ASSATEAGUE ISLAND – Growing up on a horse and cattle ranch in Missouri, Trish Kicklighter knew from a young age that she wanted to be a park ranger.
Kicklighter, the new superintendent of Assateague Island National Seashore (AINS), said she has wanted to work for the National Park Service since she was nine years old.
With a laugh, she credits television as her inspiration: Flipper, which featured a park ranger from the Everglades; Lassie, with the title dog at one point owned by a park ranger; and a lesser known program named Sierra Ranger.
“I just thought that what they did was so fabulous. This is what I’ve wanted to do since I was a little girl,” Kicklighter said. “I would go out and look for robins, and inventory the birds’ nests, and inventory the tracks I saw of different animals…it’s sort of been my focus all my life.”
Armed with a degree in wildlife conservation and management from Southwest Missouri State University, Kicklighter joined the National Park Service right out of college, beginning her career as a naturalist, or interpreter, at Ozark National Scenic Riverways in Missouri.
Kicklighter then moved into administration to manage finances at Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego. Next came a position as budget analyst at Point Reyes National Seashore in California, followed by another post at the park service Pacific West regional office. Kicklighter then moved to Harper’s Ferry Design Center as deputy manager of budget and finance. From there, she moved on in 2001 to be chief of administration at Shenandoah National Park.
Most recently Kicklighter held the post of deputy superintendent at Shenandoah National Park.
When Kicklighter decided to take the next professional step up to park superintendent, she applied for the Assateague Island National Seashore superintendent posting.
Her desire to stay in the north east region of the National Park Service and to move to a natural resource-based park as opposed to a historic-based park, which are much more common in the north east, came together at Assateague.
Kicklighter and her husband, Wayne, had vacationed in Chincoteague, so she already loved the area. A visit to Assateague’s Maryland portion last August and an in-depth tour of the island with then-Superintendent Scott Bentley cemented her interest.
“I thought, you know, I would like to work at this island,” Kicklighter said.
Kicklighter inherited several projects, like the new Maryland AINS visitors center, which will be three times the size of the current building and will allow better educational programming and improved and increased exhibits, she said.
Kicklighter will also pursue park service required initiatives like the Assateague general management plan, a lengthy process to conclude in two years, as well as a transportation study. The general management plan will guide the park’s future for the next 15 to 20 years.
“It’s a great time to be a superintendent here,” said Kicklighter. “We’ve got these great projects.”
She also brought some broad goals in of her own.
“I really want to get out and know the community, and work closely with the community, and have Assateague really seen as an integral part of the community,” said Kicklighter.
Her future legacy, Kicklighter hopes, will be that she helped build strong community relations between the park and citizens.
She has also ramped up communication efforts between staffers, with emphasis on making sure the Virginia section employees feel connected to, and in the know with, their Maryland counterparts.
“I like everyone to know what’s going on,” said Kicklighter.
One of Kicklighter’s on-island projects is increasing recycling opportunities in AINS, moving the single recycling area to a more prominent, convenient spot for visitors and staff and adding more stations to deposit recyclables.
Her background in budgeting has made her hyper-aware of the need to better use park funds by tracking expenditures and setting spending priorities.
“We owe it to the taxpayers. We’re being very efficient with our funds and making our dollars stretch as far as it can,” Kicklighter said.