Last fall Great Smoky Mountains Association nominated Superintendent Cassius Cash for the Public Lands Alliance’s prestigious Agency Leadership Award. On Monday, May 24, PLA recognized him with this honor at its virtual 2021 Public Lands Alliance Partnership Awards.
“The Smokies provide superintendents with nonstop challenges that play out on a national stage under the constant, relentless scrutiny of the media and area business leaders,” GSMA CEO Laurel Rematore was quoted as saying in the nomination, written by Creative Services Director Frances Figart. “Superintendent Cash faces the challenges and pushes his park staff and partner organizations toward embracing the opportunity that lies within each challenge.”
The Agency Leadership Award recognizes a public land management agency employee for outstanding accomplishments in championing, cultivating, and leading partnerships. Cash was nominated by GSMA’s leadership based on his steadfast commitment to leading the Smokies throughout the last six years, as well as for demonstrating outstanding guidance through a difficult year wrought with fear, isolation, and social unrest.
In 2015, Cash became the first-ever African American superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and has since led the park through situations as diverse as the 100th birthday of the National Park Service, the devastating Chimney Tops 2 Fire in November 2016, and the immense visitation numbers during 2017’s Total Solar Eclipse—all while demonstrating an authentic, honest approach to relationship-building in the park.
Last year, shepherding the most-visited national park through a pandemic, Cash led the development and implementation of a COVID-SAFE operations plan in collaboration with Great Smoky Mountains Association, which runs the bookstores in park visitor centers. At the same time, he used his partnership prowess to address two major issues in groundbreaking ways.
First, like many other busy national parks, the Smokies is experiencing unsustainable levels of visitation, and Cash has made it a priority to involve local people in finding solutions through Visitor Experience Stewardship discussions—holding Zoom meetings with gateway community members to make them aware of the issues, gather their input, and seek solutions together.
Second, Cash created an initiative that extends beyond the park’s boundary to make a positive impact throughout the southeast region, gaining national media attention. In response to the deaths of unarmed African Americans and the nationwide social justice movement that followed, Superintendent Cash boldly created Smokies Hikes for Healing, an initiative that utilized the park for eight guided hikes that each allowed ten individuals from the region to participate. He selected highly trained facilitators to join each hike and lead groups in thought-provoking private discussions to recognize and confront the long-standing ills associated with racism.
“If I have left it better than when I found it, then I have done my job,” Cash said in an interview with Figart for the Fall 2020 edition of Smokies Life. “But that doesn’t just apply to my workplace. It’s also about my community. Addressing these issues and looking at how our communities can make changes or be a part of change, I think that is the job I’m here to do.”
Rematore said that Cash “pays attention to the concerns partners express, then works for all involved to have a shared understanding of those concerns, examine the stakes, and arrive at solutions by consensus. Consensus-building takes a lot of time, trust, and work to achieve, but Cash does not settle for anything less.”
The PLA Partnership Awards program is designed to celebrate the best in public lands partnerships, recognizing individuals, organizations, publications, products, programs and services that embody leading-edge achievements in the preservation of public lands and the enrichment of visitors. Through its awards, the program recognizes excellence in public lands partnerships, innovative solutions to challenges, and outstanding programs that enhance visitor experience.
Superintendent Cash was presented the award during Monday’s virtual celebration, which can be viewed at facebook.com/publiclandsalliance. For additional details on the 2021 Public Lands Alliance Partnership Awards, visit publiclandsalliance.org.