One can pardon Sam England for feeling he’s married to West Virginia’s park system.
After all, he married the park system three days before he married his wife.
“It’s true,” says England, the state’s new chief of parks. “I graduated from WVU on a Sunday, became the naturalist at North Bend State Park on Monday, got married to my wife on Thursday and was back at work on Friday.”
More than 30 years have passed since then, a trio of decades that brought England to many of the system’s parks, state forests and wildlife management areas, and put him in charge of more than a few of them.
He believes his experience has prepared him well for the daunting task he faces: administering a sprawling, cash-strapped enterprise that encompasses 50 separate areas and employs some 2,000 people.
“No doubt, funding is the biggest challenge we face,” says the 53-year-old Wyoming County native. “We’ve identified more than $60 million worth of immediate maintenance needs throughout the system. Unfortunately, most of those needs are not sexy — water lines, sewer lines, building structures, stuff like that. Unless we want our parks to crumble before our eyes, we’re going to have to find a way to pay for that maintenance.”
To find out where the needs are most acute, England and Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette have spent weeks crisscrossing the state, picking the minds of park superintendents and meeting with local officials.
“Secretary Burdette had a desire to see the parks and to see what we’re about,” England says. “We began in August, about a month after I came on the job, with the goal of visiting every park within the system.”
What they discovered is that West Virginians are passionate about their parks.
“Even if people don’t use their parks, they like to know they’re there, set aside as special places,” England says. “When people feel good about their parks, they feel good about their state.”
He believes West Virginians’ love for their parks stems largely from the dedication parks employees exhibit toward their work.
“It all comes back to the staff we have,” he says. “Every park has a maintenance guy who can do just about anything, and every park has a superintendent whose job it is to keep the park going on a shoestring [budget]. Those are hard jobs, but our people do it because they love it.
“Some state employees come to work, put in their eight hours and leave without a second thought. Parks employees live on the parks and are pretty much always there. They love the parks they serve, and they love interacting with visitors.”
England speaks from experience. There aren’t many jobs within the system at which he hasn’t had at least some experience.
His first parks job came while he was a schoolboy in Mullens, working on the golf-course maintenance crew at Twin Falls State Park. While he was in college, he took jobs as a seasonal naturalist.
After graduating, he spent two years at North Bend as a full-time naturalist. He jumped to the superintendent ranks from there, at the Moncove Lake Wildlife Management Area from 1986 to 1990; at Greenbrier State Forest from 1990 to 1998; and at Stonewall Jackson State Park from 1998 to July of this year.
“You do a lot of stuff when you’re a superintendent,” England says. “You cut grass, you pick up litter, you repair plumbing, you repair roofs and clean gutters. You’re a cop. Heck, I’ve even been a Class I water treatment plant operator and sewage plant operator.”
During England’s tenure at Stonewall, the park underwent an upgrade to resort-park status, with the day-to-day management of many of its facilities turned over to the resort’s developers.
“My responsibilities evolved,” he recalls. “I started doing other projects throughout the system. We needed an administrator to implement a computerized reservation system. I worked together with Scott Durham and got that done. We also oversaw the installment of wireless systems in all the resort parks.
“When the system needed someone to open the new lodge at Chief Logan State Park, three of us [parks employees] got sent there for almost a year to make it happen.
“Also, when a park was without a superintendent for a while, I was often the one who got sent there to fill in until someone got hired. I was temporary superintendent at Cabwaylingo, Cass, Hawks Nest, Lost River and Chief Logan. It’s really kind of cool to have done so many things. I think it’s given me a better feel for the system as a whole.”
England knows that the key to success in his new job will be translating all those experiences into policies that result in sound fiscal management.
“Funding will be key,” he says. “One thing I really plan to focus on is finding alternate sources of revenue. Foundations and grants will become important to us. It’s not that previous administrators haven’t wanted to do that, it’s just that they never had time to. We’re going to have to make that time.”
England recently sent a West Virginia parks employee to a national conference for state parks volunteers.
“The idea is to have him come back and share with us what people in other states are doing. We want to set up a network of people to coordinate things and to help us make the most of what we have to work with,” England says.
Some of the state’s lawmakers have argued that funding state parks is a money-losing proposition. England doesn’t see it that way.
“Parks add to the quality of life,” he says. “If hiking trails and picnic areas and swimming pools were profitable, there would be companies competing to build hiking trails, picnic areas and swimming pools.
“Parks are areas set aside for their unique natural beauty, for their culture or for their historical significance. Here in West Virginia, the best places are owned by the public and set aside for their use. There’s an intrinsic value in that.”
Sounds like someone who’s married to the system, doesn’t it?