 14 students, set loose from school for a week on spring break and brought in to explore these woods near Gatlinburg by the Boys and Girls Club of the Tennessee Valley, will get a guided tour of the outdoors from the man charged with overseeing this diverse, rippled landscape: Superintendent Cassius Cash, head of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“How many of y’all have been to the park before?” he asks the kids, many still groggy from the hour-and-a-half bus ride from Powell. More than half of their hands go up—a good sign, Cash later says—but for some, today marks their first real hiking experience into the woods. When all’s said and done they’ll trek a little less than 5 miles along the rushing waterway, taking in sights and sounds of wildlife and waterfalls.

“I grew up in Memphis, and we didn’t have national parks close to Memphis,” Cash opens up. “So I was that kid that always watched scary movies, and where do bad things happen in scary movies? [he waits for a reply] The woods! That’s right. And I still meet a lot of kids today that are scared of the woods, and I want to change that.”

This is the first of many speeches Cash will give to varied groups of kids throughout the summer as he takes on his own challenge to “Hike 100”—that is, to hike 100 miles of park trails this year in celebration of the National Park Service’s centennial, its 100th birthday. Of course, the GSMNP isn’t quite that old (it was founded in 1934), but that matters less to Cash than connecting with the kids. It’s part of his vision for the future, and not just the future of this national park but also for future generations. By opening up a younger audience to the wonders of the natural world he hopes to instill a vested and lasting interest in preserving it.

“That’s part of what I promised to bring to the table when I interviewed for this job,” he later says, and Hike 100 is a key part of that. It’s been a little more than a year since Cash took the helm of the GSMNP, the most popular national park in the country, a position his calls a “dream job.” He’s also the park’s first African-American superintendent, no small feat in a park system that employs only about two dozen minority superintendents overseeing its 410 units. His is an unlikely story that took a turn in college, when he landed an internship with the Forest Service, and over the past year he says he’s been surprised to learn the power of his story in connecting with people like himself: some minority, some inner-city, some just not given the opportunity to visit national parks and experience their allure. He thinks more people of different backgrounds would and should enjoy the woods that he’s come to love and has built a career on, and that’s the crux of his focus on the future.

Cash will put in 100 miles this year—and probably a lot more—but the most important thing to him is taking time to talk with these children and become their friend (a promise he makes to this group early on). Once their boots are kicking up dust on the trail he doesn’t waste time. He bounces from one young face to the next making small talk, prodding them about their outdoor experiences and what they mean to these young minds. But most of all he seems to listen, and throughout the three-hour hike, some kids start to open up. Over the summer he’ll walk through his hiking miles with 20 different groups of kids coming from an array of backgrounds. It’s not necessarily about just reaching out to more people of color, he says, but all demographics that may not know about or may not have access to the gem of a national park just a few minutes down the road from their homes in East Tennessee or Western North Carolina. 

Beyond his lofty goals of inspiring the next generation to love and support this park, Cash must also deal with his daily administrative duties and management of the park, overseeing its varied resources, hundreds of employees, and thousands of volunteers. It’s a constant balancing act of being both welcoming and prudent, accessible to millions of visitors yet accountable for protecting and promoting its natural splendor. If the Smokies were a bona-fide city, he’d be its 16th mayor.

GSMNP Superintendent Cassius Cash talks with a group of kids from the Boys and Girls Club on the first hike of his ‘Hike 100’ initiative. He plans to walk 100 miles with different youth groups to celebrate the National Park Service’s centennial.Clay Duda

GSMNP Superintendent Cassius Cash with a group of kids from the Boys and Girls Club on the first hike of his ‘Hike 100’ initiative. He plans to walk 100 miles with different youth groups to celebrate the National Park Service’s centennial.

Before Cassius Cash set off for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff to pursue a degree in medicine, he was a Boy Scout. And even before that he was just a kid who loved watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom in his family’s home in Memphis—his earliest memories of being intrigued by the outdoors. He’d later come to realize that those young life experiences, from a fascination with nature that was beamed through the living room TV to the plethora of merit badges he earned working his way up the ranks in Boy Scouts, were laying the groundwork for a career centered on the natural world.

It’s a cool spring day as he recounts his early life and the twists and turns that landed him in this pristine corner office, in a crisp green Park Ranger uniform, just off Highway 441 near Gatlinburg. This is the park’s headquarters, an unassuming one-story building lined with stone just outside of Gatlinburg. Cast-iron chandeliers hang above the wood-paneled lobby, a space that more closely resembles a living room than a waiting area, with three plush sofas and a coffee table centered on a fire place, just off of Cash’s office. Paintings capturing the mystic blue haze of the Smokies hang on the walls next to portraits of former superintendents, a cast Cash will likely someday join.

A light snow flutters outside the window, perhaps the last of the season, as Cash leans forward from his office perch, hands clasped in his lap. “Boy Scouts was my turning point, and when I talk to young kids a lot of times I talk about being a Boy Scout,” he says (Cash now serves on the local Boy Scout Pack Committee in Gatlinburg). “We had skill awards, and when I came back home years later my mom brought out my old belt with skill awards on it. It was like, ‘oh my God!’ It had badges for camping, community service, first aid, and a lot of other things. It was like a string of things that showed my career on that belt, the type of things I’m doing now.”

