Jerry Rogers’ National Park Service career spanned the period from 1964 to 2001 and included leading the Cultural Resource and Historic Preservation Programs, and ended as Chair of Discovery 2000: The National Park Service General Conference. Rogers’ work on behalf of the Park Service has continued through the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks and other organizations. This is his address at Ranger Rendezvous on October 30, 2016.
For a long time one of the most important things that happens at Ranger Rendezvous has taken place outside the formal sessions like this one. Over breakfasts and lunches and dinners and especially in the bars and hospitality rooms into the night the telling and re-telling of stories has taken place, and over time these stories have evolved into legends. The Association of National Park Rangers does many things of importance, but one of them will always be to serve as a sort of national campfire for the National Park Service. Tens of thousands of Rangers encountering hundreds of thousands of unusual experiences with millions of visitors and surviving close calls in dangerous situations give you and me not just entertainment but also purpose and direction.
Bill Wade a few years ago described the difference between a fairy tale and a ranger tale. A fairy tale begins with “Once upon a time,” and ends with “And they all lived happily ever after.” A ranger tale begins with “There I was…!;” and ends with “And that ain’t no shit.”
This is more important than it may seem. Stories that last evolve and coalesce into myths, and myths exercise a gravitational pull upon values, ideas, and concepts; drawing them gradually together into a culture. Culture then defines the people who are part of it without their even being aware that they are being defined. Daniel Quinn, in his deeply perceptive book Ishmael, says we absorb culture with our mother’s milk. I believe that is mostly good, in that it helps people live together in civilized ways, and for those of us in the National Park Service culture it imbues us with purpose far beyond ordinary jobs. But also has negative sides. Cultures inevitably have exclusionary aspects, keeping some people and their ideas out; and in extreme cases can produce disaster, as evidenced by the 1978 People’s Temple mass suicide in Guyana.
I am focusing on the institutional culture of the National Park Service for several reasons. I think it is in many ways one of the very best things about the Service, and simultaneously it is one of the Service’s greatest problems. Most of all, about 35 years ago I figured out that success in my National Park Service job required me to be a student of and to exert influence on not just the policies of the Service but also on the Service’s self-image and fundamental values. So I will forego this morning the chance to spin a yarn about the time a visitor walked up to me with a live rattlesnake in his hands or the time I witnessed an NPS employee back a tractor into a historic adobe wall that the park had been created to preserve. I will begin with a different kind of tale.
There I was, about 7,000 miles from here in the Caroline Islands of the tropical Pacific, doing the kind of National Park Service work that the mainland parks themselves had only begun to comprehend. It was 1974 and Congress had amended the National Historic Preservation Act to define the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands as States for the purpose of participating in the Federal/State partnership that works to preserve historic places in all forms of ownership and of all levels of significance, and I was sent to help them get started. The local culture had been rolled over by several waves of colonialism and then dealt a near death-blow by World War II and its aftermath. People who could grow all the taro they needed with almost no effort and who could spear in a few minutes enough fish for a day were well into a cash economy, and seemed now to prefer paying for packaged and processed foods shipped from the United States. (Think Spam, Lucky Strikes, and Budweiser). Symptoms of cultural disintegration were visible everywhere.
On the island of Yap, American colonial administrators loaded me into the back seat of a Land Rover to visit some historic places and we drove for a long time into roads that became so overgrown that only the driver could see them. After a time we picked up an old man who was waiting by the roadside. He wore only a lavalava and sandals and spoke with me through the driver’s able interpretation from the native language. Eventually we stopped and the old man led us along a flagstone-paved walkway above which the trees grew together to shut out direct sunlight. The walkway led to a pre-WWII village site, with a two-foot high earthen and stone council platform in the middle, surrounded by many similar but smaller house platforms. A dozen or more of the large disc-shaped “coins” of Yapese stone money stood here and there, but clearly not many people came there and no one had been there for quite some time.
The old man told us of a time when the council of chiefs who met on the council platform had been deliberating over what to do about a very murderous warrior who lived on a nearby island and who had killed several people. They were stymied, but the slave of one council member volunteered to handle the warrior and successfully did so, bringing the bad guy’s head back to the council as evidence. After that the slave was not only freed but exalted, and made a member of the council. He was so exalted that in a particular annual feast which involved people drinking a sort of wine they dipped from a great pot, he got to sit in the pot of wine.
Although on a fairly small island, this site was relatively remote and deserted so that visiting it evoked the feeling I get when I visit a New Mexico site that has not been occupied by living people for 400 years. Yet the story this old man told had happened during his boyhood! And this old man was no older then than I am now.
Touched by the experience, we made our way in silence back to the vehicle and drove the guide back to the point where we had picked him up. The interpreter had succeeded in conveying my mission to the guide, and before exiting the vehicle the old man turned to me with tears in his eyes. He said, according to the interpreter, “I hope you can save some of these places. Our young people go to school, they learn to read and write and about the modern world, but they don’t know who we were.”
