Park History Program
Park History Program
It’s not easy being green and gray — especially when you are early in a career with the National Park Service and want a better understanding of why your work matters and how it fits into the big picture.
I have been there and found it really frustrating. In time I found a solution that was effective, a genuine pleasure and a boost to my career. Just as important, it was bargain-basement cheap. Especially today, the Park Service’s severe budget woes make this worth considering. I have in mind no more than noontime brown-bag discussions held once a week.
Probably unlike most other Park Service employees, I was 27 before I even learned that the agency existed. Trained as a geologist, then involved with oil prospecting around the country, I had been to a number of parks but paid no attention to who was managing them. And in 1973, when I joined the NPS as a historian, I had never heard of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Cultural resource management had not yet sparked much interest within the academic world from which I had just emerged to begin a second career.
Clearly I needed training and so has everyone else who has worked for the Park Service. Little long-distance learning was available then. Most employees depended on either on-the-job guidance usually related to one’s own specialty, or, for the big picture, the hard-to-come-by chance to attend a course at Mather or Albright training centers.
I got into a three-week course — a broad introduction to the NPS — at Albright in 1976. It helped a lot, yet it did not include much analysis of cultural resource management, a topic seldom covered extensively at the time. Given the array of NPS historic preservation responsibilities, there was much I needed to learn, but no systematic “in place” learning programs were available to me.
After becoming Southwest Region’s historian in the mid-1970s, I set up an informal brown-bag learning program in my office. It was a group-mentoring effort that, because it could be taken in small doses and better absorbed over a span of time, brought more beneficial results for me than the formal training I had taken.
In the spring of 1976, I hired Dwight Pitcaithley who was finishing his doctorate in history at Texas Tech University. Not long after he arrived, Jane Scott, who had studied history at Yale and had recent experience as a seasonal interpretive ranger at Mesa Verde, began working in the Santa Fe office, first with the archeologists, then with my office.
Together, the three of us started the brown-bag discussions on topics related to the National Park Service and System. Soon we were joined by perhaps four or five co-workers, mostly archeologists. It was a completely volunteer, self-selected group; and it required individual effort. Some left while others joined us. And several stayed for the long haul. I came to realize that while one person is comfortable with learning through group discussions, another may not be.
We began by reading the NPS official Management Policies, one chapter per week, and discussing them over lunch. The policies were bureaucratic by their nature, and in no way did we become experts; but our readings and discussions on the policies revealed aspects of the Service’s operations that were valuable to us.
Once we finished the policies, we turned to articles and book chapters on national parks and related topics. Now and then we discussed broad environmental issues and natural resource management, but mainly the group focused on historic preservation policy and practice in the National Park System. We also examined historic preservation activities elsewhere around the country, including the National Register programs.
Occasionally our discussions ran over the time allotted for lunch, but not a lot. Besides, we were learning more about our work and the Park Service itself. To me, this was time well spent.
Compare the extra minutes when we ran overtime with the costs of attending formal training courses: the travel and per diem, the time away from the duty station and more. Brown-bagging is a lot cheaper, and it can often benefit from expert commentary by experienced co-workers within a park or office, perhaps even the superintendent.
These brown-bag sessions brought important long-range personal benefits, helping me gain a better grasp of the ins and outs of Park Service historic preservation policies and the laws behind them. Without a doubt, the sessions deepened my commitment to the goals of the NPS. They helped me feel that I belonged. And they helped build morale and teamwork within the office.
Adding greatly to the satisfactions my career would bring me, the brown-bag discussions, along with my other historic preservation efforts, eventually led to a number of teaching assignments at Albright and Mather training centers. This culminated in the 1980s and ’90s with about a dozen, two-week courses in cultural resource management for mid-level managers. Held at Mather Training Center, they provided a broad overview of perspectives, experiences and policies that helped sharpen the understanding of cultural resource management. I remain firmly committed to learning both at home and away. In tandem, they are especially effective.
