Interview: Mark Singleton, Leaving American Whitewater
After serving as the executive director for American Whitewater for 18 years, Mark Singleton announced this week that he will leave AW at the end of June. We caught up with Mark to talk about the past 18 years and the future of AW.
Kayak Session: Mark, you just sent us a note telling us you are stepping down as the Executive Director of AW on July 1st. Why this decision?
Mark Singleton: The right time for a leadership transition is when an organization is at the top of its game, American Whitewater is clearly there. By any measure, the organization is stronger than it has ever been, with an awesome team of staff in place. The bench strength of the AW team runs deep, and the staff knows how to punch way above their weight. I’ve accomplished more than I ever dreamed was possible in my role here; this is the right time to usher in a new leader, and I’ll be working closely with our board to make this a smooth, well-managed transition.
KS: What evolution have you seen in AW’s river stewardship role over the past 18 years?
MS: Back when I started, AW had a conservation director and an access director on staff. Those programs were in their own little silos without much communication back and forth. I reorganized how we worked, adopting a regional approach that placed staff in communities with active projects and integrating the conservation, access, and safety mission into an integrated stewardship approach. This regional stewardship approach helped us break down barriers that local communities had about ‘outsiders coming in and telling locals what to do.’ As an example, where I live, AW was working on a contentious dam removal that would lead to access and scheduled flows on a dewatered Class IV run, the West Fork Tuckasegee, NC. After the local county spent a half-million dollars on legal fees and litigation, losing multiple times in court, we got the dam out, and access and scheduled flows started. Today, no one in the local community says, ‘I want that dam back.’ Ironically, the access trail to the river is used more by the landowners that fought us than by boaters. It just goes to show how hard change can be when you are working in rural mountain communities. Paddlers cheer the loudest when rivers are restored with flows and access is provided; it’s been rewarding to see deadbeat dams come down—those represent concrete results!
« I’ve accomplished more than I ever dreamed was possible in my role here; this is the right time to usher in a new leader. »
KS: What are you the proudest of after 18 years with AW? What do you see as your legacy?
MS: I am proudest of the incredible team of staff that has come together. All the successful project outcomes at AW over the last 18 years didn’t happen because I did something; it happened because the right staff was in place in locations to make things work. If there is one thing I can claim, it’s that I assembled the team. AW has a staff of 12 with a collective experience base working or volunteering at AW for a total of 136 years, or an average of 12 years each. That’s unheard of in the nonprofit space, and it demonstrates the depth and commitment of the team. My legacy is the AW staff team—they just crush it!
KS: AW’s mission statement focuses on conservation, access, education, and safety. What are the biggest challenges for river access issues around the corner, do you think?
MS: Rivers face challenges on multiple fronts. One of the largest is the notion that rivers can be ‘privatized’ and access to waterways denied. This plays out not just in the west where access issues are a longstanding source of tension in Colorado; we have also seen this in the east where landowners have come together to create a closure on a nationally designated Wild and Scenic River, the Chattooga (NC, SC, GA). We did get some good news on this front last week: The New Mexico Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the state’s rivers cannot be sealed off from public access. This represents a major step forward in providing access to paddlers and an excellent example of how other western states can manage their rivers to support public interests.
KS: What can you tell us about the American Whitewater River Stewardship program?
MS: Our stewardship program is based on the notion that you can’t love what you don’t know. The gateway drug to stewardship is access—if you aren’t able to get on the water, you’ll be limited in what you know about that place. It’s through access that paddlers develop a direct and intensely personal interest in the stewardship of rivers. As paddlers, our close connection to whitewater rivers makes us uniquely aware of the challenges and threats rivers face. We are often the first to notice when something is wrong, and we are highly motivated to protect these places and the experiences unique to whitewater rivers.
« The right time for a leadership transition is when an organization is at the top of its game, American Whitewater is clearly there. By any measure, the organization is stronger than it has ever been, with an awesome team of staff in place. »
KS: Paddlers often see AW primarily as a resource for whitewater kayakers. How do you see AW interacting with other user groups, whether SUPers, fisherman, recreational river users?
MS: I kayak mostly, but I also like to SUP. I’ll row a raft for family river trips, plus I still occasionally get in a canoe just to mix it up. It’s all about the river—it doesn’t matter what craft you use. In addition, we have found that what is good for fish is also good for paddling, so our interests overlap with anglers. The key is we are a resource for whitewater rivers and flows.
KS: Do we know your successor? What can you tell us about them and the future of AW?
MS: The AW Board is working on the selection process now; their updates will be posted to americanwhitewater.org. As for the future, get your sunglasses because it’s super bright out. AW is in a great place, with a talented staff, a solid network of membership support, strong industry partnerships, and foundation grant support for critical projects. We currently leverage each membership dollar 3x from other sources to cover our grassroots river stewardship program. This puts AW in great shape to continue delivering on stewardship results.
KS: What will you miss the most?
MS: No question about it, I’ll miss working with this remarkable team of staff. It’s a good thing we all don’t live in the same town; otherwise, we would all be hanging out together and getting a lot less accomplished.
« It’s all about the river—it doesn’t matter what craft you use. »
KS: Do you have any regrets or projects you hoped to finish before this transition?
MS: The project I would really like to see get across the finish line is the National Wild and Scenic River designation for rivers on the Olympic Peninsula (WA). This legislation would include 19 rivers and their major tributaries, a total of 464 river miles. Congressional designation of the Wild Olympics Bill is now ripe for passage. This effort has AW’s DNA all over it, it’s an effort that was started shortly after I joined the organization.
KS: What is next for you, Mark?
MS: The last 18 years have been a remarkable journey. The staff worked hard, laughed a lot, paddled iconic rivers, threw down in delight at Gauley Fest, hung our collective heads low after boneheaded river management decisions, and celebrated major victories over beers. I’ll be hitting the pause button. It’s time for me to step away. I could play it safe and follow a glide path at AW for the next few years, but the reward isn’t there for me in playing it safe. I still have a full tank of gas, and I plan to burn it all.
KS: Which river will you be paddling on July 2nd?
MS: I’m not waiting for July 2nd—I have western multi-day trips planned starting in May through June. You’ll find me down by the river there.