Recipient Biography

Fran P. Mainella


Fran P. Mainella (1947- ) received the Pugsley Medal in 1998 "for outstanding leadership in enhancing the Florida State Park system" and again in 2007, "for her leadership of the National Park Service for almost six years as its first female director." She is a native of Willimantic, Connecticut. Her interest in the outdoors emerged early. Although she was raised in Connecticut, many of her father's family resided in Albuquerque, New Mexico, so family summer vacations consisted of going out west to visit family, and combining this with trips to national parks. A visit to Grand Canyon and Carlsbad Caverns as a sixth grader made a particularly lasting impression.

Mainella's first job in parks and recreation was in 1965 in Groton, Connecticut, as a playground counselor. Her interest in recreation led to her majoring with a bachelor's degree in physical education from the University of Connecticut. No degree was offered in recreation at that time, but recreation courses were included as part of the physical education curriculum. This was followed by a master's degree in counseling from Central Connecticut State College. She credits the two distinct disciplines as contributing to her professional success. The degree in physical education served as a basis for understanding the value of activity for children and adults as well as the environments that support such activity. The degree in counseling proved useful throughout the myriad of supervisory positions she has held, in facilitating public involvement, and in reconciling the varied interests of multiple stakeholders.

After graduating with a BS in education in 1969, Mainella taught physical education at a middle school in Vernon, Connecticut. At the same time, she had a position as a playground leader at weekends and during vacations. In 1977, she relocated to Florida to accept a full-time position in the recreation field as an assistant in a community center in the Tallahassee Parks and Recreation department. The center's primary clientele were African-American which gave her useful insights into serving people from different cultural backgrounds.

In 1978, Mainella moved to become director of parks and recreation in Lake Park, Florida, which is located close to West Palm Beach. Her involvement with the Florida Park and Recreation Association led to an interest in the association's executive director's position to which she was appointed in 1983. In this position, she facilitated professional development opportunities for the membership and became involved in political advocacy efforts with the state legislature. During her six years, the association's membership increased from 900 to 1,800.

Mainella was appointed director of Florida State Parks in the Department of Environmental Protection in 1989. In that position, she was responsible for the administration of more than 500,000 acres within 155 state parks, museums, preserves, recreation areas, historic sites, geological sites, botanical gardens, archeological sites, wildlife parks and trails. Mainella supervised planning, design and construction within the state park system; coordinated the statewide marketing of the division; and oversaw the extensive volunteer and technical assistance programs. In 2000, the state parks system received the Gold Medal award recognizing it as the leading state parks system in the country. During her tenure at Florida state parks, Mainella held leadership positions in many professional organizations including president of both the National Recreation and Park Association (1996-97), and the National Association of State Park Directors (1997-99).

In Florida, Mainella was appointed to her position in a Republican administration reappointed by a Democratic administration, and then reappointed again by a Republican administration. This is illustrative of her ability to win the respect of people on all sides of an issue. When she was subsequently appointed as the sixteenth, and first female director of the National Park Service, this attribute was again evident. Her appointment won praise from environmentalists, park-user groups, and the tourism industry and she received widespread bipartisan support for her confirmation in the U.S. Senate in July 2001.

During her tenure, Florida State Parks became a national model for its volunteer and partnership programs which formalized and strengthened the effective use of interested, talented, and committed individuals and companies to enhance a broad spectrum of programs and services for public benefit. Over the 12-year period of her leadership, volunteerism in the state parks tripled.

The prevailing mantra of her professional career has been that partnerships are central to progress in resolving contemporary park and conservation challenges. That philosophy was perceived to be one of the most important contributions she made to the NPS during her almost six years as director from 2001 through 2006. Early in her tenure, she enhanced and reinforced the partnership culture of the NPS, both internally and externally, with the development of director's order 75A mandating civic engagement and public involvement. This encouraged parks to engage the public in activities that will "instill a sense of ownership" in the NPS mission. The secretary of interior, reflecting on her accomplishments at the time of her resignation from the NPS director's position commented:

Perhaps your most important contribution, one that will endure long past your tenure as Director, is your effort to foster a culture of partnerships within the National Park Service. Thanks to your leadership, today virtually every national park works in partnership with state and local officials, local residents and friends groups.

