Gay man to lead sprawling Bay Area national park

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday January 9, 2023
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David Smith is the incoming superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Photo: Courtesy National Park Service
David Smith is the incoming superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Photo: Courtesy National Park Service

A gay married dad with long ties to the Bay Area has been named the new superintendent for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The sprawling federal park site spans the counties of San Mateo, San Francisco, and Marin.

David Smith, a 31-year veteran of the National Park Service, is set to become the new permanent GGNRA superintendent later this month. He will be the third LGBTQ leader of the 82,000-acre park over the past eight years.

Christine Lehnertz, a lesbian, served as the GGNRA's first female superintendent between May 2015 and August 2016. She is now president and CEO of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, a philanthropic supporter of the national park site.

Craig Kenkel, a gay man, was named as the GGNRA's interim superintendent in December of 2016. But he departed the following year when he returned to Cuyahoga Valley National Park to serve once again as its superintendent.

He had sought to remain in the position but lost out to another applicant. In January 2021 he took over as superintendent of Point Reyes National Seashore in the North Bay, where he continues to serve.

Since September 2014, Smith has been superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. He and his husband, John Evans, have two young adult children, daughter Jakiah and son Dante.

"I am thrilled to work with the staff and partners at Golden Gate to help visitors and families in the Bay Area and beyond enjoy one of America's greatest and most unique park sites," stated Smith in a January 9 news release about his appointment. "It is especially gratifying to return to the park after two decades and see the incredibly positive changes made by staff and partners. I'm anxious to get my feet on the ground in the park's 50th anniversary year."

Smith attended UC Berkeley, where he earned a B.A. in forestry/developmental studies. Among his many park service roles, he served as an interpretive specialist at the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, which stretches from San Francisco to Nogales, Arizona and has sites near the GGNRA boundaries.

"David is a proven leader with many years of diverse experience across the National Park Service," stated Regional Director Frank Lands in the announcement about Smith's new role. "He has a solid reputation for relationship-building with park partners, local communities, Tribal governments, and elected officials. These skills will be especially important as he leads one of the most urban and complex sites in the National Park System. The park will greatly benefit from having someone with his management and partnership experience at its helm."

In response to the Bay Area Reporter's request for comment about Smith becoming the new GGNRA superintendent, Lehnertz stated, "The Parks Conservancy is thrilled at the selection of David Smith for the position of general superintendent at the GGNRA. David is a proven innovator, community builder, inclusive leader, and devoted public land manager. We are very much looking forward to his arrival."

No secret

In a sign of how more LGBTQ-friendly the park service has become, Monday's announcement specifically referred to Evans as Smith's husband. When Smith was announced as the new superintendent for Joshua Tree in the Mojave and Colorado deserts, the July 17, 2014 news release merely said he would "be joined by his spouse" and made a point to say he looked "forward to finding a local church."

Yet Smith's sexual orientation was no secret. In May 2014 he had spoken to Think Progress to tout the park service's launch of a project documenting LGBTQ historic sites and significant LGBTQ people. It included a photo of Smith with his husband and their then-young kids at Grand Canyon National Park where he had worked as a district naturalist.

"The gay and lesbian community are also part of our landscape," Smith had said.

Four years later, however, Smith found himself having to defend the posting of a photo to Joshua Tree's Instagram account that showed two men forming a heart with their hands while standing next to one of the park's namesake trees. It was to commemorate Pride Month that June but had generated anti-LGBTQ comments.

"We believe national parks belong to all Americans regardless of whether they are gay or straight. As stewards of America's treasures, civil servants welcome everyone to come and enjoy their parks," said Smith, according to a story posted by a newswire that focuses on environmental news, although it did not disclose that Smith is part of the LGBTQ community.

It was not the first time that Smith was caught up in controversy due to a social media posting. Former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke in the Trump administration reportedly admonished Smith for posting in the fall of 2017 on Joshua Tree's official Twitter account that "an overwhelming consensus — over 97% — of climate scientists agree that human activity is the driving force behind today's rate of global temperature increase."

According to the Hill, which covers Congress, it led to Smith being ordered to Zinke's office that November to be told "that the Trump administration doesn't want national parks to put out official communications on climate change."

Smith was born in Oceanside, California, and grew up in northern San Diego. He earned a Master of Science in Resource Interpretation from Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas.

He has had many roles during his time with the park service, such as being a law enforcement park ranger at Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego, as well as at Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah. He also served as a legislative staffer on the House Natural Resources Committee as part of the NPS Bevinetto Fellowship program in Washington, D.C.

Prior to being sent to Joshua Tree, Smith had served as superintendent of the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas. He is also a national winner of the Freeman Tilden Award for excellence in interpretation.

According to the release about his becoming the GGNRA superintendent, Smith and Evans are "recent empty nesters. One of their adult children is in college, and another is looking forward to entering the military. They enjoy hiking, rock climbing, and running on local trails."

Updated 1/9/2023 with reaction from Christine Lehnertz.

Updated 1/10/2023 to clarify Smith and his husband have a daughter and a son.

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