New boss at DeSoto National Memorial must fill mighty big shoes

vmannix@bradenton.comAugust 28, 2013 

BRADENTON

After Jorge Acevedo joined DeSoto National Memorial as chief ranger in 2008, he'd encounter an unusual dilemma when stopping for lunch or picking up supplies in his gray-and-green uniform.

Not everyone knew the park's location. Or that it was a national park.

"We had a little bit of an identity crisis," said Acevedo, 42.

Not anymore.

Thanks to former park Superintendent Scott Pardue and his staff, visitor contacts at DeSoto have surpassed 300,000 annually, up more than 75,000 yearly.

It will be Acevedo's charge to maintain it. He is now the new superintendent with a staff of eight and a volunteer force of 110.

The 18-year National Parks Service veteran got the title officially this summer after Pardue took a promotion last January with the National Parks Service in San Francisco.

"Difficult shoes to fill," Acevedo said. "But Scott brought me here because he saw my potential."

Especially his art of inter

pretation -- the skill of getting visitors to personally connect with a place.

It's a passion he's shown at countless community events, schools and -- you name it.

"Not everybody comes to us," Acevedo said. "We try to go to as many people as we can."

Becoming superintendent, a 24/7 gig, won't change that for the husband and father of two.

"It's tough to disconnect from the job I love, what we rangers do, but my forte is sharing the knowledge I've gained through the years," Acevedo said. "This is our heritage and we need to continue to embrace it and learn from it."

The native of Camuy, Puerto Rico, was first intrigued by the National Park Service as a boy, visiting his grandparents in the United States, who'd take him to sites in Washington, D.C., and upstate New York.

What did Acevedo remember most?

The park rangers.

"I saw them sharing history and knowledge with people, making them connect with what happened in the past, knowing who we are, how our country was shaped," he said.

After college, Acevedo interned at the San Juan National History Site, then eventually moved onto Biscayne National Park in Miami.

Coincidentally, Chuck Oshaben, DeSoto's chief of maintenance, was also there.

"Jorge had a genuine feeling for the parks, a realistic outlook on what needs to be done," said the 26-year parks service veteran. "He understood the upkeep of a park is important and I liked that."

Given the government sequester, Acevedo faces budgetary challenges to maintain DeSoto -- 25 enchanting acres of Old Florida on the Manatee River -- and its many activities.

His predecessor revitalized the park with events such as Winter Luminary Walk, concerts and Desoween (Halloween DeSoto-style), as well as creating the Friends of DeSoto and the DeSoto Youth Advisory Council.

"We're going to have to get very creative," Acevedo said. "Budgets are not what they used to be (DeSoto's is $650,000). We will pick and choose events we can continue to do at a high level."

Dan Stephens believes his new boss is up to the task. Also hired by Pardue, he values Acevedo's steady hand.

"If they'd taken somebody from outside, we would possibly be looking at drastic changes," the ranger said. "With what we've been building here, we're continuing on that course with Jorge as superintendent."

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix

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