Even from a young age Cash, now 47, was intent on finding a career dedicated to helping others, much like his parents had done. His father was a detective with the Memphis Police Department, his mother a cosmetologist specializing in creating hair pieces for kids undergoing chemotherapy treatment. Both have since retired.

For a long time, he saw himself in the white lab coat of a doctor. “I thought that was the only way I could help people,” he says. But a college run-in with a recruiter from the National Forest Service triggered change, from a white coat to a green coat—the uniform worn by rangers in the Forest Service and Park Service, two federal agencies where Cash would work for decades to come. He takes pride in that uniform, checking his cuff links and brushing off dust as he sits down to talk.

It was his junior year as an undergraduate studying biology with a focus on pre-med when Cash caught wind that the National Forest Service was on campus interviewing for summer internships. He thought it would be a good chance to polish his interview skills, to brush up for future job applications, but as the interview got underway he was struggling to find ways to relate his medical background and urban upbringing to the wants and needs of the Forest Service—that is, until he brought up Boy Scouts.

“I didn’t have the typical upbringing, where people go out fishing and hunting and all those sorts of things, which is sort of the stereotypical person who likes to be outdoors,” he says. “It wasn’t until I started talking about being a Boy Scout and having some familiarity and comfort being outdoors that things [in that interview] started to turn around. The people that eventually picked me for that wildlife internship took a chance on me, and I took full advantage of that opportunity.”

Soon after, he was whisked from the casual life of a college student and plopped in a remote bunkhouse in the woods of Washington State, near the Canadian border. It was tough work and a big change from crashing on the couch and watching HBO, he says with a laugh, but he was determined to make it work, if nothing else so he didn’t have to go back home and face his mom.

“When I informed my mom I wasn’t going to be that doctor she’d been bragging to her girlfriends about, we probably went 10 rounds,” he says. “But she finally caved in and I traveled out West. I didn’t want to go back to my mom and say I didn’t like it—she would have been saying, ‘oh, I told you so!’—so I was determined to make it work, even though I was uncomfortable out there and still growing as a person. When you’re going through all that stuff you’re not saying all of these nice sound bites, but looking back it was one of the best and toughest decisions I ever had to make.”

Cash went on to receive his Bachelor of Science in biology from the historically-black University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff before aiming his career path in the woods. He later attended Oregon State University to study wildlife management in a non-degree program.

Over 18 years he held a variety of positions with the Forest Service, including posts as a wildland firefighter out West, district ranger in North Georgia, and a civil rights officer in Mississippi. In 2010 he joined the National Park Service, taking the helm as superintendent of Boston National Historical Park and Boston African American National Historic Site, where he worked until coming to the Smokies in February 2015.

Today he lives in Gatlinburg with his wife, Vonda, and daughter, Tasé. His oldest daughter, Ciara Jenkins, lives in Colorado.

Cash is proud of his resume and his past work, although since taking his post at the Smokies he says he’s learned that most people, when they ask, are less interested in his work history than his personal story and life journey: how an inner-city kid from Memphis rose to a leadership position in a federal agency known for protecting pine trees.

“That’s really a different conversation about my successes, my failures, and my challenges,” he says. “I’ve really had to sit down and unpack that in a way that it makes sense to me, for me to be talking about myself and what I was actually thinking about going through all that stuff in my life. I’ve never had to do that with any other job, but people now want to hear it.”

Superintendent Cassius Cash talks with a young girl during a March hike along the Little River Trail near Gatlinburg.Clay Duda

Superintendent Cassius Cash talks with a young girl during a March hike along the Little River Trail near Gatlinburg.

The National Park Service does a lot more than just protect pine trees, of course, as Cash can attest. For him, it’s more like overseeing a city. Last year the Great Smoky Mountains National Park welcomed about 10.7 million visitors, more than any other national park in the country. On its busiest days as many as 6,000 tourists may pile in, motoring along the winding mountain roads, fishing translucent streams, and trekking into the depths of a hilly wilderness.

Cash is happy to talk about the park’s success, resources it helps protect, and even some of the uphill challenges facing it in the years to come. A big one of those is the hemlock woolly adelgid, an aphid-like insect native to Asia that has been decimating eastern hemlock and Carolina hemlock trees in the park at a rapid rate since 2002. Known as the “redwood of the East,” hemlocks play an important role in maintaining a cool microclimate in mountain streams needed by some trout and other species for survival.  The Smokies have been a battleground and a testing ground in the fight against these insects, and has benefited from researchers drawn to the area to study and hopefully eradicate the pests, Cash says. But the bugs continue to take a toll. Infected hemlocks near trails may be treated with insecticidal soap or horticultural oils to stave off the insects; those off the beaten path or too tall to spray are targeted for systemic treatments, such as injections or soil drenchings of insecticides. More than 500,000 predator beetles who only eat hemlock woolly adelgid have been released into the forest, though their numbers have not grown large enough to turn the tide of the deadly bug. Today large patches of dead hemlocks dot the landscape, but Cash says the fight is far from over.

