Fran Mainella,  Director,

National Park Service


By Nina S. Roberts

Summer 2003

The National Park Service was established in 1916 and Fran Mainella is sixteenth Director of the agency, but only the first female to hold this position.  She has been involved in parks and recreation management for over 30 years.  She is committed to improving the full scope of programs in the Park Service, an agency already well known for the support and respect it has earned from the general public.  There are 388 units within the National Park System, embracing more than 84 million acres across this country.  After 87 years as a federal agency, the National Park Service maintains many traditional ways of operating, but has also experienced massive changes.  Ms. Mainella has contributed much to date and her vision for the future is clear.  She believes in the value of taking risks, strives to be a positive influence on people, and reminds them that things they do not think are possible, are possible.  Ms. Mainella believes that if you make the effort, you will see the results you want in your life and your career. 


Women in Natural Resources:  I’d like to start off with your background and professional history in parks and recreation.  Can you tell us how your experiences have helped lead you where you are today? 

Fran Mainella:   When I was going through Senate confirmation, they asked me, “How did you get interested in this field?” and that sort of thing.  For me, this goes back to when I was in Girl Scouts.  Being in the outdoors has been with me from the beginning.  In particular, I’ve always been interested in National Parks.  My father is from Albuquerque, New Mexico.  We have family in Albuquerque, but I grew up in Connecticut.  Vacations every summer consisted of going out west and going to National Parks as well as visiting family.  We went to places like the Grand Canyon, Carlsbad, and others.  My first job was part-time.  I was working my way through college and was involved with the local parks and recreation department.  I started as a summer playground counselor.  It was seasonal, and so a fairly low paid position, but I learned at that point that I love working with people, love working in parks, and also enjoy providing recreational opportunities for people.

I graduated from the University of Connecticut and then went into teaching for a while.  I was a physical education teacher but also continued to work in local parks and recreation during evenings, weekends, and summers.  I moved to Florida in 1977 and worked at a community center.  This was a great opportunity for me because I was the first White to work in an all-Black community center.  It was a great experience.  I was there for about a year and a half before I went on to be the Parks and Recreation Director for Lake Park, a city just north of West Palm Beach.  As Director, I was one of the few women in leadership in the state.  From there I went on to become the Executive Director of the Florida Recreation and Park Association (FRPA), based in Tallahassee.

A lot of folks ask me, “How did you move up, how did you get to where you are?”  In general, I always encourage people to volunteer.  I was a volunteer, I got involved, and I encourage everyone to do this.  I know that a person’s everyday life often demands much, but you have to go beyond that and give of yourself—volunteer.

I volunteered to be in leadership at FRPA, including serving on the Board of Directors and working on committees.  FRPA is a nonprofit professional association that involves citizens as well as parks and recreation professionals.  Then, I was hired as their Executive Director.  Serving as the Executive Director of a nonprofit group gave me business experience with the private sector.  I was in that position, in Tallahassee, for six years.  After that, I became Florida State Park Director for twelve years. 

WiNR:  Is that the position you held prior to your confirmation as the National Park Service (NPS) Director?   

Mainella:  Yes, and I think I was considered for the NPS Director’s position in large part because I had become president of a few associations.  Again, volunteer work.  I was President of the National Recreation and Park Association, and of the National Association of State Park Directors.  Also, while I was the Director of the Florida State Parks, we received a Gold Medal Award for the best state park system in the nation.   

WiNR:  Were there specific influences in your life that motivated you to aspire to leadership positions? 

Mainella:  Well, I think it goes back to that summer playground counselor position.  It makes me feel good to know I’m making a difference and helping people to enjoy parks in a way that also takes care of our resources.  I’ve always tried to create partnerships and to reach out beyond our boundaries.  This is a style I’ve had as far back as my time as a summer playground counselor.  Incorporating this concept of partnership into the management of parks has been something that has helped me not only better manage parks, but also has helped me become a recognized leader.  I believe that President Bush appreciated this about me when he nominated me for NPS Director.  He also was looking for someone who knew how to work with communities and with groups.  In Florida, we not only served the resources and the visitors, but we were also known for our ability to form Friends Groups, to work in conjunction with partners, and to work with volunteers.  Our volunteerism tripled while I was Director in Florida and now we’re seeing progress with volunteerism in the National Park System, too. 

