Still here at Croft State Natural Area and having a great time. But today, I’m due at Paris Mountain State Park again. This time to interview Park Manager, Jason Hege. He was traveling during my visit there week before last, but kindly agreed to sit down for an interview today if I’d drive over.
Driving along the highways and secondary roads between Croft State Natural Area near Spartanburg and Paris Mountain State Park near Greenville, I’m struck once again with the diversity and variety of South Carolina’s natural and social environments. This Upstate area is quite a different world from the Sandhills of the Midlands, or from the Lowcountry. No wonder State politics still reflects those regional divisions!
I wish I had the background necessary to write insightfully about those differences. An excellent source for that, and more, about South Carolina from early on until now, is Walter Edgar’s 700-page definitive work: South Carolina: A History. Published by USC Press in 1998, it’s widely available. I’ll try to remember to put a link in here for an internet source. [It's here!] Don’t be put off by the size of the book. It’s a joy to read. I carry a copy regularly in the Aliner. For reference, of course, but mainly for relaxation reading.
Paris Mountain really is a showcase park. You only need to drive from the main gate to the Park Office to recognize that. Now, showcase parks are manufactured products, not natural phenomena. They don’t just “happen,” in other words. Individuals, and groups of individuals, are responsible for their creation and maintenance. So I was especially anxious to hear what Mr. Hege had to say about his Park.
The Park Office didn’t open until 11:00 a.m., so I had a few minutes before our 10:00 a.m. appointment to look around again before Mr. Hege came out from the Office. You really do have to see this renovated stacked stone building.
When I asked if we could record the interview in Mr. Hege’s Park office, he looked somewhat reluctant, and said he really doesn’t spend much of his time in there. Understandable. He’s not that kind of manager!
When you think about it, that makes sense. Park management is a very hands-on sort of business. So, it’s better for the manager to be out and around the Park than sitting at a desk, I guess. But that also means the Park Manager has to get up early, or stay late, to complete his or her essential administrative chores.
We did go in the office. And I took a couple of photos, including the first two you see above. But there really wasn’t room for both of us to sit comfortably. So we repaired to Ranger Cathy’s classroom for the interview.
As usual, we began with details of Mr. Hege’s early personal life. As the son of a long-serving South Carolina Highway Patrolman, Jason lived in several South Carolina towns. Never far from the State’s natural environment.
Mr. Hege then described his experience at Clemson University. Where he majored in wildlife/fisheries biology, with a minor in forestry. Not parks, recreation, and tourism. That background gave Jason both advantages and disadvantages when beginning his career as a Park Ranger. He tells us here that his biology background gave him a “fresh set of eyes” to look at Park management.
From there we turned to Mr. Hege’s career in the South Carolina Park Service. I don’t believe that was his original objective. But Jason had the opportunity to meet and talk with Park Manager Joe Anderson at Caesar’s Head. A conversation that Jason believes changed the direction of his career. Once again we hear about a senior Park Service employee identifying talent and recruiting that talent to the Service.
Based on that conversation, Mr. Hege applied for entry-level Ranger One positions at both KIng’s Mountain and at Paris Mountain. Kings Mountain got him due to the seniority and persuasiveness of Kings Mountain Park Manager, Frank Couch. And there Jason spent his first nine years, earning two promotions, and learning the business, so to speak.
The sacrifices made by South Carolina’s Park Rangers are not only monetary. They also are expected to be willing to move their homes and families when called. After nine years, two promotions, and the birth of three children at Kings Mountain, Jason and his family moved four times in the next two years. Imagine that! Finally arriving here at Paris Mountain State Park just three years ago today!
I then asked Mr. Hege to describe the advantages of a career as a South Carolina Park Ranger. He had a lot to say. Diversity of responsibilities; the opportunity to work out-of-doors; living in the Park environment; and so on.
Listen carefully to his list of advantages. Not everyone would agree with his evaluation, I suspect. Which must be an important reason the Park Service is so choosy when they recruit rangers. The career doesn’t suit everyone.
After the advantages I asked Mr. Hege to describe the disadvantages of the job. There he didn’t do quite as well. Mr. Hege’s a Company Man. We’ll have to go to other sources to learn about the disadvantages, I guess. One thing we can say with certainty is that the Park Service requires a very special sort of person. Not just everyone could do it. And among those who could, an even smaller percentage would enjoy what they do.
Park Managers are asked to briefly describe their Parks over and over, to various audiences. I’ve found the question elicits interesting descriptions of the various Parks. Mr. Hege was no exception. His emphasis throughout the description was on the relationship of the natural resource to people. The people of Greenville and the surrounding area.
Listen carefully to that too. I could understand how a conscientious park ranger might become quite defensive about his or her Park. Emphasizing the negative effects of public visitor-ship on the Park, rather than the positive effects of that visitation on the visitors. Sort of like old-fashioned librarians responsible for rare books collections.
None of that here. And what a difference it makes to the Park visitor’s experience. Beginning with check-in. It makes the difference between feeling like you’re being processed into a medium-security correctional institution, or beginning a positive experience.
Time was running short by now. So in closing I asked Mr. Hege about Paris Mountain’s comprehensive interpretive program. He described it as one of the largest in the State, praising the work of Interpretive Ranger Cathy Taylor in the process. Like Ranger Cathy, Jason emphasized the hands-on education the program provides. And the multiplier effect of that program on community awareness of the Park.
I also asked about Paris Mountain’s friends group. Jason said the group maintains active contact with over 600 members! Incredible. Every Park is different, of course. Different resources; different problems. But I believe Paris Mountain’s Friends group is worth careful study. Some of their strategies and activities should be more broadly applicable.
By then we were completely out of time. Mr. Hege was gracious and polite. But I knew he had several people outside waiting to consult him.
Thanks again, Jason Hege, for your generous allocation of time and expertise today. I hope to watch the development of your career in the South Carolina Park Service for some time to come.