[StBernard] Jean Lafitte park's new leader tackles job with swashbuckling enthusiasm

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Tue Jan 1 16:51:59 EST 2008

Jean Lafitte park's new leader tackles job with swashbuckling enthusiasm
by Jenny Hurwitz, West Bank bureau
Sunday December 30, 2007, 8:57 PM

At the end of a nature trail at the Barataria Preserve, the boardwalk drops
off, revealing an untouched expanse of floating marshland, marked by stands
of trees and 5-foot stalks of razor grass.

It's a quiet spot, made up of muted colors that dissolve into the horizon.
But for David Luchsinger, the newest superintendent of the Jean Lafitte
National Park and a relative newcomer to Louisiana, the view from the
visitors trail strikes a chord every time.

"This never ceases to amaze me. Gorgeous," he said on a recent visit to the
West Bank preserve. He leaned against the guardrail and took in the scene.
"It really is beautiful out here."

When Luchsinger first arrived more than a year ago as the appointed head of
Louisiana's first national park, his job was the primary focus. But in the
months that followed, he grew deeply attached to the region and its cultural
touchstones, from the historic Battle of New Orleans site in Chalmette to
the Spanish-tiled colonial architecture of the French Quarter to the bald
cypress swamps of the West Bank preserve.

"This place is so rich: the culture, the history, the natural resources and
human resources, most importantly," he said. "This place is amazing and

His passion and enthusiasm have not gone unnoticed by locals, some of whom
believe his drive and expertise as a parks official in Manhattan could
potentially help New Orleans refashion its tourism industry post-Katrina.
Others say he has transformed the superintendent's position and enhanced
their view of the Park Service as a whole.

"We've had people who've come down here as superintendents and just moved in
because it was a job. They didn't particularly like the area. They were just
serving their time and then they left. You got the feeling they didn't
really care about the park," said Barry Kohl, president of the Louisiana
Audubon Council.

"The feeling is that this superintendent is really interested and cares
about the area and about New Orleans."

Greeted by challenges

It was critical from the start that Luchsinger establish himself as a change
agent, especially considering the storm-battered state of the sites he had
inherited. The park system also had weathered a string of interim leaders
after former Superintendent Geraldine Smith retired at the end of 2005.

The new superintendent faced crippling facilities issues, particularly at
the Chalmette site, where floodwaters knocked down cemetery walls and
destroyed the visitors center. At the Barataria Preserve, storm winds felled
oak trees and forced rangers to shutter one of its most popular trails. The
Park Service also lost innumerable pieces of equipment, including lawn
mowers, trucks and power tools.

The entire park spans the southern part of state and consists of six
branches: the 20,000-acre nature preserve outside Marrero, the visitors
center in the French Quarter, the Chalmette National Battlefield, and three
Acadian Cultural Centers in Eunice, Lafayette and Thibodaux.

All told, the system sustained about $16 million in storm damage from
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the entire rebuilding process constitutes
an ongoing endeavor, Luchsinger said.

"We have so many projects it isn't funny," he said.

Even so, the recovery effort is inching forward, with the battered nature
trail set to reopen this summer and a doublewide trailer serving as a
temporary visitors center at the Chalmette battlefield. Plans are in the
works for a $2 million, 3,500-square-foot permanent center, to be completed
by 2010.

Luchsinger, who is used to the snail-like pace that often accompanies
bureaucracy, has developed a special tolerance for erratic rates of

"I'm the kind of person that thrives on action: getting things done," he
said. "But I'm also a very patient person. I have infinite patience with
others. I have no patience with myself."

Resolving conflicts

Though hurricane recovery is critical, Luchsinger also has proved adept at
reaching out to the public, resolving conflicts and building consensus
between the Park Service and local organizations. In doing so, he has deftly
won over some former Park Service detractors. Take local tour guides, for
instance. For nearly two decades, they have lobbied to end the Park
Service's free French Quarter walking tours, which they say are depleting
their business opportunities. The Park Service has continued to run its
tours despite these objections.

When he learned about the ongoing dispute, Luchsinger contacted the tour
guides, hosted a meeting and hammered out a deal. Starting in the new year,
the Park Service will cut short its walking tour, offering only a brief
orientation to visitors at its headquarters in the French Quarter.
Afterward, park employees will steer tourists to Jackson Square, where local
tour guides will have the opportunity to capture their business.

"He approached it totally different than any of them," said Madeline Axtman,
president of the Tour Guides Association of Greater New Orleans. "He's
willing to work with us."