WiNR:   How do you balance all the demands in your life?  What do you enjoy for recreation?    

Mainella:   I love to be outdoors!  So, just getting outside and hiking on a trail, for example, is essential for me.  Also, I enjoy golf.  And there are times, even here in my office, when stress builds and I just need to get outside and go walking.  Sometimes I’ll just walk the halls and see people—it brings my stress down.  But, I would say being able to make sure I get outdoors and get exercise is the biggest challenge I have in terms of managing my time.

I have a wonderful husband, and we’re newlyweds—we’ve only been married for a year and a half.  His name is Bob Landers and he’s a history teacher at a high school in Alexandria, Virginia.  We got married at Biscayne National Park after I became Director, because parks are important to both of us.  I was previously married for 28 years but lost my first husband about four years ago.  So, my new life just goes to show that when you think things are turning very tragic, look what can happen!  I went on to become National Park Service Director and to find a new person to be my love.  Bob has been such a great asset to me. 

WiNR:  Can you tell us about some of the current issues and trends in the National Park Service? 

Mainella:  Some of the biggest issues and trends are things that have been underway for a long time here in the Park Service, and continue to be important.  For example, we’ve had partnerships for a long time but now we’re putting a greater emphasis on them than probably ever before.  Partnerships are not really a program, but a process.  It’s a way of thinking beyond the boundaries.  In fact, I’ll be coming out with a Director’s Order very shortly called “Civic Engagement and Public Involvement” that will encourage our Superintendents to reach out and include a variety of people “on the front side,” and not just after the fact. 

WiNR:  Is what you’re referring to based on the model developed by staff in the NPS Northeast Region?   

Mainella:  Right.  It’s a national effort but people from the Northeast Region helped us write some of it.  It’s focused on partnerships and working with communities—the gateway communities.  It’s also about reaching out beyond your boundaries.  And, it uses the concept of a “seamless network of parks.”  The concept involves public, private, state, federal—everybody.  We will strive to communicate better and to share information, because we recognize that we’re not all alike and each unit has something unique to share.  For instance, if the National Parks are doing exotic plant removal—as an example of one critical issue—adjacent to a local park, a private home, or a state park, then we need to be talking with those land owners or managers.  You can’t address the exotic plant problem by just working on this issue on National Park lands.  You have to work in partnership with others.  The seamless concept recognizes that we must go beyond the National Park boundaries. 

Another example of a trend in this area relates to law enforcement.  Our officers have a greater seamlessness with local law enforcement and state and other federal agency counterparts than they ever have before.  They have to work together.  For instance, on the National Mall in Washington D.C. during the 4th of July celebration, there were state troopers, local police officers, Secret Service agents, and others all working together with the U.S. Park Police to make sure that our 4th of July event this past year went well.  This is another great example of “seamless” cooperation.  It’s also seamless when you have trails linking together out in the wildlands, and the trail system is managed by the National Park Service as well as other agencies.  This is a growing trend.

Another big new programmatic development in the NPS is our Natural Resource Challenge.  This is an effort that we are very proud of—it’s been such a great accomplishment. 

WiNR:  Please elaborate on the Natural Resource Challenge for us.  What’s the benefit?  What are the funds spent for? 

Mainella:  The main benefit of the program is that it puts science into all that we’re doing regarding our natural resources.  There is a greater expectation of accountability to the public now—not just to Congress and the Administration. We can no longer just say, “Well, we think it’s a good idea,” because the public is going to ask us, “Why?”  The Natural Resource Challenge has helped us to provide scientifically based reasons, largely through research from the Inventory and Monitoring program, for support of our interpretive programs as well as significant  management decisions and actions (Natural Resource Challenge).   

WiNR:  What are some other challenging resource issues for the NPS? 

Mainella:  Invasive exotic species is one issue that I mentioned before and another big issue is air quality.  Over this last year we improved air quality by over 50% in our National Parks.  And, with the Natural Resource Challenge we’re able to better monitor what’s going on.  We actually know how we’re doing.  We have some great new programs, too, such as the Clear Skies Initiative, to further enhance air quality. 

From the Natural Resource Challenge, we also have the Research Learning Centers that allow us to teach children more about parks and the science going on in those parks.  It’s important that the public understands that parks need to be here, not only for present enjoyment but for future generations.  