He’s well-versed in the biology of these hills, and still learns more every day, he says. He knows all about the health of various streams and fish habitats, a plethora of species of salamander found under rocks and logs in the waterways, and can recite progress his employees have made toward restoring those streams and opening them again to anglers. (For the first time last year, all streams in the park were reopened to fishing—a sign of health after decades of recovery work.) He is a wildlife biologist by trade, after all, but when Cash has the chance he prefers to lean toward words of inspiration instead of recounting textbooks and achievements.

“I really have to speak from value. I can’t just speak from facts and numbers,” he says. “What are we going to do to ensure that this place we call East Tennessee remains bustling and beautiful, a place considered welcoming and friendly? What are we going to do to ensure we don’t use luck as a strategy for the next 50 years? We all have a role in that, and that’s where I speak from.”

That goes well beyond the park staff of roughly 250 full-time employees and includes anyone and everyone with a vested interest in the park. In 2015 the park drew in an estimated $406 million in tourism dollars to the area, a lifeblood of revenue for nearly a dozen nearby towns on both the Tennessee and North Carolina sides of the mountains. Much like an urban center, the park is an economic driver for the region. “We haven’t really talked about parks like that in the past,” Cash says. “This is a place you can come and relax, but it is an economic driver when you see that arrowhead and logo in communities.”

His first year on the job has been a lot about listening to those communities, he says, figuring out where all the pieces fit, how people perceive the park fitting into their lives and livelihoods, and contemplating next steps to ensure both its natural beauty and the local economy it fuels survive to see the NPS’s next centennial.

“Working with communities has been a key, major part of my success this first year, and it continues to pay dividends,” he says. “I’m here to listen, learn, and build—and build together with the community, because this park is set up for the communities’ benefit.” When you’re in charge of a park that so many people depend on, they are interested in what you’re doing and how it’ll impact them, Cash says.

He’s tasked with balancing conservation and stewardship, making sure pristine woodlands stay that way for people to enjoy “for the next 100 years,” he says, but also making them accessible so people can get outside and take it all in. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the few free park units in the country. Charging an entrance fee could boost the resources needed to protect the park, though Cash says any move in that direction would have to be supported by the communities that depend on it. It may also help moderate the numbers of people flooding in each year and mitigate the damage they cause, lowering the cost of upkeep and maintenance. But he’s not convinced that’s the best path forward, instead focusing on educating visitors to better understand how to interact with nature and minimize their impacts.

“I mean, it’s amazing how many people you see litter that come through this national park,” Cash says, shaking his head. “We have to step up our game from not feeding the bears to explaining what happens to the bears when you do feed them. You have to understand there’s a sense of stewardship and I’ve got to believe there’s an interest in that [for all visitors] because otherwise they wouldn’t come here to see it.”

His short-term goal may be to better educate current visitors, but to ensure the park’s longevity also means reaching groups of people who are not currently frequenting the park, mostly young people from a variety of different backgrounds. The point isn’t to draw even larger numbers of people into the park, but to ensure that in years to come there are new faces interested in preserving it. The GSMNP does not have a detailed breakdown of visitors demographics like some other national parks since it is free and has no checkpoints to track who comes and goes. But the Park Service has recognized an issue in the small percentages of minorities paying visits to parks and recreation areas across the country. The Saguaro National Park near Tucson, Ariz. has struggled to attract more minorities despite a large Hispanic population living nearby. Tucson is about 44 percent Hispanic or Latino, but less than 2 percent of park visitors self-identified as Hispanic, according to its most recent visitor survey in 2009. Employees of the Park Service are also predominately white, ranking the agency near the bottom in terms of diversity (259 out of 320 different federal agencies) in the yearly “Best Places to Work” report, a yearly calculation by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

Cash says it’s not about going after one group or the other, noting a big misconception he’s come up again is people figuring that since he is African-American he’ll be drawing more blacks into the park. Instead he’s going after a generation: the notoriously fickle, technology addicted, and sometimes jaded millennial, the most diverse generation in U.S. history, to pull them into the narrative of the National Park Service and hopefully help them discover the value parks and wilderness have to offer.

That means evolving and shifting along with changes in society, as a person and a park, and rethinking how some kids are approached and what their interactions are when visiting the park. As part of that, NPS has launched a campaign and website called “Find Your Park” in hopes of reaching more, varied people.

“We continue to evolve with what’s happening and America and continue to help develop those stories,” Cash says, launching into a story from his time overseeing the cultural parks in Boston. His chief resource officer at the time discovered that about 30 percent of the soldiers who fought the battle of Bunker Hill were either Native American or African-American, yet the plaque commemorating that battle showed most all white soldiers. “We were bold enough to take those up and show a different picture of who was up there on the hill and the significance of that battle. And you never know what starting point that might present for a kid of color who goes for the first time and see somebody who resembles them as part of the birth and founding of a country. That’s pretty profound, and it’s things like that at the Park Service that allow me to grow as an individual and be part of something bigger.”

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Clay Duda

Former Mercury staff reporter Clay Duda has covered gangs in New York, housing busts in Atlanta, and wildfires in Northern California. And lots of stuff about Knoxville.

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