Patricia Trap assumed her new role as superintendent of the Southeast Utah Group Area National Parks on August 2. Kate Cannon, who held the position since 2006, retired in January. The group includes both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, as well as Hovenweep and Natural Bridges National Monuments.
Trap’s tenure in Utah begins as she comes off a detail as acting superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Park since January of this year.
Previously, Trap served as acting superintendent of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where she successfully oversaw several restoration projects.
“Patty Trap has a great track record of park management across her previous assignments,” said Erika Pollard, associate director for the southwest region of the National Parks Conservation Association. Pollard focuses primarily on issues concerning national parks in Utah for the nonprofit advocacy group.
“NPCA has been fortunate to work with Patty for years and we’re looking forward to continuing the relationship protecting parks in southeast Utah,” said Pollard.
Trap has familiarity with the Four Corners area, previously serving as the acting superintendent of Hovenweep and Natural Bridges National Monuments and acting deputy superintendent of Mesa Verde National Park.
A history not without controversy
Trap has not escaped controversy, however. Notably, she oversaw the Independence Day celebrations where President Trump requested a fireworks display. Fireworks displays had ceased in 2009 after causing 20 fires over an 11-year period around the park.
The July 4th celebrations also did not require National Park Service employees to undergo testing for COVID-19 nor wear masks to prevent the spread of the virus. Cheryl Schreier, the superintendent of Mount Rushmore from 2010-2019, told Forbes that she was worried that the event would become a hotspot for new infections.
This is not the first controversy Trap has been involved in within the National Park Service. As deputy director of the Midwest region for the National Park Service, one of the areas Trap oversaw was Effigy Mounds National Monument. The monument is a roughly 2,500 acre area along the Mississippi River in Iowa which contains over 200 mounds built by prehistoric Native Americans. According to the nps.gov website, 20 modern tribes are associated with these ancient earthworks.
A 2014 document titled “Serious Mismanagement Report: Effigy Mounds National Monument” outlined how NPS administration had violated the very burial sites that the monument was created to protect.
According to the report, the park superintendent oversaw over $3 million of building projects that failed to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Protection Act.
The report mostly focused on the construction of a system of boardwalks and a maintenance shed that damaged land surrounding some of the mounds, citing a “complete lack of compliance” with both environmental reviews as well as consulting the numerous local Native American tribes whose heritage lies under the mounds.
One tribal official complained that the National Park Service staff turned the burial place of his ancestors into a place to “walk your dog.”
At the time, Trap was serving as deputy regional director overseeing midwestern parks and monuments, including Effigy Mounds.
“She seemed more interested in the Park Service’s image than its mission,” said Jeff Ruch, the pacific director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, when asked to comment on Patricia Trap by the Moab Sun News.
When a representative of the organizations Friends of Effigy Mounds and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility requested a copy of the report in 2015, Trap at first denied its existence, as shown by published emails from the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
“Simply put, there is no report,” Trap responded in an email.
“There is a team, from outside the park and the region, that is undertaking a review of events occurring at the park, including lessons learned,” she wrote. “I am in the process of obtaining an update of the status of this effort, and an idea of when the report may be finalized, and available to you and others.”
However, the report surfaced shortly thereafter when a park service employee provided a copy to Friends of Effigy Mounds. When contacted by the Associated Press, Trap reportedly said she had denied the report’s existence because NPS administrators hadn’t approved it at the time.
“The incident and reports regarding Effigy Mounds National Monument was an example of an overall deeply ingrained lack of accountability in the Park Service that we hope the next administration begins to cure,” commented Ruch.
A review by the National Park Service in 2016 excused Trap, ruling that her position as the regional director had an “impossible responsibility” to provide oversight for 60 superintendents as directly reporting subordinates.
However, after the incident the National Park Service did not change that position’s oversight duties, nor did either report offer much in the way of future reform beyond the suggestion that the NPS follow its own guidelines.