WiNR:  I’ve been working with a group that is a Clearinghouse for these Learning Centers, so I know how extremely challenging and important that work is. Turning to some other issues, what challenges do you see with wildlife in parks? 

Mainella:  Biodiversity continues to be a key issue.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has the main responsibility for dealing with species, while the NPS manages the habitat.  National Parks are also outdoor laboratories and natural classrooms with a place-based function.  Our goals include conserving native wildlife, and so we must have a healthy environment, while also enabling the visitor to enjoy their experience in a given park.  This experience includes being able to see the extraordinary wildlife that inhabits our parks.   

WiNR:  Let’s talk about workforce diversity.  I‘ve learned about some of the work you’ve done and your accomplishments in that area. 

Mainella:  Right, thanks.  In fact, right there [pointing to a plaque on the wall] is my award for distinguished Equal Employment Opportunity/Affirmative Action work with Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection.  My early experience, starting when I had that position in an all-Black community center in Florida, gave me a great appreciation for the importance of diversity and understanding different cultures.  It was an incredible growth opportunity.  This was significant for me in learning to better understand others’ experiences and what it’s like to not be in the majority all the time. 

Diversity is also an issue for the NPS in terms of reaching out to a broader population of both visitors and employees.  We have to make sure that the National Parks have relevance for all people!  That’s one reason our next National Leadership Council gathering is in Canyon De Chelly, Arizona.1 We’re meeting with Native Americans in that area, including Navajo leaders, and we’ll talk about how the NPS can better work with Tribes.  Instead of just having somebody come see us in Washington D.C., we’re going to their reservations. 

Diversity is a primary focus for our Regional Directors as this is an essential part of our work in managing resources and providing high quality programs.  NPS leaders expect that the entire staff become much more aware and embrace opportunities to diversify the Park Service in many ways.

We were just recently at the National Hispanic Environmental Council conference this past April in New Mexico, and we came with job openings to fill.  We hired a substantial number of people right there at that conference.  This is a major change, as we’ve never before been able to fill positions in that manner.  We’ve typically only handed out applications at conferences where we wanted to recruit.  Some of the jobs we filled at the conference will only be seasonal positions, but we’re excited about the exposure to the NPS these positions will provide.   

WiNR:  You have a huge spectrum of responsibilities in your job and diversity is only one of them.  How have you built on your predecessors’ work in this area?   

Mainella:  My staff and I have generated a large number of ideas to integrate greater diversity into our agency, building on what has happened in previous years.  Our list is so long, though, that we’ve had to narrow it down to the highest priorities.  Our goal is to make a focus on diversity something that we do every day.  Diversity is an important mission for us, and in the past it may not have received the level of focus and support it deserves.

The other thing I want to mention is that Ernie Quintana is our first Hispanic Regional Director.  He’s Regional Director for the Midwest. 

WiNR:  I’m conducting my own research and learning from the literature as well, as I work toward completion of my doctoral degree at Colorado State University (Roberts' research).  Although it’s a local study, the results have national application. 

I’m learning that involving the community is essential to successful park management.  While not everyone wants to be directly involved in management, they do want to be heard about what they experience in the parks, or what they don’t.  In particular, my current study relates to the experiences of ethnic minorities. 

In the 1960s, the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission report discussed the lack of minorities in the parks in terms of socio-economics, suggesting, for instance, that people of color couldn’t afford to visit parks, or that there was a lack of transportation prohibiting visits (ORRRC report).  While an economic disparity still exists, these types of factors have changed and so have the analyses.  We’re moving into understanding more of the cultural implications and that’s some of what I am focusing on in my work. 

NPS outreach efforts have been ongoing and there are different models across the country that are very successful, but there’s also some resistance.  As a leader, how do you find yourself trying to instill the value of outreach, from a recreation standpoint, to diverse communities? 

Mainella:  Again, it will be part of that Director’s Order that aims to ensure that the NPS is reaching out beyond the traditional groups.  Part of what we’re doing revolves around the Internet.  That can be one of the most interesting ways to accomplish outreach.  For instance, we’ve just created a “Web Rangers” program that we hope will reach people who may never really have thought about going to a National Park.  You know, some people are uneasy and fearful about coming out to certain natural settings.  Maybe by getting on the website and talking through some questions there, people will begin to feel more comfortable.  And we are also working on virtual tours of National Parks through the website. There may be some ways we’ll start reaching out to groups that we do not reach today. 

