National Park Service superintendents dream of overseeing such crown jewels as Yosemite or Yellowstone. But Gayle Hazelwood's ideal turf involves less buffalo and more asphalt. The 21-year veteran of the Park Service got her wish last fall when she took supervision of National Capital Parks-East, one of the most eclectic and history-rich park systems in the country.
"I wouldn't be happy in the Grand Canyon," Hazelwood said in a recent interview. "I need the culture of the cities."
National Capital Parks-East encompasses 8,000 acres of federal land mostly east of the U.S. Capitol and stretching north and south along the Anacostia River. There are 16 sites, including Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Langston Golf Course, Anacostia Park, Fort Washington and the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site.
Hazelwood, 45, joined the National Park Service as a seasonal employee during college. "A country girl born and raised," is how she described her growing up in rural Ohio. But her tour of duty through the Park Service has taken her to Atlanta and New Orleans, and with her latest appointment in Washington, a career theme is developing: preserving national treasures -- both natural and historical -- in the urban environment.
"People think of National Park Service sites as Western parks," Hazelwood said. "The urban parks are equally as important."
Her tooled leather belt and ranger hat suggest that she spends her days in mosquito-infested ecosystems, but much of her time as superintendent is spent overseeing National Capital Parks-East's $14 million budget and 172 employees and reviewing PowerPoint data labeled "Tank Equipment Specifications," as she did one recent spring morning with three staff members at headquarters in Anacostia Park. Her office is filled with memorabilia from her previous postings, including vintage jazz photos from New Orleans and a black-and-white portrait of Martin Luther King Jr.
Hazelwood is the first female superintendent of National Capital Parks-East and is considered by some to have the polish and vision to continue her rise in the National Park Service.
"Gayle could end up being director some day if the job doesn't always remain political," said Ron Thoman, a 35-year veteran of the Park Service who gave Hazelwood her first job.
In the Washington division, Hazelwood succeeded John Hale, who retired last year and for whom she served as deputy in 2003. Protecting federal land against mounting development pressures is among her top priorities. But what really fires her up is connecting area residents with the history and nature that exist under their noses.
So much so that she invites a reporter to hop in her car to set out along the Anacostia. What appears invisible to the uninformed eye is a fountain of history to Hazelwood. She points out the boating clubs started in the 1940s by African Americans. Initially, the Interior Department refused to rent property to blacks but eventually gave the boaters a piece of marshy swampland along the Southeast Anacostia waterfront after Mary McLeod Bethune and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt intervened.
She moves north along the river. "In the urban environment, you have the motorboats and you can see the city. You see great blue herons and egrets as you get north of the Benning Road Bridge. Here you are, in the federal city, and you can paddle out to serenity."
One of Hazelwood's preoccupations is the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, funded and coordinated by multiple agencies, including the Park Service. The plan proposes a 48-mile trail system, including 20 miles of trails along the riverfront areas. Hazelwood has appeared at public hearings and neighborhood meetings to stress the need for striking a balance between development and preservation of the Anacostia.
She arrives at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, a 14-acre sanctuary devoted to the cultivation of flowering aquatic plants. Stepping into the park is like entering another world of lilies, tubers and the murky waters of the bordering 77-acre freshwater tidal marsh. Remarkably, a public housing complex is across the street -- a juxtaposition that Hazelwood loves -- and during the summer, kids come to the gardens to chase turtles or look at the lotus stands.
She walks the squishy land and studies the wrath of Hurricane Isabel on the trees, which are more sparse this year. She comes across a potato chip bag on the ground and bends over. "You know I hate trash," she said, grabbing the litter as she walks. A boardwalk takes her out across the marsh. She spreads her arms. "The birds, the sounds, we are less than six or seven miles from the Capitol," she said. "And at Greenbelt Park, people don't realize you can camp 16 miles from the District. You can stay at Greenbelt campground, jump on Metro and come see the monuments. We need to get better about promoting that."
Hazelwood grew up in Cambridge, Ohio, the daughter of a tool-and-die man and a General Electric worker. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Ohio University, where she was a goalie on the varsity lacrosse team. During college, she started working at the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area as a seasonal employee. Later, hired full time, she created the first in-park overnight experience for inner-city kids from Akron and Cleveland.
In 1991, she became "chief of interpretation" at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta. She was involved with negotiations with Coretta Scott King to coordinate the completion of the visitor center at the King site. In 1998, she was named superintendent of the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park in the French Quarter. During her tenure, the Interior Department approved a multiphase master plan to make improvements to the park, such as adding a jazz research library, visitor center and performance halls, much of which Hazelwood helped launch. She left before completion, accepting a job in 2003 as assistant superintendent for National Capital Parks-East.
Her Washington posting has brought its own challenges. "I don't just have one congressman, I have several," she said. "There's politics wherever you go, but the microscope is probably refined here."
Easing her car to a halt, Hazelwood takes special pleasure in stopping by the Langston Golf Course. It opened as a nine-hole facility in 1939 when limited golfing facilities were available to blacks. (Nine additional holes were constructed in the 1980s.)
"These greens are some of the best in the area," said Hazelwood, a die-hard golfer who shoots in the low 90s. "You can see the river, with great vantage points of the city."
Plans for renovations are underway at the Langston course, as well as a $2 million renovation of the Frederick Douglass house, another site in Hazelwood's division. The abolitionist's former home is in Anacostia and is open for tours.
Hazelwood and some of her staff are planning a day to ride the Metro to demonstrate the ease of getting to most of the sites in National Capital Parks-East.
"This a personal crusade," Hazelwood said. "Making that connection between people and their parks."