GLEN JEAN, W.Va. (AP) — “I guess it was the sunsets,” Lizzie Watts said.
Watts was 2-½ years into her studies at North Carolina State University and had every intention of spending her life tucked away inside a science lab when she headed to the Blue Ridge Parkway for a summer to work as part of a co-op with the National Park Service.
“I was going to be a mad physicist,” she recalled with a chuckle.
But that summer – and those sunsets on the parkway – quickly changed her mind.
“Forestry turned out to be a perfect fit for me,” she said.
From interpreter to chief ranger, Watts has had a lot of titles in the years since the brightly colored evening skies altered her life’s plans.
But her newest title – superintendent for New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, Gauley River National Recreation Area and the Bluestone National Scenic River – is by far her longest.
To be fair, only portions of the title are new.
Watts, who has a 34-year history with the park, has served as superintendent for four years.
But it was only in December that Congress declared the New River Gorge an official national park.
Watts spent her early years with the National Park Service on the Blue Ridge Parkway before transferring out west to Olympic National Park in Washington State.
“If you’ve never been there, it’s truly a remarkable piece of the world,” she said, explaining it’s the only place in the continental United States with all three ecosystems: a rainforest, a glacier, and a coast.
Her travels then took her across the country – twice – to the Washington Parkway in D.C., and then to Colorado where she served as chief ranger at Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
After a few years there, Watts hoped to get closer to North Carolina when her mother became ill.
As it happened, during her early travels, a 53-mile stretch of the New River, between Bluestone and Hawks Nest dams, had become a unit of the National Park System in November 1978.
And in 1987, when Watts looked for her next destination, she found it in Oak Hill.
“When I was hired, there were only five permanent employees,” she said of those early days during which the park was headquartered out of a tiny office above a downtown Oak Hill bank.
Although the wheels had been in motion for nearly a decade when Watts first came on board, the park was still in its infancy and was just beginning to grow.
Watts explains its formation, led by a push from the late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd.
“New River is a unique park in the fact that when it was originally established by Sen. Byrd, he intentionally did not include condemnation rights,” she said, explaining Byrd did not want landowners to be forced to give up their property. “He believed very much that it should be willing seller, willing buyer.”
So, since the late 1980s, Congress has purchased property one piece at a time, adding up to the approximately 60,000 acres of which Watts said the park now consists.
“They’ll always be some landowners who keep their land,” she said. “We’ll never own it all.”
There was tremendous growth during Watts’ early years with New River, with the construction of the visitors center and exhibits at Canyon Rim and the shift from the tiny Oak Hill office to new headquarters in Glen Jean.
“We also purchased the land to buy the Thurmond depot from CSX and spent time reestablishing the building because it was on the ground in horrible shape,” she said. “And we historically furnished the upstairs to tell the railroad, logging and coal mine stories of the New River.”
In 2001, Watts spent a year working under the regional NPS director in Philadelphia before returning to New River and her partner Greg, an Oak Hill native who also worked for the Park Service.
Before long, though keeping her home base with Greg in Oak Hill, she again hit the road, accepting the job as superintendent at Women’s Rights National Historic Site in upstate New York.
“I got to meet some fascinating women when I was there,” she said, explaining former first lady Roslyn Carter and the late U.S. Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg were both honored during a weekend celebration.
And though she didn’t know it at the time, she would soon become close with both the former first lady and former President Jimmy Carter, when she was selected to serve as the first superintendent of the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site in Plains, Ga.
“The Carters are tremendous people,” she said of the couple with whom she attended church and sometimes ate dinner. “They are wonderfully kind and generous and welcomed me with open arms.”
When her late father, a WWII veteran who also got to know the Carters, became ill in North Carolina, Watts again decided she wanted to be closer to family, so she applied for the superintendent position on the Andrew Johnson Highway.
It was there – or back where she started with those sunsets on the Blue Ridge Parkway – where Watts thought she might close out her career.
She regularly traveled back to Oak Hill to be with Greg, but she said she wasn’t going to apply for a superintendent position in a park where her significant other was employed.
Then, in 2016, after 28 years, Greg woke up one morning and decided to retire.
So, when the superintendent position came open at New River, she applied and was hired.
“I thought I would finish my career on the road,” she said. “I was delighted to come back.”
Things are a bit different than when Watts was one of five employees working out of a six-room office space 34 years ago.
A bit different and a bit the same.
Watts said that staff of five worked hard to feel its way through growing pains, building infrastructure, listening to the community about what it wanted to see from the NPS and simply trying to determine what the future held.
And now, things are still a bit like that but on a much bigger scale.
“We’ve got visitors from all over the world,” she said. “They’re expecting all kinds of things from a national park. And what a great time to be here. What a great time to figure out what we’ll look like and how it will be and how to meet those visitors’ expectations as a national park and preserve.”
She said the park has seen a definite increase in visitors since the designation. And whereas the most commonly asked question previously was, “Where’s the bridge?” in reference to the New River Gorge Bridge, now people want to know about the park itself.
“Now it’s ‘How do I hike? Where can I camp? What’s so significant about this park? What makes it special?'” she said.
The questions about hikes and camping are pretty basic and the answers to what makes the park significant had to be answered before Congress made the designation.
Those are the resources and the history, Watts said, pointing to everything from the rhododendron at Grandview to the ecosystem at Sandstone Falls, the coal, logging and rail history at Thurmond and the water of the New River.
“Those (four areas) were set aside as the national park and the rest was set aside as the preserve so we could ensure some of the tradition of southern Appalachia, like hunting,” she explained.
And as for what makes it special, Watts said it’s really everything.
“The spring wildflowers that come out every year are some of the best in the world,” she said. “We have over 1,500 animals and plants that call it home. Fall color is magical. It’s great if you’re a hiker or a climber. Or if you’re like me, a general visitor that likes to sightsee and see views and spend time sitting by the river, what better place is there to do that?”
She said the park, the nation’s newest, has something for everyone.
“If this is home, I challenge you to find a place you’ve never been,” she said “Or if you’re not from here, I offer you the opportunity to have a great summer vacation and not just summer. We’re spectacular spring, summer, fall and winter.”