WiNR:  What do you enjoy about your job?  What is hardest for you? 

Mainella:  I love visiting the parks.  I talk with the employees, talk with the visitors, and talk with the volunteers and it is always so motivating.  It helps me when I come back to the office and have to deal with all those piles of paper just sitting over there on my desk! 

At the same time, the tough challenges for me include never having enough time to do everything I want to do.  Probably the other greatest challenge is getting everybody to enhance their communication.  Part of my vision is excellent communication and of course that’s part of the Secretary’s vision for the Department of Interior.  Our InsideNPS  [an information portal and news gateway for NPS employees] is a great tool and has helped enhance communications a lot.  This type of tool can help with rumor control and disseminating information—things of that nature—but I also want to make sure that people communicate with each other more on the “front side” of issues than on the back side.  So, if we’re in disagreement within the Park Service or have differences of opinion with our partners, it’s best that we are talking about things on the front side.  This helps build trust, and that is very important.                 

WiNR:  I’ve been working with the Park Service for a short while yet I’ve been researching and traveling the parks for 15 years.  I’ve noticed a variety of challenges revolving around communication, such as the difficulties associated with asking employees to accomplish important tasks that don’t fit with the way those employees see things. 

Mainella:  Sometimes people are taken out of their comfort zone when you ask them to do something different, and they end up not being successful at it.  But I believe they can be successful if you prepare people through training to deal with that change.  With change comes growth and that’s how you move forward.  The Florida State Park system was an award-winning agency in the end, but to do that, the staff had to change. 

Change didn’t come easily, though.  Actually, it took a crisis.  Hurricane Andrew hit just a couple of years after I started there.  When it happened we lost some of our large revenue-generating parks for over a year, and there was also a very bad down-turn in the economy.  At that point it looked like we might have to close 38 state parks—and layoff a lot of people.  But, I was able to go to the State Legislature, and they helped us to keep the parks open.  They also expected us to find new ways to do things.     

My employees jumped at it because they kept their jobs, and the parks stayed open.  They are the ones who reached out.  Park employees started Friends Groups and sought out volunteers.  For a long time, I had wanted to start a state-wide Friends Group—something like the National Park Foundation or the National Park Advisory Board—but I couldn’t create it until there were volunteers who wanted to help.  It took that crisis of the hurricane for everyone to rally behind the state parks.  So, the volunteers were more ready and also our employees were more ready to willingly accept those kinds of outreach.  They found out that instead of it being “extra work” it was a savings for them and helped them survive better as a park system.  

WiNR: That’s an excellent point about being immersed in a crisis that creates a different sense of urgency, but also the need to come together as a community in collaboration and partnership to move forward.    

Mainella:  Let me ask you a question.  How do you suggest we work on developing more receptiveness toward increasing diversity in our parks and staff?   

WiNR:  There are a couple of things that come to mind.  First, I have to say that my current research revolves around visitors and not so much the workforce aspects.  There are a lot of variables, but one thing I’ve learned, whether it’s from Native Americans, Latinos, or people in the Black community, is that there is a lack of relevant interpretation programs in our National Parks.  Of course, the NPS does have a few that are relevant to minority history, such as the Underground Railroad, Spanish pioneers, and Asian immigrants, but they have a long way yet to go.  Why doesn’t Rocky Mountain National Park, for example, talk about the Black cowboys from a historical perspective?  That’s missing from their interpretive programs. 

In other words, many people are asking, “What is culturally relevant to my community?  Why would I want to go to this park?”  Of course, the beauty of the parks will appeal to all people, though perhaps have different meanings, but from a programmatic and interpretive standpoint, the NPS has really just begun to incorporate other possibilities.  In my work I found that minority visitors in our National Parks represent approximately 5-7% of visitors, but they’re not going to the interpretive programs because they don’t really see a connection.  Additionally, language is often an issue.  Now, a beaver talk is a beaver talk—it shouldn’t make any difference what culture you are from because there is something for everyone to learn on that topic.  But people are saying, “I still want to learn about how my culture fits into this natural environment in terms of my values.”  Another example is that Rocky Mountain National Park had only one “Native American Lifestyles” program during the entire 2000 summer season.  Some of the Native Americans have a problem with that because the NPS is not telling the story—the stories of the people who lived on that land for centuries.  Rocky Mountain NP has made progress in outreach, though, and is committed to further enhancements. 