That man’s face and words have always been among a few deeply personal motivating factors throughout my career. They became part of my version of the National Park Service mythology.
For decades I have described the National Park Service as being more nearly a cultural / kinship group than a government agency. People can be adopted into that kinship, and it can be extended by members of the group to those found worthy of admittance—usually on the basis of earned respect. I don’t know who coined the term “Steve Mather’s Family” or when, but it supports my point. Especially in the old days when travel and communication were slower and more difficult, a new employee who joined the staff of a particular park was “adopted” into the “family” of that park and also of the extended national family.
There are “rules” for behavior in families, but not the kind of rules that get codified in the Articles, Sections, Subsections, and paragraphs of an official manual. The most important of such rules are vague, comprehended generally rather than specifically, and derived from shared values. They are often related to specific places or aspects of the earth or the cosmos. They are passed from person to person, and from generation to generation, by stories and by personal mentoring.
The institutional culture of the National Park Service came from many sources. Naturally we think of the military. Everyone here knows that the Army ran the National Parks for 44 years before the National Park Service was created in 1916. Fewer of us think of the fact the Army also managed many historic places for about 65 years before those units were transferred to the Service in 1933. Gettysburg National Military Park, for example, still retains military education among its purposes and high-ranking officers still go there to study their institutional past. There can be no question that the Army’s hierarchy, and its custom of having each post run by a commanding officer who was simultaneously independent and accountable to higher authority has helped to shape what a Park Superintendent is today.
This is guesswork, but it seems to me that a nearly opposite factor that I will call “the solitary wilderness experience” was part of it. We call Harry Yount the first Ranger. I don’t know what Harry was like, but I am willing to bet that he was a good bit like Jim Bridger—accustomed to being alone but garrulous in the company of others. Bridger may have gone alone into the wilderness, but when he met another human who understood his language he reveled in telling stories of places that had “petrified trees full of petrified birds singing petrified songs.”
Yet more guesswork, I am willing to bet that some of the unifying strength of the Mormon experience found its way into the National Park Service culture as many parks and monuments were created in the Southwest and staffed by people who lived in the area.
In any case, by the time the National Park Service was created in 1916 there were strong forces already present: an awareness that parks were special, high ideals, plus organizations, practices and precedents, habits, traditions, and stories that made it easy for the Service’s first leaders to cultivate a unique culture.
The remote locations of many parks made isolation a factor. Many early parks and monuments were far from even small settlements and were staffed by one employee known as a Warden or Custodian who in every case was male and in most cases married. It was common for such couples never to see another human except one another for days at a time. Not only did the wife do a lot of work that was the duty of the husband (without pay), but when visitors did show up both warden and wife were delighted and were eager to show their wonders and to tell all they knew about them. “Boss” Pinckley, who managed a collection of southwestern parks, called these women H.C.W.P. for Honorary Custodians Without Pay.
But, even though women were present and doing important things, the evolving culture was almost a Nordic ideal—very white and very masculine. We have all heard of Horace Albright’s 1926 letter describing what characteristics the Service looked for in a Ranger.
If you (appear unusually) youthful or immature for a man of 21, don’t apply. We prefer men who are mature in appearance…big in frame, tall,if you are small of stature, better not apply. Men who are…tactful, diplomatic, courteous, patient….on duty night and day.
That letter is, of course, socially abhorrent by today’s standards and in several ways contrary to law. It was not progressive, even in its own time, but keep in mind that this was a letter intended to attract employees. It was intended to express an institutional culture and also to shape it, and it worked! Men who wanted pride and purpose in their work were happy to compete to be part of a culture defined by these standards.
Albright’s other famous “letter,” actually a farewell message to National Park Service employees at the beginning of August, 1933, was wonderfully hortatory.
Maintain the lofty ideals of the service…Do not let the service become “just another government bureau;” keep it youthful, vigorous, clean and strong. We are not here to simply protect what we have been given so far…We are here to sweep our protective arms around the vast lands that may need us as man and his industrial world expand and encroach….
Things like this have been repeated again and again—in stories most likely dating back to Harry Yount’s campfires—they have become important parts of the mythology that guides us today.
I dwell on this so long this morning because these forces of institutional culture had shaped the National Park Service profoundly before I joined it as a seasonal historian at Fort Davis National Historic Site in 1964 and on a permanent basis with the national historic preservation programs in 1967. Also because when I joined it in 1967 my new job dealt with things that were related to the institutional culture but were by no means at the center of it. I had absorbed enough of that institutional culture at Fort Davis to get it permanently lodged in my heart, and yet my permanent job put me on a career path of forever trying to change it.
