Haleakala Superintendent Parris: She's up to a Challenge

The Maui News
Sunday, October 30, 2005



As Marilyn Parris describes her 30-year career with the National Park Service, it seems as though she's always been on a path that would lead her to the superintendent's desk atop Haleakala.

From Florida to California and parks in between, Parris has worked in natural resources, interpretation, law enforcement and administration. She's emphasized the importance of partnering with native cultures, studied endangered species and even has dealt with lawsuits of tourists who apparently forget about the dangers associated with wilderness areas. Her last park was even centered around a volcanic landscape that contained fragile cinder cones of many colors with miles of hiking trails.

But perhaps Parris' greatest strength for taking the top job at Haleakala National Park: She already had a knack for that much-needed Maui skill of talking story.

"Marilyn can talk stories with anyone," said kupuna Nan Cabatbat of the Hawaii Natural History Association, who conducts weekly cultural demonstrations and handles other duties at the Visitors Center. "She wants to get to know you as an individual and know about your families, but Marilyn lets you pick the pace, and she does it in a way without being niele (nosey)."

When Don Reeser retired three months ago after 17 years as superintendent of Haleakala, he left a legacy of political activism and community involvement that gave the park a higher profile in the public realm than it ever had. During that time, Reeser made such an impact on Maui in protecting natural and cultural resources that he was named one of the county's top 100 citizens of the past century.

Those are big boots to fill, but Parris appears to be a perfect fit and ready to make her own way.

"She's a very gifted superintendent," said Holly Bundock, spokesperson for the Pacific West Region of the National Park Service in Oakland, Calif. "She's good with resources, she's good with people, she's good with the community."

Bundock said Parris basically turned things around during her most recent stint at Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California. When she arrived eight years ago, the surrounding townsfolk were angry and feeling ignored by a park that had isolated itself. When she left, the community was back on board.

"It was pretty much a miracle what Marilyn did," said Bundock.

Parris, 53, will need that magic touch at Haleakala as she arrives in the midst of several simmering controversies that won't easily be resolved: a summit strained beyond its seams at sunrise, the growing public outcry over the swarms of downhill bicyclists, concerns that the increasing number of horseback riding tours is contributing to the destruction of One He'ehe'e (Sliding Sands) Trail and how to keep visitors safe at Kipahulu without compromising the wilderness that people come to see.

On the job for barely a month, Parris remains unfazed and full of ideas.

"It's going to be a challenge, but I like challenges," she said. "We'll be going 300 miles an hour."

Her greatest asset, she quickly tells you, is the work force that she has inherited and already depends upon.

"I don't run this park," she said. "Most people think superintendents run the park, but my job is to make sure the staff has the resources to run the park financial resources, community backing, support. If you don't have a good staff, you're not going to get very far. My goal is to create a friendly, easygoing work environment where people work together as a team."

The first challenge up for Parris and her team: a review of the commercial operations in the park, a determination of the carrying capacity and improving the visitor experience by underscoring the real reasons why Haleakala is so revered in the Hawaiian culture.

"Sunrise has turned into gridlock," acknowledged Parris, who made the pre-dawn trip incognito. "I wasn't expecting such a chaotic scene. People were leaping out of their cars, getting jostled, taking pictures of the backs of people's heads. Then the sun comes up and boom! it's like a bomb going off and everyone jumps back in their car and drives off. You could be watching the sun rise anywhere.

"Visitors need to understand what's so special about coming to Haleakala for sunrise," she continued. "They need to know about the sacredness, the culture and the majestic geological resources. We need to work on that visitor experience so it's not just watch the sun rise and leave."

If it sounds like Parris has already been in touch with Native Hawaiian cultural specialist Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr., it's because she has. One of the first phone calls she made after settling into her office was to Maxwell, long a critic of the commercialization of grounds that have been hallowed to Hawaiians since ancient times.

"I was impressed with her," said Maxwell. "She seems like a very straightforward woman, but time will tell. It's gotten miserable for local people to go to Haleakala. Visitors are not taught how sacred the mountain is."

Parris realizes she faces a delicate juggling act. She's already met with downhill bike companies and helicopter tour operations. No new permits for commercial operations other than downhill bikes have been issued since August, and new permits for downhill bikes will be put on hold as of Tuesday until a commercial services plan can be adopted.

"The bike people know that change is coming, and I felt we had a very productive meeting," she said.

Neither will large buses be allowed into the park for the time being, said Parris. The interim measure allows only buses or vans carrying no more than 25 passengers.

"The cruise ships were sending up huge buses," said Parris. "It became a safety issue for us. At such a high altitude, we have medical concerns. We can't have it where it gets so crowded that we can't get people in and out."