Mainella:   Thanks.  I hope our Leadership Council will hear more of this kind of viewpoint.  Your example of the Black Cowboy story at Rocky Mountain National Park is a good one.   

WiNR:  Here’s something else.  Outreach goes beyond inviting people to the park.  That’s important, but we also need to be thinking about how to take the parks to the people.  Whether it’s through slide shows or traveling trunk shows, the NPS must continue to ask, “How can we best educate people in diverse communities?”   Would you say that it’s possible to keep encouraging the park staff to go into the community?

Workforce diversity is another issue.  When I asked people visiting the parks, “Does it matter to you to see people of color working in the park when you visit?”  Half of everyone I interviewed told me “Yes, absolutely, I would be more comfortable when I visit, if there were more people of color working there.”  While it’s true that others I interviewed indicated that this issue didn’t matter to them, the key is that this is important to some degree and for a variety of reasons, and so the NPS should pay attention to the issue.   

Mainella:  We need to keep reaching out to communities via the web, meeting face-to-face, and encouraging people to explore our parks.  Our specialty is place-based education.  We are best known for our rangers and for the volunteers who help interpret the parks for visitors.   

WiNR:  So the key is finding ways to balance—meeting the community halfway instead of always expecting the community to come to the parks?    

Mainella:  The Web Rangers program will be a huge help, I think.  It’s brand new, but the hits on it [visits to the web page by Internet users] have been tremendous so far. 

WiNR:  What about those who don’t have or use computers; the under-represented, lower socio-economic folks?  How do we engage them? 

Mainella:   Yes, that will continue to be an issue.  Recently we got some information from the University of Denver that 80% of all families have computers now.  Others that don’t have them at home often use computers in public libraries or in schools.  Even so, we want to be sensitive to individuals and families without access to this technology. 

WiNR:  Another point I’d like to make regarding developing more receptiveness in the NPS regarding increasing diversity in parks and staff is that training should continue to be available, especially that using new and innovative techniques, building on both knowledge of and understanding of other cultures. 

Mainella:  One way we are trying to support this is through our inter-agency partnership conference, “Joint Ventures: Partners in Stewardship,” that will be held in November 2003 in Los Angeles.  The conference will include training involving different cultural partnerships and techniques for establishing partnerships.  It should be helpful to all of us in the NPS.  [For more information visit:

WiNR:  Another aspect of ethnic diversity in parks involves the relatively large amount of research that has been done on the Hispanic community and outdoor recreation.  Hispanics often enjoy recreating in large groups, but at first the Forest Service would chain down picnic tables with bolts because Hispanic visitors would move them into clusters of ten or twelve tables.  The Forest Service finally accommodated these visitors in various ways. 

Besides cultural differences, there are often language barriers that impact park staff interactions with minority visitors.  In some parks there may be a lack of understanding about certain policies about how the National Park is different than your local park, and this could result in negative interactions with park staff—so much that many Hispanic visitors felt they were being singled out or profiled.  There was a feeling of “How can I feel comfortable here if I’m being told what not to do all the time?” versus “How can you communicate with me and educate me about the resource so I can help protect it and have fun with it as well?”  This had become very frustrating to both the law enforcement staff and the Hispanic community. 

Mainella:  Those are good points.  You need to use more of a community policing concept, that is, going out into the communities to talk with people and having leadership in law enforcement being out there communicating.  That will help both parties—help the NPS employees to better understand minority cultures and help park visitors to understand NPS policies.                                                 

WiNR:  Getting back to your personal story, is there anyone you’d like to recognize or highlight as being your mentors? 

Mainella:  As I’ve gone through life, there have been some people who have reached out to me.  A professor at Florida State University, Dr. Frances Cannon, was a tremendous help to me.  Even though I didn’t attend FSU, when I came to Tallahassee she reached out to me, helped me make important professional contacts, and also helped mentor me.  Another important person who comes to mind is Dottie Abrams, a parks and recreation professional, now retired from Dade County, Florida, who helped encourage me to volunteer to be a leader in professional associations. 

