Year Awarded: 
2017

     Lewis Ledford joined the state parks system in 1976 at WB Umstead State Park in North Carolina as a ranger, and he rose through the ranks to become director of the division in 2003, the first director to do so. 

     Throughout his career, Lewis has been instrumental in developing partnerships with a variety of groups, including conservation organizations, major land owners and other state, local and federal government agencies. Upon assuming the role as head of the North Carolina state parks system, Lewis provided outstanding leadership and direction for the agency, spearheaded unprecedented park creation and acquisition initiatives, and was an unrelenting advocate for more equitable compensation for park staff – the “other most important resource in parks.”

     In a state with some of the country’s highest population increases and competing interests in commercial development of lands, the North Carolina General Assembly established five new state parks, a state trail, and six state natural areas during his tenure. Ledford was a driving force in the creation and development of the Gorges State Park and the establishment of Grandfather Mountain, Chimney Rock, Haw River, Carvers Creek and Mayo River state parks, including major purchases. During his time as director (November 2003-January 2014), North Carolina added almost 50,000 acres, an approximate 20% increase to the state parks system. His close work with the state legislature and others to support parks resulted in $437 million being invested in state and local parks for acquisitions and capital construction. Additionally, he secured over $23 million in private donations in the last five years he served as state parks director. The success can be attributed to partnerships and alliances with numerous organizations and establishing multiple citizen advocacy groups.

     Lewis was the key player in the purchase of Chimney Rock, the most significant purchase in the park system’s history, expanding the park to more than 6,800 acres. One of the most recognized landmarks in eastern America, this conservation effort received international coverage. In January 2007, the state of North Carolina agreed to purchase Chimney Rock at a purchase price of $24 million for the 996-acre park and its signature 315-foot spire that overlooks Lake Lure. After his initial contact with the owner and involvement in negotiations, Lewis’ appearance before the legislature was instrumental in securing a $15-million appropriation in the state budget to make this historic acquisition that had been the highest realty listing in state history. He was successful in securing grants from the state's conservation trust funds and convincing a private donor to contribute $2.35 million for the purchase – all necessary to close the deal.

     Lewis spearheaded the state’s efforts beginning in 2007 to purchase Grandfather Mountain. In 2008, the state announced plans to acquire 2,456 acres on the landmark mountain, the only private park designated by the United Nations as an International Biosphere, for $12 million from the Morton family and Grandfather Mountain, Inc. The General Assembly authorized the acquisition and creation of the park, completed in 2009, a bargain sale made possible through negotiations coordinated by Lewis, in partnership with The Conservation Fund, The Nature Conservancy and other advocates. 

     He was instrumental in the development of an effective partnership that led to a major expansion at Lake James State Park in western North Carolina. The state and Crescent Resources reached agreement in 2004 to add the land to the state park for $18.36 million, well below its appraised value. The acquisition expanded the state park to six times its former size and allowed the conservation of more than 30 miles of lakeshore. 

     For many years, Lewis championed the division's environmental education push and professional law enforcement training for park rangers. In 2006, the North Carolina General Assembly and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources approved funding to implement the recommendations of a 2004 study to raise salaries of all rangers approximately 18%. The approval also improved the salaries of maintenance personnel. The salary adjustment addressed a pay inequity that had existed since 1988 when law enforcement certification was required.

     At Lewis’ direction, 95% of the state’s park ranger staff earned environmental education certification, and the remainder enrolled in the program of the state Office of Environmental Education. A central part of the system’s mission is to share knowledge about the natural resources it protects. North Carolina received national recognition for this ongoing education and certification effort.

     In 2008, Lewis initiated a study to be conducted by North Carolina State University to learn more about the impact of North Carolina state parks on local economies. The study determined North Carolina’s state parks contributed more than $419 million to local economies and local residents’ income. Heretofore, no documentation existed to confirm the economic impacts of parks in North Carolina.

     In 2008, Ledford directed adherence to standards of the Green Building Council for new or significantly renovated buildings. State Parks were the first agency in the state to achieve a LEED certification.

     Under Lewis’ leadership, the state parks in 2009 launched a full-service Internet and call center-based reservations system for its nearly 3,000 campsites, picnic shelters, cabins, community buildings, and other facilities. This was one of the most significant advances of visitor services in the 93-year history of the state parks system. 

     With the support of trail enthusiasts and others, Lewis worked to invigorate interest in and support for the Mountains-To-Sea Trail. This trail links Clingman's Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Jockey's Ridge State Park. Lewis, who described the trail as the “1,000-Mile Partnership,” persuaded the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund Authority to allocate funds each year to the MTS for land acquisition.

     Ledford retired from North Carolina State Parks in 2014 and was quickly recruited to serve as the Executive Director of the National Association of State Park Directors. His experience in managing state parks and his remarkable ability to advocate for the conservation of outdoor recreation made him an ideal candidate. He has since provided several Congressional testimonies in support of the Land and Water Conservation Fund for local and state parks. Ledford raised the bar for America’s state parks to become more engaged in the national and international stage by promoting First Day Hikes. He encouraged and supported the participation of America’s state parks in the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia. Ledford continues to work with directors to enhance the sustainability of the state park systems across America. Ledford excels in recruiting new partners and advocates to support America’s state parks. His efforts have gained America’s state parks many new partners in industries that are looking for ways to be proactive in the health and wellness of our citizens. 

     In 2015, Ledford accepted the role of the Director of the State Park Leadership School. This helped improve the link between state park systems and student recruitment of the Leadership School. Ledford not only understands the importance of staff education but recognizes the need for true leadership within the ranks of America’s state parks. Enrollment numbers are at their highest level ever under his direction. 

     Ledford’s passion for America’s state parks and the conservation and preservation of the special landscapes of our nation is evident from his lifelong effort to make a difference in the field of parks and recreation. He lives his life surrounded by family, colleagues, and close friends who support and share his passion for the importance parks and outdoor recreation has on our society. [September 2017]