Even today, Jane, Dwight and I are part of a small book group of friends, each of whom has had Park Service experience. Since about 2005 we have met several times per year via telephone conference calls to discuss books that relate in some way to the National Park System, providing perspectives on historical matters and the natural environment. Diverse titles have included Edward O. Wilson’s The Future of Life, Chris Hedges’ War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning and William Faulkner’s The Bear (the only work of fiction).
Below is a sampling from our book group. If the list seems fairly wide ranging, keep in mind that the National Park System involves both human and natural history — it cuts a giant swath.
Think about starting a brown bag at your park or office. It might prove stimulating. If I were doing it again, I would still start with the official Management Policies, selectively perhaps, given their size. Follow that with any readings the group thinks are appropriate for its needs. Lunch, learn and enjoy!
Richard West Sellars is a retired National Park Service historian and author of Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History. He lives in Santa Fe, N.M.
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved. Association of National Park Rangers.
The NPS Student Employee Network is represented on Facebook. In addition, an inaugural newsletter was published in spring 2013.
This is an extremely positive development for the National Park Service and all federal agencies that annually hire and employ seasonal employees. It provides a logical hiring authority to officially select employees who through their training, irreplaceable work experience, and demonstrated job performance have established their value to the agency.
We will update the status of this bill as it becomes available. Even though the prognosis is that the bill will not get out of committee, ANPR wants to start building support and show Congress that people are interested in this proposed legislation.
Stacy Allen, ANPR president, 2011-13
Statement sent to ANPR membership, March 13, 2013
Worth Fighting For: A Park Ranger's Unexpected Battle against Federal Bureaucrats & Washington Redskins Owner Dan Snyder
By Robert M. Danno, Honor Code Publishing LLC, March 3, 2012
ISBN 13: 978-0-9852807-0-3, hardcover, 257 pages, $24.95
Reviewed by Rick Smith (published online March 14, 2012)
for Ranger magazine, Summer 2012, the journal of the Association of National Park Rangers
An observer not intimately familiar with the details of this story might ask: why is one of the most talented and honored rangers in the National Park Service, chief ranger in three different parks (Chiricahua, Bryce Canyon and C&O Canal) now assigned as the staff park ranger for the National Capital Region, duty stationed at Antietam with no discernable duties, while still being paid as a ranger with law enforcement duties? If that makes Ranger readers curious, they only have to get this book to find out why. I highly recommend they do.
Several issues of Ranger ago, I reviewed the book that dealt with the investigation regarding Billy Malone, the Indian trader at Hubbell Trading Post. I said that was a hard book for me to review because of the initial botched investigation of Malone and because the author's portrait of national park culture did not ring true with my own.
This book also is difficult for me to review but for different reasons. Danno's portrait of his career in the NPS is like a travelogue of wonderful places and experiences. He worked as a seasonal in Whiskeytown, Sequoia/Kings Canyon and Grand Canyon.
In addition to these parks, he was a permanent ranger in the Virgin Islands, Channel Islands, Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. During his time as a ranger, he married his wife, Mary, they had three children, and the family lived a life that he describes as inspirational and exciting. He did the requisite number of rescues, dealt with medical emergencies, arrested bad guys and assisted uncountable numbers of visitors. He became a "ranger's ranger," was nominated twice for the Harry Yount award, and received the Department of the Interior Valor award and the Meritorious Service award. He speaks in awe of his assignment at Madison Junction in Yellowstone and of his pride of being a ranger in the "mother park." This is all the stuff of a very successful career and it makes great reading.
What was difficult for me is to read what happened next, beginning in March of 2005, when Danno was notified that his work conduct at the C&O Canal was being investigated two weeks after he reported to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility that the park superintendent was acting improperly with a boundary issue. He was stripped of his law enforcement commission and assigned to another park. All items were removed from his office and transported to his home by park employees, including his awards, tool kits and other items that a ranger keeps in his or her office. Sometime after that, his home was raided and items were removed by the NPS (while he was out of town). He subsequently was arrested, ordered face-down on a marina dock and carted off in handcuffs. All of this for a two-time nominee for the Harry Yount award?
While Danno had disagreements with the acting superintendent at C&O Canal over issues related to incident command and felt that the acting superintendent's damage assessments following Hurricane Isabel were dishonest in order to get more money for the park, the real problem was Washington Redskins billionaire owner Dan Snyder clear cutting trees on his estate to improve his view of the river. This was a major sensation in the Washington, D.C., newspapers.
