By Kim Jackson
Special To The Standard
Years before the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park opened, Rolf Diamant landed in Woodstock with many visions, one of which was to look at the first-ever national park in Vermont through the eyes of the people who lived in the community where the park would be located. Diamant, who has served as the park’s first superintendent since the park’s opening in 1998, has announced that at the end of September he will retire from the National Park Service (NPS).
“It’s been the highlight of my career, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” said the Woodstock resident, who has served the NPS for 37 years. “It’s a remarkable group of people here because they want to do good work. They believe in what they’re doing, and they’re very accessible and approachable. They work hard. I have so much respect for them. It’s that environment of collaboration and good work that I will miss, from the public perspective.”
According to his community partners and peers, Diamant has had much to do with that level of respect and reciprocity that has brought together local conservation organizations, the national historical park and the community.
“He is the founding superintendent of this park, but beyond being the first, he has had a hand in the critical planning of the park before it opened, working directly with the Rockefeller family and with us,” said David Donath, president of the Woodstock Foundation. “Rolf is an extraordinary leader who thinks outside of the box. He developed an active partnership with us, the public/private partnership. He looks for ways to make things work.”
Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park opened to the public in June 1998 as the first national park to tell the story of conservation history, the evolution of land stewardship and the emergence of a conservation ethic. One of Diamant’s challenges was to establish a friendly, collaborative approach to the park’s work and to set a tone for all the partnerships and relationships necessary for the park’s success.
“That tone was vital to setting up a new national park that is seen as useful and successful, that’s well liked among its neighbors and local community and the perspective of national visitors, and to strike that balance,” said Diamant. “Our work in a number of ways is helpful to the community. We’re a part of it but also we’ve had the opportunity to enrich the entire national park system. Many of the programs we have done here have been looked on as models that others can draw from.”
While national parks typically don’t engage in active forest management, Diamant and his staff oversee a program where timber is sold and the money is captured back into the park, according to Donath. Trees are harvested for good management and forest management becomes a primary energy source for the park. In 2005, the park became the first national park to be awarded Forest Stewardship Council certification—encouraging the highest standards of woodland management through credible, independent evaluation and verification of exemplary forestry practices. This fall, a new central wood gasification heating system will come on line enabling the park to become largely self-sufficient in heating its principle buildings.
“Forest operations and taking care of all the heat this property needs, that’s the kind of thing that sets this park apart from other parks in the country,” said Donath.
Education and professional development have also been a focus during Diamant’s tenure; creating new professional development and opportunities for teachers in the community, summer employment internships, and service learning projects, and accredited courses for students.
“Around the country the National Park Service always works with local schools but what’s different here is we’ve really tried to create a ladder of engagement and go deeper, not just create opportunities for field trips but establish long term relationships not only with teachers but with young people, program to program, as they move through the school system, so that thread is never broken,” said Diamant. “We’ve learned a lot from many of our partners in the field of education. If you’re objective is to make a meaningful and long term contribution to young people, you have to nurture that relationship. It has to change and grow and give them new opportunities and challenge them.”
Michelle Fields, a teacher at Woodstock Union High School (WUHS), said that Diamant was always right there and involved, even as she was leading her son’s cub scout troop or when her older son became an eagle scout. For the last five years, teacher interest in using the park as an outdoor classroom for place-based education—hands-on, inquiry-based learning—has grown, to the point where the park partnered with WUHS and the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps to sponsor the Conservation Leadership Institute, where high school students can earn credit for their work done in the park.
“He’s not removed from things,” said Fields. “He lets people do their jobs but he’s always around to observe and participate in the community. It’s easy to be a park person but his willingness to dive into all aspects of the community makes the bond between the park and the community seamless. The community and the park blend together really well, and we’re going to miss him.”
Today, the park has become a conservation hub for the National Park Service, providing office space and support to the NPS Conservation Study Institute, the Northeast Temperate Forest Inventory and Monitoring Network, and the Rivers and Trails Conservation Assistance program. His wife, Nora Mitchell, is also retiring from the NPS, where she has been the director of the Conservation Study Institute. These programs and initiatives came to be in part because of Diamant’s vision for the park being a “useful, positive, helpful, good partner.”
“He’s a special guy,” said Tom Platner, the chairman of the Barnard Conservation Commission. “He set the tone at the park. The stuff that he has done and the staff he built. He was inclusive and brought in people who were not professionals. I’m a volunteer, and I know a few things but he included me and a lot of other people in a lot of things he did. He brought the community into the park. He didn’t have to do that. He is a gift to this community, and we’re really going to miss him. Whoever is going to take his position has some big shoes to fill.”
NPS Northeast Regional Director Dennis Reidenbach said that Diamant’s contributions to Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park—and the NPS as a whole—have helped the park system “become a more connected, responsive and useful organization… There are lessons learned here that can benefit other national parks and communities across the country.”
Diamant will remain a resident of Woodstock once he retires and hopes to still be active in the community as a private citizen. He said he has some larger writing projects that he will begin to tackle as well as a long list of other projects, too. Reidenbach said that Christina Marts, Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller’s assistant superintendent, will step in as acting superintendent during the transition period.
“Christina has been there a number of years now,” said Donath. “She’s a very capable person, and she provides a lot of continuity through the process. We’ll see a continuity of missions as we move forward. We’re very happy for Rolf and Nora to enjoy their retirement and at the same time I think we can be happy for the park knowing that it will carry on just fine and that should be a comfort for all of us.”
This article first appeared in the August 11th print edition of the Vermont Standard.