Getting Bryant Creek State Park open for public use is a priority of new Missouri State Parks Director Mike Sutherland.

Sutherland, who has been assistant director for the past 2 1/2 years, was named parks director Friday. He replaces former director Ben Ellis, who retired from the post in November.

Before joining the Department of Natural Resources, Sutherland served as policy director for a nonprofit organization focused on budget and tax policy.

His additional previous experiences include serving as the executive director of the Boonslick Regional Planning Commission, a state representative and the Warren County assessor.

Sutherland, an avid hiker, backpacker, mountain biker and kayaker, said he knows people want Missouri State Parks to open Bryant Creek, Ozark Mountain, Jay Nixon and Eleven Point state parks as soon as possible.

All four were added to the state park system under former Gov. Jay Nixon, but remain closed as state park officials prepare management plans and hear public comments about them.

Sutherland said 2,917-acre Bryant Creek State Park, in Douglas County southeast of Ava, is furthest along in that process.

"Our evaluation is that people hope it will stay a fairly wild place — that's the character they want," Sutherland said Friday. "I am hoping that potentially as early as late this year, but more likely next year, that we'll be able to lay out the basic trails and day-use areas. We still have to evaluate what resources and partnerships are available."

Planning for the 1,011-acre Ozark Mountain State Park north of Branson is also ongoing, and will be next in line for park officials to focus on, Sutherland said. More public meetings will be held for Ozark Mountain, as well as 1,231-acre Jay Nixon State Park in Reynolds and Iron counties.

The 4,167-acre Eleven Point State Park in Oregon County remains embroiled in a lawsuit.

As state parks director, Sutherland heads a department within DNR with a $68 million operating budget, covering 91 state parks and historic sites. Sutherland is a sixth-generation Missourian and said he looks forward to telling the stories of Missouri's history through its parks and historic sites.

“Mike brings a great deal of leadership and experience to his new role,” said Department Director Carol Comer. “His knowledge and familiarity with both state government and the outdoors made him an excellent candidate for this role. We’re looking forward to Mike helping us continue to build relationships as we move into the future.”

The mission of the state park system is to preserve and interpret the state’s most outstanding natural landscapes and cultural landmarks and to provide outstanding recreational opportunities compatible with those resources.

“I’m honored to be asked to lead our team of hardworking individuals who believe in and support our mission,” said Sutherland. “I’m looking forward to an exciting future as I guide the Missouri State Parks team."

Sutherland earned a Master of Public Affairs from the University of Missouri – Columbia and a Bachelor of Science from the University of Central Missouri. He is also a Six Sigma Lean Green Belt in Government and has completed Fire Management Level 1 training.

A native of Warrenton, Sutherland now lives in Jefferson City.