David Smith, former Joshua Tree National Park superintendent and 31-year veteran of the National Park Service, has been selected to oversee the sprawling Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Smith’s new job will make him responsible for some of the most iconic natural landmarks in the Bay Area, including Alcatraz Island, Muir Woods and Fort Point.

Starting in late January, Smith will lead 300 park employees who preserve the 82,000 acres of natural beauty across three Bay Area counties. The recreation area includes 60 miles of coastline, 130 miles of trails and 1,200 historically significant landmarks.

“David is a proven leader with many years of diverse experience across the National Park Service,” said Frank Lands, a regional director with the park service, in announcing Smith’s appointment last week. “He has a solid reputation for relationship-building with park partners, local communities, Tribal governments, and elected officials. These skills will be especially important as he leads one of the most urban and complex sites in the National Park System.”

Joining the ‘flat hat’ club

Smith first picked up an application to be a park ranger on a multi-month road trip he took alongside his then-future husband over 30 years ago. Hopping from campsite to campsite in their big truck, the two noticed that the happiest people they encountered were the men and women sporting the park service’s iconic “flat hats.”

A year later, the two worked together at Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, and they have continued to be rangers ever since.

“I would have to say that this vocation is probably one of the most joyful ones in the world,” Smith said.

At Joshua Tree, Smith led a team of 140 park staff when the park experienced explosive growth in a short amount of time. In the past decade, the park has gone from serving 1 million visitors to 3.1 million a year, which made it all the more essential to hire good people and make their jobs easy, keep visitors safe and be an advocate for the preservation of open public lands, Smith said.

“A superintendent can do everything from changing the toilet paper to you being the parks representative to a member of Congress,” Smith said.

“I can’t believe I get to spend my mornings and my weekends running and exploring the park that I get to be part of.”

David Smith, Golden Gate National Recreation Area superintendent

One of his greatest accomplishments at his time in Joshua Tree, he said, was fostering and maintaining a connection with 15 tribal partners to preserve the cultural history of the park and its surrounding area.

“That means having meaningful conversations, annual meetings where we all get together for potlucks, and just spending literal days talking over really contentious issues on how to manage this park,” Smith said. “I think the development of a really healthy and vibrant relationship with our tribes was definitely a highlight of the last decade.”

Smith said a large portion of his job is simply spending time with the people who visit the park, and most importantly, reaching out to the folks who don’t.

For example, Smith plans to conduct an outreach effort with other rangers at the Chinese New Year celebration in San Francisco during his first few weeks of service in the Bay Area. He also wants to connect with children in urban, under-resourced schools via the National Park Foundation to empower the next generation to visit and preserve federal parks.

“The message that I need to communicate, and what every park ranger out there needs to communicate, is that these parks belong to every one of us,” Smith said. “And we’re going to find ways to be as welcoming as possible.”

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area and its sweeping view of the Golden Gate Bridge. (Photo courtesy of National Park Service)

Exploring the great urban outdoors

As he transitions as head of one of the world’s largest parks in an urban setting, with an estimated 17 million visitors a year, Smith said his first duty is to become familiar with the Bay Area’s vast natural landscape. That means shadowing the recreation’s management team, doing ride-alongs with law enforcement rangers, looking at trail projects and getting his hands dirty in custodial work to really understand how often those toilets have to be cleaned.

And off the clock, Smith said he’s excited to learn about the parkland by venturing out on long trail runs.

“I can’t believe I get to spend my mornings and my weekends running and exploring the park that I get to be part of,” Smith said.

Looking toward the future, Smith said he wants to build off the great work that the superintendents of the past once accomplished, like Brian O’Neill, who manned GGNRA from the mid-1980s until his death in 2009.

It was O’Neill who secured federal protection of San Francisco’s Presidio, Crissy Field and Mori Point, renovated Marin County’s Marine Mammal Center and turned Alcatraz into the worldwide tourist attraction that it is today.

Like O’Neill, Smith said he ultimately wants to inspire Bay Area residents to do their part in protecting the parks.

“I get a chance to push Brian’s dream further. And to me, that’s the most exciting thing,” Smith said.