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Thousands of Missourians of all ages are enthralled by state parks every year, and David Kelly is no exception. After all, the new director of the Department of Natural Resources Division of State Parks has made them his life’s work.

Kelly has worked with the division since his college days. He surveyed 15 different parks as an intern his sophomore year at the University of Missouri then returned the following years to try out different positions. By the time he returned to the division for a seasonal job the summer after graduation, he was sure he had found his niche.

“I grew up in state parks and doing things outdoors, and it was almost like a flip of the switch when I realized how interested I was,” Kelly told The Missouri Times. “I’ve always had a passion for them. We have one of the best state park systems in the nation and great citizen support, and it’s great to have worked with them for so long.”

The division has three components: preservation of natural resources, historic preservation, and recreation. Kelly has worked in all three over the years, learning the ins and outs of each sector from experienced and respected mentors. It was that insight he garnered that led him to take the deputy director role in 2017, a position he left to take the helm of the division last week.

“In all the positions I’ve been in — from the special events coordinator to the section leader and the deputy director job — I’ve learned different things at every level,” Kelly said. “The deputy director position I stepped into in 2017 kind of felt like what I was meant to do and the role of director never even crossed my mind. I got even more involved than I already was and learned even more in the deputy director role and I feel it prepared me for this next chapter.”

Having worked with various entities within the division, Kelly had nothing but praise for the staff. He said most parks employ three full-time workers while hundreds of seasonal workers lend their talents to the park system every year. He also touted the state’s funding for parks through a sales tax, making Missouri one of a handful of states to allow people to visit its parks for free.

One of his priorities going into his new position is addressing some of the capacity concerns raised over the past year. While other aspects of the tourism industry struggled under the weight of COVID-19, Kelly said the state parks system managed to flourish. Campgrounds and hiking trails were up around 14 percent over the past two seasons despite temporary closures last year.

“People wanted to get out and do things in a healthy and safe environment, and that brought a lot of them to us,” he said. “People were even having trouble getting ahold of kayaks and bicycles because everyone was using them. It’s kind of calmed down a little bit, though we’re still seeing a lot of activity on our trails and campsites.”

The increased demand prompted the division to act on several years’ worth of discussion and expand, Kelly said. The division hopes to build 22 new public use facilities in the next five years through revenue bonds to keep up with the demand and provide visitors with amenities such as internet access and air conditioning.

With decades of experience behind him and plenty of work ahead, Kelly doesn’t let the bustle stop him from enjoying all that Missouri’s state parks have to offer.

“Being out in the parks is my favorite part of my work, no matter what role I’m in,” Kelly said. “We have 92 state parks and historic sites, and it’s a little ironic that it took me about 30 years with the division to get to every one of them, but I’ve always had a passion for them, and I’m happy to be a part of them for the people of Missouri.”

Cameron Gerber studied journalism at Lincoln University. Prior to Lincoln, he earned an associate’s degree from State Fair Community College. Cameron is a native of Eldon, Missouri.

Contact Cameron at cameron@themissouritimes.com.

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