Lewis Ledford’s legacy to the state parks system and to North Carolina was celebrated Saturday at an event for the retiring director of the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation. Ledford ended a 37-year career with the state parks and will serve as executive director of the National Association of State Parks Directors.
As more than 300 people gathered at NCSU’s State Club, a recurring theme was Ledford’s work ethic, integrity and dedication to “the culture he instilled in the state parks,” as described by Brad Ives, assistant secretary of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. “When you realize what special people he hired and trained and mentored in the system, you see that we have a culture that’s going to outlast Lewis Ledford,” Ives said. “He set up the state parks system in a way that will succeed and thrive without him.”
Former State Senator Walter Dalton added, “He made a good living for himself but a good life for all in North Carolina.”
Ledford joined the state parks system as a ranger in 1976 and was the first person to rise through the ranks to the director’s position. He served in many management capacities including superintendent of Mount Mitchell State Park, west district superintendent and superintendent of state parks. He succeeded Phil McKnelly as director in 2003. His successor has not been named though Deputy Director Carol Tingley is acting director.
Under Ledford’s leadership, state park lands increased by more than 50,000 acres and the system has boasted a record visitation level of more than 14 million. Ledford guided the creation of six new state parks including Chimney Rock and Grandfather Mountain, as well as a state trail and six state natural areas. He directed the launch of a full-service reservations system and numerous other technology innovations.
McKnelly said that garnering law enforcement benefits for park rangers and increasing staff pay were among numerous Ledford achievements within the division, along with his efforts to support national state park and recreation goals. “This was behind-the-scenes work that Lewis was always willing to do,” McKnelly said. “That same honesty and integrity will now help 50 states instead of just one.”
Ledford told the group that being one of only seven directors in the 98-year history of North Carolina’s state parks was a “unique experience.”
“I’m excited to continue working with state parks,” he said. “We’re all truly standing on the shoulders of those who’ve come before. We’ve got to make those shoulders broad, whatever station in which we serve, if we are to make this state parks system great.”