The new Lewis and Clark National Historical Park established during Mainella's tenure was an example of her vision of how to initiate successful partnerships with other agencies. The park is comprised of Fort Clatsop National Memorial, three Oregon state parks, and two Washington state parks, all inn the vicinity of the mouth of the Columbia River. Complex planning was undertaken connecting park elements culminating at Cape Disappointment where the Corps of Discovery first reached the Pacific. There sculptor Maya Linn installed a forest of totems around an amphitheater, each representing a tribe the explorers met.

Mainella's vision for a seamless system of parks, historic places and open spaces means that collaboration with other agency land managers, nonprofit organizations and corporations, should be the expected way of doing business. The complexity of the issues and the limited resources available to public entities, make partnerships the key to progress. She observed:

Partnering with the community will mean the park resources are better protected, it means the visitors to the park will have their needs reflected, and in the long run, it's less time involved, it's efficient and effective, because you reach out on the front side, not after you've made a decision.

Mainella reflected back on her first position as a playground counselor and observed "the kids on the playground taught me quickly that most jobs are too big for one person. I have remembered these lessons throughout my career. We need partnerships to achieve moderate goals.  We need more and better partnerships to achieve larger goals."

From the start of her tenure as NPS director, Mainella made it clear she was committed to enhancing an agency already renowned for its dedication to its mission. She stated:

Our nation's parks tell the story of America and the history of this country. National parks represent the soul of America and a gift to the world. They are places of great history, beautiful landscapes, protected ecosystems and endangered species.

However, like all her predecessor directors of the NPS, Mainella was caught in the tensions and crossfire between commercial interests who wanted to expand the type of recreational uses and number of visitors in the parks, and those who believed this was incompatible with the NPS's responsibility to preserve the integrity of the natural resource and that restrictions on use are necessary to accomplish this. 

This clash of perspectives came to a climax in 2005/06. In 2005, the deputy assistant secretary of Interior for fish and wildlife and parks, who had close ties to the sporting goods industry and some concessionaires in the parks which were seeking more intensive use of park service lands, drafted a revised set of operating policies for the NPS which gave much greater prominence to recreation, expanded the use of snowmobiles and ATVs, and loosened protection against damage to park service lands. Mainella, working with the agency's career employees, successfully ended consideration of this review and initiated a rewrite that was reflective of the core values of the NPS. In the rewrite, it was made clear that "when there is a conflict between conservation and use, conservation will be predominant." There was a change in secretaries of interior around this time period and both the incoming and outgoing secretaries endorsed this reaffirmation.

Mainella resisted Administration efforts to outsource NPS jobs by creating an alternative process called the Preliminary Planning Effort (PPE). This directed the NPS to study efficient and effective management practices and to implement them without outsourcing jobs. This resulted in savings of over 10% without any outsourcing. She observed:

Every organization needs to ask periodically whether there is a better way to organize itself to accomplish its mission. By comparing how we currently do business with other options, we find new ways to add value.

The PPE process enabled the NPS to demonstrate that in most cases, it was operating more efficiently and effectively than the private sector could operate.

Mainella supported the appointment of several women to leadership positions in the Park Service, including three regional directors and three associate directors. When she established an Education Council in 2004, upon the recommendation of the National Park Advisory Board, the majority of her appointments were women. The council pulled together specialists in education within the service. They formed work groups to asses existing programs and define concrete projects.

During her tenure as NPS director, significant accomplishments in the NPS included creation of Great Sand Dunes National Park, the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park; establishment of a memorial at the crash site of United Flight 93, and the preservation of 9,000 acres of long-leaf pine forests in Texas' Big Thicket National Preserve. Mainella also supported the protection of areas rich in heritage, including historic sites of the Civil War, the lands associated with the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II, and creation of the Preserve America program to support cultural and historic efforts in communities.

She addressed the substantial maintenance back log, significantly increased cyclic maintenance funding and oversaw the initiation of a NPS system to rate the condition of park facilities. This enabled NPS to know the condition of all its facility elements and, hence, to plan for their regular maintenance.

Mainella, resigned as NPS director on October 15, 2006. She spent her last day in her hometown of Groton, Connecticut, where she had a first job as a summer playground counselor and relit the lighthouse there at which her father was stationed in the Coast Guard in World War II. Following her retirement from the NPS, she accepted a position as visiting scholar at Clemson University. 

A long-time professional colleague of Mainella commented:

You don't have to spend but three minutes with Fran before you realize you are in the presence of a person who lives and breathes parks and recreation. You are taken in by her warmth, her charm, her passion for people, and her desire to help you.  Fran is action-oriented...she will press you to perform but she is working just as hard.