Sixty-eight permits for commercial activities remain valid during the planning process that could begin later next year. Park attendance is approaching two million a year, according to Parris, with nearly everyone visiting two small areas at the summit and the Palikea Stream at Oheo Gulch in the Kipahulu district.

"I understand the economics of the park for the commercial operators, but I hope they have a better understanding of our mission: to protect and preserve," she added. "We can't keep making our parking lots bigger and bigger. We need to look at things comprehensively and holistically."

An alternative transportation plan the park had been developing has been delayed until the commercial activities have been reviewed, but Parris said there's still a possibility that Haleakala Ranch will be approached about using a section of its new visitors center as a staging area for cars during peak visiting times. Motorists would then board buses for the summit.

Whatever happens, Parris is prepared to take the inevitable heat when new plans are in place.

"Some in the community might not agree with the decision we make, but I promise that we will sit down and talk about our disagreements," she said.

Should anyone question her intentions, they need only look at the green rubber message bracelet she wears that states her overriding philosophy: "Preserve, Protect, Enjoy, NPS."

Parris has yet to hike into Haleakala Crater, but she has been shown photographs of the erosion along Onehe'ehe'e as well as clumps of toilet paper tossed behind rocks and shrubs. Not wanting to make hasty decisions that could make things worse, Parris has held up a proposal to install portable restrooms along the trail until alternatives can be examined.

"Maybe we'll put a sign up at the top that says 'go now,' " she said, maybe only half kidding.

From now "until Christmas," she said, she has meetings scheduled with everyone from Mayor Alan Arakawa to representatives of the Royal Order of Kamehameha.

"I think it's important to know the players in the community and to know the issues," she said.

Parris becomes the first woman superintendent at Haleakala, an accomplishment she doesn't mention during an interview. Growing up in South Carolina, she considered a career in recreation or physical education. When that proved unsatisfying, she applied for a seasonal job at Kings Mountain Military Park in her home state, a site made famous in the Revolutionary War.

"After my first week, I knew this is what I wanted to do," she said. "There was something about being part of preserving our nation's heritage that really got to me."

That was in 1975. Twelve years later, after specializing in the different fields that make up a ranger's vast experience and evolving into a leader, Parris was named superintendent of her first park, Horseshoe Bend National Military Park in Alabama, which gave then-Gen. Andrew Jackson national prominence during the 1814 battle that was considered one of the last components of the War of 1812.

"It was a very humble beginning for me," said Parris.

But a significant one. At the time, there were probably only 15 female superintendents out of about 300. Parris was just 35 years old.

"Marilyn was one of the breakthrough superintendents," said Bundock.

Already, she was showing her ability to appreciate the park system's resources, whether natural, historic or cultural. As a ranger, she worked at national monuments, historic sites and seashore areas. While assigned to Canaveral National Seashore, she saw the first space shuttle, the Columbia, successfully launched. She also watched in horror as the Challenger blew up.

After Horseshoe Bend, Parris was in charge of three other parks before she took on the challenge at Lassen, a park with five times the acreage of Haleakala that lies near the base of the Cascade Mountains and finds itself buried in snow several months of the year.

"The park had lost touch with the community," said Parris. "It was a big park, remote, and it had lost touch with what the National Park Service is all about. You've got to have community support. You can't exist as an island."

Besides the cinder cones and volcanic peaks, the park's treasures included steam vents, boiling pools and mudpots. Even with signs posted on the boardwalks built for safe viewing, some tourists still wandered off, got too close to the dangerous features, burned themselves and promptly sued.

"Most of them never got to court," said Parris.

In one that did, Parris recalled, "The judge said 'where does common sense come in?' "

That experience will, unfortunately, come in handy, too, at her new job. The Kipahulu district has been wrestling with how much signage is necessary to keep visitors adequately warned of the hazards of flash floods at the Pools of Oheo without ruining the wilderness experience. Haleakala has been sued by families of those who drowned when the waters suddenly rose, as often happens with mountain-fed streams. A computerized monitoring system higher up the valley has recently been installed to let staffers know when things could become dangerous.

"Other than shutting down the pools, I think we're doing the best we can," said Parris.

She left Lassen, she said, not to get away, but because she thought she had achieved her goals.

"I loved everything about Lassen, but it was done," said Parris. "I think it's good we move along, that there's fresh blood. And I was ready for a new adventure, a new challenge."

That she'll get plus the people that go along with it.

"I've been doing this for almost 31 years, moving around, but this time when I was unpacking, I felt like I was going to be here awhile," she said. "This is where I live now. This is my community now, too."

Valerie Monson can be reached at vmonson@mauinews.com.

Copyright © 2005 The Maui News.

Original article: http://www.mauinews.com/story.aspx?id=13767

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