The Service was then just half a century old and was powerfully identified with what I have oversimplified into the “Yellowstone Ideal.” Even though the National Park System had included historic and prehistoric places since before 1916, and had been guided by the Historic Sites Act since 1935, and by 1967 had more “historic” units than any other kind, the mythology still revolved around great and remote natural and scenic places. Those places were nationally significant, outstanding, and easily distinguished from “lesser” places. They were set apart. They had distinct boundaries that clearly defined not only the parks but the duties of the Service. And they were “protected” by the high ideals and deep sense of responsibility held by the people who ran them.
Director George B. Hartzog was by 1967 wrenching the National Park Service institutional culture severely in many ways such as developing urban National Recreation Areas. But few of his new directions were as genuinely new and different as the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and the set of programs that grew from it.
The new National Register of Historic Places was to go far beyond the notion of protecting within boundaries a highly select few places of outstanding national significance. It would include places that were merely locally significant—districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects significant in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering, and culture. Perhaps more important, these places were to be preserved if possible in “normal” contemporary economically-productive uses—as a living part of community life and development. People might “learn” a lesson in history by visiting a place set aside in a National Historic Site and interpreted by Rangers, but the new idea was that people would also benefit from simply living their daily lives in a historic environment. The old houses people lived in, or the buildings they worked in, or the bridges they drove across commuting to and from work—these too were worthy of preservation. Hartzog understood this as an extension of what the National Park Service was about, and he made sure the new programs went into the Service rather than in other agencies that wanted them.
Not everyone saw that so clearly. It was not possible to implement these new things through traditional NPS organizational structures. New networks had to be developed of State, local, Federal agency, and eventually Tribal Historic Preservation Officers. For these networks to function they had to have authorities of their own, not just derived from the National Historic Preservation Act but also from their own statutes and rules. A strong Wyoming state program, for example, would almost automatically pose problems for Grand Teton and Yellowstone, and the idea of a strong local program in Cody was of especial concern. The new programs had been inspired in part by European precedents, and in Europe historic places were more likely to be protected by agencies more focused on art, architecture, and “culture” than by one that dealt with remote natural places. It was not very long before some people began to imagine a cabinet level Department of Cultural Affairs as a better location for the new historic preservation programs. My old boss and mentor, Dr. Ernest Allen Connally, who headed the preservation programs from 1967 to 1979, and who was better known and respected in other countries than within the NPS, actually nurtured a dream of such a department built around the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Smithsonian Institution, the museum services program of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and the historic preservation programs of the National Park Service—possibly including the historic units of the National Park System.
When Jimmy Carter was elected President with a declared intention to reorganize government, there seemed to be a brief period of possibility that something like that might actually happen. But what happened instead was that the historic preservation programs and the tiny National Natural Landmarks program were ripped out of the National Park Service and combined with the former Bureau of Outdoor Recreation into the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service. The idea behind this HCRS was actually a very good one in the abstract, but I have to say that when I tried to get excited about the possibilities it offered I just could never get rid of heavy feeling in my heart about not being part of the National Park Service; it was Mother Culture calling me home, and it just would not go away.
As it happened, HCRS was so incompetently led and so disastrously mismanaged that less than three years later we were back in the National Park Service. Soon I found myself responsible not only the historic preservation programs that dealt with all those external networks but also for policies guiding history, historic architecture, archeology, ethnography, and museum services within the National Park System. It was very clear to me that the future of all of these programs lay inside the National Park Service. I was happy with that, but that was also when I began to encounter the cultural barriers. That was when I began to see the things that had caused Connally and others to dream of another home for things that did not easily fit that rugged, masculine, outdoor mold.
One Regional Director said to me, and I quote: “We don’t think we have cultural resources in the Pacific Northwest Region.”
In order to generate some basis for a budget for cultural resources in parks, I conducted a very general servicewide review of the condition of those resources, what work they needed, and how much money was required. My intention was to make a case to the Director, the Department, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Congress. In a private meeting, Regional Directors gave me hell about it. They were opposed in principle to aggregating any budget data at a level higher than their own! It was more important to them to control what happened with the existing funding than to make a case for additional funding!
Superintendents of Delaware Water Gap, Grand Teton, and other parks routinely demolished historic structures that did not fit their notion of what their park should be, and they did it in violation of law.
When handed the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and Guidelines for treatment of historic structures while discussing a specific building, the Superintendent of one major park said to me: “These are guidelines, not regulations; that means I can ignore them.”
A Director of the National Park Service, with no input from me or any cultural resource person and in total violation of two laws, made and publicly announced a decision to demolish a historic lodge at Crater Lake. The very historic preservation network that the National Park Service had developed—and which related to the Service through me—rose up and forced not only retention of the lodge but a very expensive rehabilitation of it.
