She's the leader of the parks

Outdoors

January 13, 2008|By CANDUS THOMSON

She's been in 48 out of 49 state parks. Now Nita Settina runs all of them.

Settina, who turns 44 next weekend, was picked last week to be the Maryland Parks Service superintendent, the first woman to oversee 134,000 acres of public land from Deep Creek Lake to Assateague beach at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.

A mountain biker, paddler, hiker, angler and backpacker, Settina knows a lot about the territory. And as a 15-year veteran of the Department of Natural Resources, she is no stranger to the challenges facing parks and their employees.

Those problems were spelled out in a report released in November that said that after years of low budgets, state parks are "in a state of crisis."

In response, the O'Malley administration pledged an infusion of $21 million in Program Open Space money, with the first $4.2 million installment due in the Fiscal Year 2009 budget.

"I feel like we are turning the corner on a lot of this," she said in an interview shortly after the appointment was announced by DNR Secretary John Griffin.

When she entered Penn State, Settina aspired to a career making environmental documentaries for National Geographic. But the reality of spending years learning the craft while shooting industrial films left her cold.

She decided to pursue her love of the outdoors, and from that point on, her resume "became a tangled mess," she said, laughing.

She worked as a lobbyist for the Sierra Club and for four years at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. From there, she moved to DNR, where her most recent post was as executive director of the Maryland Conservation Corps, which employs kids to assist with conservation and environmental-education programs at state parks.

One of her priorities is improving the park experience for repeat visitors and making the facilities enticing to nonusers.

State parks attract more than 11 million visitors annually despite having some of the highest user fees in the country. The state Department of Business and Economic Development estimates that visitors to state parks and campgrounds each year spend more than $139 million and generate $13.5 million in tax revenue.

But general funds from the state budget have dropped from $28.9 million in 2002 to $14 million. The number of full-time employees has declined 25 percent over the same period.

Increased use and declining manpower means Maryland state parks have one full-time employee for every 67,796 visitors, the report said. The average at national parks is one employee for every 10,000 visitors; at state park systems of comparable size, the ratio is 1 to 30,000.

"For many people, we are the face of DNR," she said. "You can do bulletin boards and trail guides -- believe me, I've done a ton of them -- but nothing beats face-to-face encounters for creating a bond," she said. "I want to restore that connection so that when someone goes to the Avalon area of Patapsco Valley State Park, there's a nature center with a staff person, and volunteers and a Maryland Conservation Corps member."

Settina hopes to offer some long-term contractual employees full-time employment, increase the interpretive staff and strengthen the relationship with private guide services and outfitters. She wants to boost the number of water trails and improve access and signage.

"I'm interested in getting people who don't go to our parks to visit, and I don't want to encourage them to do that unless the table is set because a bad first impression is worse than no impression at all," she said.

Her other top mission is to get more children into the outdoors.

"I was raised by a single parent," the native of Allegheny County, Pa., said. "My mother would open the back door, and my brothers and I would run to be outside. We need to find a way to tap into that feeling of freedom while keeping in mind the `stranger danger' of today. We need to find ways to let kids turn over rocks and muck around in the water and take in the wonder and awe of nature."

Finally, there's a personal item on the to-do list. Settina would like to poke around the one chunk of her empire that has eluded her: Dan's Mountain State Park, just southwest of Cumberland.

"I think, in my new job, I can find an excuse to get out there," she said.

Marlin eludes list

A seven-year battle by environmentalists to force the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect the Atlantic white marlin ended in defeat last week.

The agency announced that it found no evidence that the marlin belonged on the list of endangered or threatened species.

For organizers of Ocean City's annual White Marlin Open, who call it the largest billfish tournament in the world, it means another year of big fish and big money. Last summer's winner, John Frankos of Virginia Beach, Va., took home $1.39 million for an 83-pound white marlin.

The 2008 Open will be Aug. 4-8.

Gunpowder trout

Anglers who call the Gunpowder River their home water should put Wednesday's meeting of the Maryland chapter of Trout Unlimited on their calendar.

State fisheries biologist Charlie Gougeon will present his annual report on the status of the trout population in the "blue ribbon" stream at 7:30 p.m., at IOOF Hall, 511 York Road.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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