2007-12-14 / Columnists

On The Beach

Meet Lisa Eckert, Superintendent Of GNRA
Commentary By Beverly Baxter

BEVERLY BAXTER BEVERLY BAXTER When I set out to meet with Lisa Eckert, Gateway National Recreation Area's Superintendent, I must say that I was, at first, rather intimidated. So much has been said about the woman whose charge is to oversee the 26,000 acres of federal parkland that comprise the Gateway park system; yet very few had actually met with her. Since I am among the many local residents who feel blessed to live in the midst of this beautiful park treasure, and who appreciate its unique setting as a backdrop for many of our cultural events, I decided to use the subterfuge of my column as an opportunity to meet this curious woman who has the daunting, yet extraordinary, task of keeper of the park.

I arrived at the GNRA's administrative offices, a large building deeply ensconced within the massive Floyd Bennett Field. Our meeting was to take place on October 31, a date of special significance for me. I was met at the entrance by staff personnel who escorted me through long halls and winding corridors, up a flight of stairs and down another long hall. I felt a little like Dorothy on a mission to meet the elusive and powerful Oz. After all, we are able to enjoy these wonderful park events and activities because of Gateway's resources, cooperation and partnership. However, upon meeting Eckert, a tall, willowy blonde, I was pleasantly surprised. I was stunned by her natural beauty, warmth and eagerness to discuss her position as superintendent, and Gateway's place in the community.

For most of us, Gateway's Riis Park and Fort Tilden have been a profound presence in our community's way of life. The park is where many of our children have scored goals on its soccer field or hit home runs in one of the little leagues. It is where many of us enjoy biking, rollerblading or long walks along its pristine beaches. It has also served for nearly 25 years as the most beautiful natural setting for the Rockaway Music and Arts Council's Fall Festival and Sunset Picnic Concert Series, attracting thousands of visitors, renowned artists and performers. During the past decade, it has also become a performing and visual arts mecca by the sea, with local cultural organizations like the Rockaway Artists Alliance and the Rockaway Theatre Company further enhancing the cultural life of Rockaway and the surrounding area.

These organizations have provided thousands of children and adults with a venue for artistic exploration and self-expression. And this past year, Rockaway had its first Literary Arts Festival, which brought best-selling authors, television personalities and Academy Award-nominated filmmakers to our shores. These

events have introduced the park, its beauty and secluded beaches, to thousands who may never have discovered its existence if not for these wonderful public events. The park is the reason why so many of us feel blessed to live here.

The Gateway National Recreation Area is comprised of 26,000 acres, a vast constellation of parks that includes the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Riis Park, Fort Tilden, Floyd Bennett Field, Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island and Sandy Hook in New Jersey. When this necklace of natural beauty was first strung together 35 years ago, it became the nation's first urban national park, with an emphasis on public recreational access. With the leadership of Marian Heiskell, a member of the family that owns The New York Times, and David Rockefeller Jr., Vice Chair Emeritus of the National Park Foundation, a fund-raising group chartered by Congress, Gateway NRA was born. In a New York Times article, "National Parks Under A New Umbrella" (September 11, 2003), Rockefeller states, "There needs to be a new emphasis on using the parks that exist and getting a better understanding of them and access to them.… What good is a park unless there are visitors?"

Gateway's mission is to provide a delicate balance of preservation for future generations along with recreational use. For Eckert, the National Park Service is more than a career. It is a passion that initially began by happenstance. Born and raised in Wisconsin, Eckert grew up vacationing at many national and international parks. At 19, to supplement college tuition expenses, she waited tables at the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone. She then served as tour guide and her love affair with national parks began to evolve. For most of her career, she worked as a Park Ranger in 12 different areas of the park system, including Alaska, North Dakota and Wyoming. She was elevated to Superintendent two years ago. It was her first time to New York City.

How does one in Eckert's position make the transition from Park Ranger in remote places like Alaska and the Pacific Northwest to an urban park setting in NYC? And how do the needs of these settings differ in relation to the needs of the surrounding communities? An urban park has different needs and uses than a park in North Dakota. "I will tell you how they are all similar," she states. "The passion of the community and its sense of space and place in relation to the park is exactly the same. It's in Yellowstone just as it's in NYC. There are heartstrings attached to where we call home. There are intrinsic values harbored by those who've grown up on Jamaica Bay. There is a sense of belonging to the park; however, use of the park is not a right. It's a privilege."

The parks are guided by the General Management Plan, an operating road map, which is part of the National Environmental Act. The last one was revised in 1979. Gateway is currently in a four-year process of revising its plan, which includes public involvement and discussion of appropriate uses.

Organizations wishing to find out more about how to obtain a Special Event Use Permit, or anyone interested in becoming more familiar with Gateway's treasures, may visit its Web page: www.nps.gov/gate.

On behalf of the many cultural organizations like the RMAC, I extend my appreciation to Eckert for the opportunity to meet with her and thank her for her encouragement of these wonderful events that entice visitors to share in and discover, the Gateway experience.

See you....On the Beach!

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