According to Danno, he had consistently warned the acting superintendent that this was a violation of law and policy, and should not be allowed. The acting superintendent advocated for it, though. Danno now believed that Snyder did not act on his own, and that the acting superintendent gave him permission to do the cutting. Danno filed a whistle-blower complaint with the DOI Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.
The OIG investigative report came out a year later. Incredibly, it concluded that the decision to allow the tree cutting had come from NPS Director Fran Mainella's office, and that the special assistant to the director, Dan Smith, and the now-superintendent of the C&O Canal, Kevin Brandt, had not been truthful with the investigators. It did not, however, recommend any discipline against these employees and referred the case back to the NPS for appropriate action. Yes, that's right; they recommended that the NPS director's office discipline itself. It is not surprising to learn that the NPS did not take any further action.
Nine months after he was arrested, Danno was indicted on one charge of theft of government property. His trial began in January 2009. I found the sections of the book dealing with the author's preparations for the trial and the trial itself to be fascinating. It is particularly interesting to read the account of his attorney punching holes in the testimony of the chief ranger of National Capital Region, the person who had taken the items from Danno's office and transported them to Danno's house, among the very items that he was now accused of stealing. It's an incredible story! The jury found Danno not guilty in minutes. Some of the jurors waited until he left the courtroom to congratulate him.
It's a happy ending, right? Wrong. Three and a half years after the not-guilty verdict, the NPS still has not taken any disciplinary action against those involved in the Snyder tree-cutting incident, nor has it restored Danno to any position of authority worthy of his experience and abilities. They put him in a closet and let him sit.
I have known Rob Danno for 20 to 25 years. I have the highest regard for his honesty and integrity and the greatest respect for the variety of field ranger skills he possesses. If all he says is true, which an OIG investigative report confirms, this is another stain on the leadership of the National Park Service. I wonder how many more of these kinds of incidents have to occur before the NPS realizes that the low marks it receives in OPM 's "best places to work" surveys, especially in leadership, are fully justified?
This is a cautionary tale for those NPS employees who believe that whistle-blowers will be protected from reprisal by their agency. They won't be. It's also a look at agency behavior that is hard to imagine. While the book is well written and engrossing, at the end I was disheartened.
Like Danno, I loved my career with the NPS. It is hard to believe that it has become just another government bureau. I think Horace Albright warned us about that.
Copyright © 2012. All rights reserved. Association of National Park Rangers.
The reviewer of this book, Rick Smith, is a life member and former president of the Association of National Park Rangers. He retired from the National Park Service after a 31-year career. His last position was as associate regional director of resources management in the former Southwest Region. After retirement he served as acting superintendent of Yellowstone. A former president of the International Ranger Federation, he lives in New Mexico and Arizona.
By Barbara J. Moritsch, CJM Books, Rochester, N.Y., March 2012
ISBN-10-0983179727, 318 pages, paperback, $19.95
Reviewed by Rick Smith (published online June 7, 2012)
for Ranger magazine, Summer 2012, the journal of the Association of National Park Rangers
“The gift of clarity the mountains and the moon gave me that spring night via the ageless, timeless dance of light on water brought me back to myself and helped me regain my balance. Since I’d moved back to Yosemite Valley two and a half years earlier, I’d changed from a confident professional woman to an anxious, under-employed woman. Somewhere along the way, I’d lost my identity, my sense of purpose. Was it a mid-life crisis? Was it due to shifting hormones? Was I miserable because I’d left a great job at Point Reyes to pursue my Yosemite dream, only to wind up in a job so frustrating and painful I had to quit after only nine months?