Luchsinger also has emerged as an innovator, having proposed the idea to
pursue $6 million in federal grants for a satellite campus of the New
Orleans Jazz National Historical Park at the Old U.S. Mint in the French
Quarter. The money effectively jump-started the project, a collaborative
effort between the Louisiana State Museum and the Park Service, said David
Kahn, the state museum's director.

"He's the person that set that whole process in motion," Kahn said.

Some locals attribute Luchsinger's personable, hands-on style to his
private-sector experience. Before entering the Park Service, he worked as a
buyer for a New York department store.

"When you're in sales, you know, you have to be approachable. You have to be
a good listener. You have to be willing to cooperate," said Edgar Veillon, a
representative to the National Wildlife Federation of Louisiana. "And I
think David incorporates all those things, and they serve him well in this

Others, such as Kohl, simply think Luchsinger's affection for the region --
and its inhabitants -- comes through in his work and has bolstered his

"A lot of these federal employees, they get in there and close the door and
stay insulated from everyone else," he said. "It's nice to meet and discuss
things with someone that seems to really care about people and work with
people and feels that the public is an integral part."

Big Apple to Big Easy

Before the superintendent's job opened up, Luchsinger, 57, had never set
foot in New Orleans. Born and raised on Long Island, just outside New York
City, he had built his entire life in the Northeast.

He majored in music at Syracuse University, but he chose to follow in his
father's footsteps after graduation by entering the retail industry. The
money was good, but Luchsinger disliked the corporate culture and the
single-minded focus on profits. After 13 years, he gave up retail and took a
job as a day laborer with the Park Service at Fire Island, on Long Island.
His duties, which included picking up garbage, cleaning toilets and
performing other menial tasks, hardly bothered him.

"I loved it," he said. "Obviously the simple life can be appealing."

>From that point on, Luchsinger stuck with the Park Service, climbing the

ranks during the next few decades. He oversaw iconic New York landmarks,
including the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. He also made his mark
among Park Service officials as someone who could push complex and
controversial projects through the system with a combination of finesse and

Jim Pepper, former superintendent of Manhattan's national parks, said he
witnessed such feats while working with Luchsinger in the Park Service and,
later on, as his superior.

"He's got a strange combination of really being persistent, hanging on,
making things happen," Pepper said. "But on the other hand he's flexible. In
fact, he likes to sit down with other people. He likes to put things

Pepper recalled a controversial lease agreement involving some historic Army
bases in New Jersey. Luchsinger somehow defused a blow-up by staying on the
phone with a developer from late at night until 6 a.m., he said.

"Because he has all these different backgrounds, he could get in there and
ameliorate the situation," Pepper said. "By 10 a.m., the project was back on
track again."

'This was the job I wanted'

>From the moment the job came open, Luchsinger had his eye on the

superintendent's position in New Orleans. At the time, he was serving as
acting superintendent of the Park Service in Manhattan, but he had no qualms
about leaving New York and relocating to post-Katrina Louisiana.

"This was the job I wanted," he said. "I wanted this more than anything."

He consulted his wife, Debbie, who jumped on board, despite also having been
born and raised in the Northeast. His two grown children also lent their

The call for help in the still-devastated region sparked his interest and
appealed to his altruistic tendencies. Despite his newcomer status,
Luchsinger is no stranger to disasters, natural and otherwise. He assisted
with the recovery of Fire Island after the Halloween nor'easter of 1991,
which left the park underwater for nearly a month. And as deputy
superintendent of the Park Service in Manhattan in 2001, he was assigned the
formidable task of spurring tourism in Manhattan after the terrorist attacks
of Sept. 11.

When he started the new job in September 2006, he believed his single
greatest challenge as superintendent would be addressing the mental health
and welfare of his staff and the surrounding community, which were still
grappling with the daily grind of hurricane recovery.

"It's coming in every day, saying good morning to folks, seeing how they're
doing," he said. "Getting to know how their family life is. Whatever they
feel like sharing."

But other considerable challenges are still looming for the Park Service.
Luchsinger's staff, which includes about 63 full-time employees, is down by
a dozen and applicants are scarce. The park's overall tourism figures also
are down at about 1 million annually, compared with 1.5 million pre-Katrina.
The park's annual budget, about $5 million, has stayed relatively flat for
the past few years.

For now, Luchsinger is looking ahead to events in the new year, including
the 30th anniversary of the national park in November and the installation
of a children's wetlands museum at the cultural center in Thibodaux. He's
also hoping to help promote tourism, using his experience in New York as a
starting point, provided he can find the right audience.

"I guess one of the reasons I continue to enjoy myself is because I like
making something happen. I like positive change," he said. "And it's nice to
have not only the responsibility but the authority to get it done. That's a
very appealing thing."

Jenny Hurwitz can be reached at jhurwitz at timespicayune.com or (504)

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