Catoctin Mountain Park Superintendent, Mel Poole, will retire on August 25, 2015, having completed an adventurous thirty-seven year career with the National Park Service (NPS). When summarizing his contributions, Poole let out a chuckle. Correction, it was more of a flat-out laugh. I soon understood why as he reviewed the many roles he’s filled during his career.
About Catoctin Mountain Park, where he’s spent the majority of the last seventeen years within the National Park Service system, he said, “For sure, the park is bigger, if not better,” as he explained that the park has grown from 5,772 acres to its current size of 5,890 acres.
He recalled that Catoctin Mountain Park was the first in the National Capital Region to look at deer management in order to aid in forest regeneration. Don’t forget that until the 1920s, the Catoctin forest was substantially cut over by various timber businesses to make charcoal for Catoctin Furnace. The mountain has been growing back, or regenerating, since then. Poole was part of a regional Environmental Assessment team that was formed in 1978 to determine what to do about the increasing deer population at Catoctin Park.
Poole noted that the park knows more about its natural resources than ever, but are still finding new species and monitoring populations of species. Park resources are faced with a huge range of issues: invasive species, threats to vegetation like the Gypsy Moth and hemlock, future potential threats like Emerald Ash Bore (EAB), all overlaid with fluctuating climate conditions like rainfall, severe storms, and changing air and water quality.
Brook trout have been an icon in Catoctin Mountain Park, drawing fly fisherman from near and far. In recent years, there has been a decline in the numbers of brook trout, not only across the State of Maryland, but across the country as well. Less than nine percent of historic brook trout habitat remains nationwide and sixty-two percent of the historic habitat has been lost in Maryland.
The depth of Poole’s knowledge of all of the varying parts he’s managed within the park, from studies of current plant and animal species, management and preventive maintenance of those species, and day to day challenges created by the use of the park by humans, is difficult to convey in this short space, but be assured that Poole’s knowledge is comprehensive.
He said, Catoctin Mountain Park “has one of the strongest resource protection ethics of all the parks in the region.” He shifted credit for this ethic to current coworkers and former employees of the park. He also shared credit with other state and local park systems and federal, state, and county agencies, indicating that the high standards would not be achieved without their support, cooperation, and contributions towards a shared vision.
Poole’s ethics, like that of his peers, mirror those of the National Park Service’s 1916 Organic Act that mandated the conservation and preservation of natural resources for future generations. He said, “Invasive species have the ability to come to us within twelve hours, thanks to air travel. Globally, it’s hard to keep outside influences from impacting the ecosystems that we’re trying to manage.”
Raised in the Tidewater area of Virginia, and with deep family roots in coastal North Carolina, Poole is one in a proud family of public servants. He said he knew he wanted to be a ranger from about age eight when he wrote his congressman and asked for a job. He claims he was a typical suburban kid who, in junior high, wandered into the woods in his neighborhood where he discovered life and wonder, which further fueled his interest in nature. He then climbed the ranks of Scouts as a Cub Scout, Boy Scout, and Explorer, spending his time completing tasks to earn outdoor conservation merit badges.
He was fortunate, at age fourteen, to attend the National Boy Scout Conservation Camp, where he spent time building trails with professors from Rutgers University who taught conservation. Poole said, “I ate it up! I absolutely loved it.”
From a tent mate who was from Pennsylvania, Poole learned about the varying wild life and terrain in Pennsylvania. He said he felt the camp mate, “might as well have been from Mars,” because he described a landscape so different from Poole’s coastal habitat. He also met people from Texas, New York, New Hampshire, and Georgia, and learned that there were even more parts of America. He said, “I was going to see them all.” He then worked in a Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) program in Norfolk, Virginia, for three years and went on to college at Virginia Tech, where he earned a degree in horticulture by way of forestry and landscape architecture.
He accepted his first job within the NPS in 1978 as a gardener in the White House greenhouse. President Carter was in the White House at that time. Later, working with National Capital Parks-East, a management unit based in D.C., he gained experience with hard-core urban parks, but also worked on a portion of the Potomac River and historic sites, where he worked with vegetation management and cultural landscapes. It was here and along the Anacostia River that he worked oil spills, first as a Hazardous Materials Specialist for the park and then at the regional level. This work, along with firefighting and water fowl hunting management, made for exciting daily adventures.
In 1984, he qualified as an interagency firefighter. For six years, he fought fires each summer and fall in Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, Montana, and California. Meanwhile, he progressed in grade and served as the Regional Fire Management Officer for six months, during which time he mobilized firefighter crews from the mid-Atlantic area to wherever forest fires were occurring across the continental United States. In 1989, he was detailed to Kodiak, Alaska, to help clean up the Exxon Valdez Oil spill. He said, “That was interesting, because I thought Denver’s mountains were big. It’s double that in Alaska.” His oil spill expertise would again be put to the test when he was assigned to the BP oil spill along the Gulf Coast in 2010.
Before accepting the Superintendent job at Catoctin Mountain Park, Poole was the Park Manager at President’s Park in Washington, D.C.—ground zero for First Amendment activity in Lafayette Park and lineups for White House public tours. He helped at seven Easter Egg Rolls, seven White House Christmas Tree Lightings, and two Presidential Inaugurations. Poole literally watched history being made every day during his time in Presidents Park.
A career highlight for Poole occurred in 1992 when then First Lady Barbara Bush requested that the National Park Service provide a White House tour for every fourth grader in Washington, D.C. Poole handed a script to rangers who greeted school children at the Northwest Gate where, every Wednesday from 9:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m., fourth graders entered the White House through the front door on the North Portico. These kids witnessed daily business and history of the nation as they moved through the White House on their tours. He said, “It was a great school year for them, and a great experience for all the NPS rangers!”
In 1994, a new visitor pavilion was built on the Ellipse at President’s Park to replace a kiosk where Poole and his park rangers worked. It was complete with new bathrooms for visitors and a first-aid room where rangers could treat minor visitor injuries. He said, “We saw that as a quantum leap forward.”
In April 1995, Poole helped to open the White House Visitor Center across the street at 1450 Pennsylvania Avenue. In addition to high quality exhibits on White House history and a retail store staffed by the White House Historical Association, the National Park Service provided public tour ticketing for visitors each morning until 9/11 ended that tour operation. It was a big milestone to open that facility because, even if you couldn’t take a tour of the White House, you could still have a White House experience. In June of that year, Poole went to Shenandoah National Park to temporarily serve as Public Information Officer on the incident team managing a double homicide investigation. This case was later featured on America’s Most Wanted.
Poole finished at President’s Park in 1997 and moved to Catoctin Mountain Park. He’s been at Catoctin since March 1997, leaving briefly in 2006 to serve as Superintendent at George Washington Memorial Parkway, and again in 2009 to serve as acting Superintendent at Gettysburg National Military Park.
His milestones at Catoctin include work on President Clinton’s Middle East Summit, President Obama’s G8 Summit, and Gulf Coast Summit. In 2008, the park conducted a two-day search operation that successfully recovered a lost eighty-one-year-old woman.
Upon retirement, he is planning some genealogy research, some doing nothing, and a visit to a lifesaving station on the Outer Banks in North Carolina, where three of his cousins were keepers, to volunteer.
Poole and his wife, Candy, will continue to reside in Thurmont. Their son, Joshua, is currently serving in the Marine Corps, stationed at New River Air Station in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Their daughter, Lauren, recently graduated from Penn State, and landed a job as page designer for a newspaper in North Carolina.