I am also influenced by people like Stephen Mather [the first Director of the NPS].  When you think about it, he was doing back then a lot of what we are striving to do today, such as working on partnerships.  He saw the need to work closely with everyone from concessioners to all sorts of different groups.  And so, having Friends Groups was a concept that began in the early days.  I never knew him personally, of course, but reading about him and seeing some of the things he did, his legacy in the National Parks, motivates me immensely and sets an example for me.

Mentoring is very important and I think all of us in upper management should be mentoring others.  I personally try to reach out to young people in the Park Service to help encourage them and guide them in positive directions.  Sometimes when I meet NPS employees for the first time, I often tell them to email me—I want to help if I can.  Just yesterday someone contacted me and I encouraged them to get involved as a volunteer in organizations, and I gave them some specific suggestions that may help them. 

I encourage people who might be looking to go into leadership positions in the Park Service somewhere along their career paths to come and spend three months in our Washington office just to understand this resource and understand what’s here.  In order to understand everything that goes on in the Park Service, you really need to have had some experience in Washington.  So I encourage people aspiring to move up in their career, even if they may not necessarily want to work in Washington for the long-term—maybe they want to be a Superintendent—to understand what’s happening in all aspects of the Park Service.  Working for a short while at our headquarters in Washington is an excellent way to get that experience.  Also, it gives our current leaders a chance to get to know these folks and see how they handle different problems, even crises.  This helps us to find good candidates when leadership positions open up. 

WiNR:  Will you elaborate on this a bit?  What are the important steps for women, in particular, who want these opportunities?  What might you offer to young women who want to come in and want to make it in a system that is still dominated by men?     

Mainella:  Hopefully, my presence in this position automatically has increased the opportunity for women in leadership.  In fact, right now Gale Norton is the first woman to ever serve as the Secretary of Interior, I’m the first woman to ever serve as National Park Service Director, and Teresa Chambers is the first woman to ever head up the U.S. Park Police.   

WiNR:  So, seeing other women being appointed to these leadership positions is encouraging and sends a message to women that “I can do that”? 

Mainella:  Absolutely.  That’s exactly right.  I think part of it is also encouraging our women to go ahead and volunteer, to get involved with committees, and pursue opportunities that will expose them to different avenues.  But if someone runs into challenges, we need to make sure they communicate with a mentor who could help.  As I said earlier, I’m trying to reach out, not to just women, but to other under-represented groups in the Park Service to help encourage people to further their career.     

WiNR:  What is your vision for the Park Service? 

Mainella:  We have wonderful natural and cultural resources, but our best assets are our employees and our partners.  I want us to continue to make sure our resources are protected and I also want to make sure that visitors have environmentally-friendly access to the parks.  When the public feels like they have a linkage to those resources, they will help protect the resources. 

The largest vision I have is articulated in the concepts of the Secretary of Interior’s 4-C’s: Conservation through cooperation, communication, and consultation.  This involves partnerships and the volunteers.  I want to see us be able to triple our volunteerism in the Park Service, and to be able to have a Friends Group for every National Park.  The NPS is known for working well with gateway communities, and it’s important to me to keep this reputation by continuing our work in these communities.  Additionally, I want us to be a Park Service that reflects the demographics of this nation, in terms of our employees and in visitation.  We must find commonalities through partnerships and outreach, and be very inclusive.  And finally, to reiterate, we can’t have a National Park System without making sure our resources are protected. 



Nina S. Roberts is an Education and Outreach Specialist with the National Park Service Natural Resource Information Division.  She is finishing her Ph.D. in the Department of Natural Resource Recreation and Tourism at Colorado State University.  Prior to employment with the NPS, Roberts worked with the Student Conservation Association, first as Assistant Director of the National Urban and Diversity Programs and later focused on research and evaluation of a variety of SCA’s national and regional programs.  Roberts has been involved with leadership and research regarding women and girls outdoors for over 20 years.  Her general research interests include recreation resource management, outdoor programming and leadership, youth development, evaluation methods and techniques, and race and gender issues.  As a bi-racial woman, Roberts’s personal and professional interests have guided her to write about people of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and explore their connection to activities in National Parks and other outdoor environments.