Santa Monica Mountains man on the move
December 14, 2011
Woody Smeck may speak softly, but he carries a big reputation.
With his wide-brimmed hat and low-key eloquence, Smeck has become the public face of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and in many ways its staunchest guardian.
As superintendent of the country’s largest urban national park for more than a decade, Smeck has presided over the recreation area as it added thousands of acres of new public open space. Working with partners from every level of government as well as those from community and non-profit groups, Smeck has helped shape everything from firefighting practices to educational outreach to preservation guidelines for sensitive wildlife habitats.
And he has been a tireless advocate for the 153,750-acre recreation area, appearing in this video and countless other forums to explain the complexity and importance of the vast natural preserve at the edge of the one of the world’s largest cities.
Now he’s getting ready to to make his mark on another national treasure. In April, he will become Yosemite National Park’s new deputy superintendent. And those who’ve walked the path with him here are already feeling the loss.
“I’m so sad,” said Kim Lamorie, president of the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation, which honored Smeck with its “Citizen of the Year” award in May.
“There is only one Woody Smeck.”
In honoring Smeck, Lamorie credited his “quiet but persuasive ability to finesse funding” of new open space acquisitions. Future generations, she said, will “revel in the wonder of the wild and wonderful resources you have preserved.”
Geoffrey Given, who heads the advisory board for the Santa Monica Mountains campus of the educational program NatureBridge, said Smeck’s impending departure is “a huge loss for Santa Monica [but] a huge gain for Yosemite.”
“He has been an unbelievable advocate and supporter of what we do,” Given said. “At all of our fundraising events, he’d show up in uniform with his flat-brimmed hat on.” Smeck also put his money where his hat was, backing the organization’s educational outreach with funds from his own agency’s budget, Given said.
“I think he has made historic contributions to the National Recreation Area,” added Joe Edmiston, who as executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has worked closely with Smeck for years. “His shoes will be very difficult to fill.”
In announcing the appointment, Yosemite Superintendent Don Neubacher said Smeck “has the ideal background to helpYosemite achieve unequalled operational and innovative excellence.”
Smeck said Neubacher first reached out to him about joining the Yosemite team about 1½ years ago. With his youngest daughter still in high school, the timing wasn’t right initially. But now that she’s graduating at the end of this school year, Smeck decided to accept the offer.
He’ll head to Yosemite solo in early April and will live in park service housing until his wife, Karen, can join him, probably in July. They plan to buy a home in Mariposa.
The new position could put Smeck in line for greater executive responsibilities down the line—either at another national park or in Washington, D.C.
But he said he’ll miss his Santa Monica Mountains stomping grounds, where he got his professional start in 1991 as a young landscape architect with degrees from Cal Poly Pomona. Smeck reached the recreation area’s top job in 2001. He still marvels that he was able to get there without first transferring to other points around the National Parks system.
“People told me not to expect to stay [in one location] very long,” said Smeck, now 49.
But stay he did—long enough to rub shoulders with influential people ranging from TV documentarian Ken Burns to President George W. Bush.
Bush’s visit in 2003, he said, was a high point—a recognition of the power of collaborative work toward a common goal.
“It was a great opportunity to talk to him about how partnerships work, how cooperative management works, and he genuinely listened to what I had to say,” Smeck said, recalling a 45-minute hike into the Rancho Sierra Vista area of Point Mugu State Park with Bush and a small group that included Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. “To get a presidential visit…was very uplifting for everyone.”
He said he’s also proud of completing a general management plan that “provides a unifying framework for preservation and stewardship” of parklands going forward. That plan, created with various state partners and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, established a “cooperative vision” that has informed an array of other actions, including blueprints for fire management and land protection.
His career is a natural outgrowth of an outdoorsy childhood in California’s Central Valley. “I spent my summers hiking and camping in the Sierra Nevada Mountains—especially Sequoia National Park,” he said. “By the time I was 21, I had experienced most of the Sierra Nevada wilderness.”
His first day on the job in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area started inauspiciously when he got lost trying to find the Rancho Sierra Vista trailhead.
“Back then, you had to drive through residential areas and gravel roads to find the obscure parking lot,” he said. “One of my first assignments was to develop a new entry road and trailhead from Potrero Highway. Today, I’m happy to report that visitors have a very scenic entry drive and wonderful staging area with good signs, drinking water, and clean restrooms to start their park experience at Rancho Sierra Vista.”
As he prepares to venture north to the world-renowned glories of Yosemite’s Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall, he acknowledged that he’ll miss the lesser-known but equally beloved natural treasures he’ll be leaving behind in the Santa Monica Mountains.
“Oh wow, there are so many incredible places. If I had to pick one, the place that’s the closest manifestation of heaven for me is the Old Boney Trail in Point Mugu State Park,” he said. “It is just such a pristine, wild, raw, natural environment. It’s as if you’ve been transported into another world. It is spectacular.”
For Smeck’s photo of the Old Boney Trail and some of his other favorite sights in the Santa Monica Mountains, check out a gallery of his photos below.