These experiences and numerous others made it clear to me that it did not do much good to set cultural resource policy in Steve Mather’s bureau if one did not also shape the values in “Steve Mather’s Family.” That is when I became a self-taught student of the institutional culture of the National Park Service, and that is also when I became determined that I had to help shape and build the culture rather than merely be confined by it.
That is also when I began to recognize other people within the Service who were doing similar things. Lowell National Historical Park had been created, with its then unique blending of park and community. Rivers and Trails programs and a few heritage corridors were inventing new ways to do “parklike” things with communities rather than apart from them. The National Recreation Areas eventually stopped trying to follow the “Yellowstone ideal” and began to lead the culture in directions compatible with what I had been trying to do.
Without going into detail, my career became one of persuasion. Persuading people who had been shaped by the “Yellowstone ideal” to feel in their hearts that cultural resources were important parts of their jobs, that this included some cultural resources that were not nationally significant, that the historic preservation networks outside the parks were not just annoyances but were sources of power that could be brought to bear for the benefit of parks as well as against demolition decisions. If that was sometimes a hard slog, so was persuading people who wanted to preserve their ethnic heritage in inner city neighborhoods that the iconic visual image of Old Faithful, or Yosemite Falls, or Landscape Arch, or even Mesa Verde had anything to do with their success.
It helped a lot that the cultural resource programs with which I worked had enormous potential, and that the people who worked in them and the professions that worked with them were extraordinarily creative. It helped to have professional associations in the fields of history and archaeology tell Congress and Administrations that parks needed highly qualified employees in those fields. It helped even more to have the American Society of Civil Engineers designate roads like Going to the Sun Highway as National Civil Engineering Landmarks, and the American Institute of Architects spotlighting the importance of buildings ranging from Old Faithful Inn to the Mission 66 Visitor Center at El Morro. And it especially helped to have Tribal Preservation Officers, cultural anthropology organizations and the American Society of Landscape Architects join together to advance the concept of cultural landscapes—so that a mountain, a river, a tree, or a rock can be recognized as not just a natural resource or thing of beauty but a cultural resource as well.
By the time I retired in 2001, the National Park Service institutional culture had changed in ways that I thought were mostly positive, although not entirely so, and the things it valued encompassed many things that much earlier it had not. I do not claim to have made those changes happen, but I am very pleased that some changes I worked for actually came about.
In 2008 and 2009 I had the honor of being a member of the National Parks Second Century Commission, which I described as being 25 incredibly distinguished Americans plus me, and which luckily had vital meeting design assistance from my wife, Nancy Burgas. The Commission attempted to look far beyond the event of the centennial and to conceive the kind of National Park Service the country needed to aim toward decades from now. I am delighted that the Commission recognized that although the great National Parks—in all their nationally significant natural, scenic, recreational, and historic glory—absolutely must be preserved to the highest achievable standards, they are only the core of what needs to exist. The Commission said the country needs to take “the National Park Idea” into every part of our geography, our economy, our educational systems, and our population.
I find that very validating. The word “icon” is used too often, but images in the public mind of scenes in National Parks have come to represent the United States of America almost as does the flag itself. The power in that fact can and should benefit those who work to save anything and everything “parklike” anywhere in the country, whether it be in another Federal agency, a State park, a public beach, a parcel of privately-owned wildlife habitat, or even a street of historic buildings whose impoverished residents want to hang onto a bit of their ethnic heritage. The power of the parks can help all those things if people see the connection. And nothing is more obvious now than that the great iconic parks cannot be preserved without “parklike” places and things outside their boundaries also being preserved. The many National Park Service programs that encourage and assist that preservation are the best hope for survival of the parks themselves. How, I wonder, will this broad view find its way into the mythology, the stories, of the National Park Service? I don’t know, but we will know it has happened when we hear it after hours at a Ranger Rendezvous.
I want to end with another story that involves a value learned in a park and that projects something positive into the future. It could have happened in any one of a hundred thousand places, but it happened at Pecos National Historical Park. It is not my own story, but rather it happened to my late son Houston Rogers whose beginning National Park Service career was cut short by an accident 14 years ago. Houston, an archaeologist, was doing a task in the adobe mission ruin. A man and woman and an 8 year old boy came by and as Houston answered their questions about archaeology the mother told the boy to give Houston the pieces of pottery he had gathered with the intention of turning them in at the visitors center. Houston gave the kid a long and friendly explanation of why the artifacts were important only in context and why they had no value if turned in at the VC. The kid seemed really interested in all he was learning so Houston suggested he take the shards back and put them exactly where he had found them, saying “Who knows, maybe you will grow up to be an archaeologist, and maybe you will be the one who discovers something important by again finding those very artifacts exactly where they belong!” The parents walked on as the kid enthusiastically went back to replace the shards, and Houston resumed his work. As the boy ran to catch up with his parents he stopped and said to Houston “Maybe I will see you here!”
I am glad to have had the chance to see you here and to share these stories.