“I’d asked myself these questions a thousand times. The answers were always the same: yes and no. It was true that the past few years had been a time of intense change and personal growth, but my state of inner turmoil ran much deeper. Gazing up at the shining, wet granite that brilliant March night, I recognized the root of my troubles was buried deep in the granite and sand of Yosemite Valley, intertwined with roots of oak, pine, deergrass and sedge. The source of my grief, my anger and pain became crystal clear. I was watching Yosemite Valley die a slow death, both ecologically and spiritually, and it was breaking my heart.” ~ Barbara Moritsch
This book chronicles a journey, one that began in childhood with family camping trips in Yosemite Valley, continues through college with emphasis on natural resources and planning, and swings through Sequoia as an interpretive intern, for three years as a mounted patrol ranger in Kings Canyon and a stint as an interpreter in Death Valley.
The author, Barbara J. Moritsch, then is hired as a biological tech at Yosemite, working for the resources management division on a project that involved restoring damaged habitat in high elevation forests and meadows. Following that summer, she spends some time in Death Valley, enrolls in a master’s degree program in environmental science, works another summer in Sequoia, continues the master’s program and is offered a GS-7 bio tech job in Yosemite Valley, again working on habitat restoration and revegetation. Her summer was interrupted by a series of wildfires in 1990 that burned some 23,000 acres in Yosemite. During follow-up assignments that included the rehabilitation of disturbed lands, she runs afoul of the chief of resources management who wants to buy a tree spade, a large, expensive piece of equipment, to transplant oak trees to Foresta, a private inholding in the park. Since he was out of the park when the requests needed to be submitted, and since her immediate supervisor agreed with her that oak transplanting would be a bad idea, she sent the proposal forward without the request for transplanting the oak or for the tree spade. Upon his return, the chief told her that he was letting her go. According to her, his final words to her were: “You are too preservation-oriented toward resource management. That may have been OK in Sequoia, but Yosemite is different.”
She did not return to Yosemite for eight years. In the interim, she finished her advanced degree, worked as a environmental consultant and was hired at Point Reyes as the park’s plant biologist, a job she cherished. While there, she became engaged to an NPS employee who worked in the regional office in San Francisco. Soon after, he came home one evening and announced that he had been offered a job in Yosemite Valley. Did she want to go? The answer was an enthusiastic affirmative. She was on her way back to the spot she loved more than any other place.
Shortly after their arrival, she was offered a job in the valley. Her job was liaison, the link between the resources management division and project planning. As in most large parks, the resources management division was responsible for protecting the natural and cultural resources contained within the park; Yosemite’s project management division administered all park projects, including infrastructure development and maintenance. Her primary responsibility was to assure that park resources were considered during the project planning and the effects of the project were mitigated to the extent possible.
Her return to Yosemite coincided with the planning of numerous large projects linked to the 1997 flood that had rocked Yosemite Valley. The flood scuttled several completed or in-process plans for the valley, and emergency appropriations to repair the damage required hastily prepared plans. Local environmental activists said these plans permitted too much additional development in the Valley and violated the Wild and Scenic River Act to which the Merced River, flowing through the Valley, was subject. During one of her first meetings with the project management division, the author learned there were 22 major projects underway for the valley. Reviewing these projects for their potential impacts on park resources was a back-breaking job, one that was shared by her colleagues in resources management. One day she told her supervisor that she was having a difficult time keeping up with all that was happening. He replied, “I know. Don’t worry. It’s the Yosemite way. Just do the best that you can.”
During her review of these projects, she found several that did not have the required environmental studies included. When she raised questions about some of these projects, she was told that the decisions had already been made. Her reaction can best be summarized by quoting her: “I realized that I had been hired as a figurehead . . . nothing I said made any difference. All significant decisions already had been made and were set in stone. And all of these decisions had been made on the extremely limited and grossly inadequate environmental impact analysis done for the Yosemite Valley Plan Supplemental EIS. It was clear that my ideas and concerns, and those of my cohorts in the resources management division, would be incorporated in project planning if doing so didn’t result in any appreciable change in existing plans . . . On March 19, 2003, the United States declared war on Iraq. At about the same time, I fully awakened to the fact that another war was being waged — on the resources of Yosemite Valley.”
A major skirmish of this war was the Lower Yosemite Falls Project. While most admit that the new visitor area around the falls is a significant improvement over the previous site, the author was able to observe what for her was the environmental damage that occurred during the construction phase. There were spills in Yosemite Creek and over-engineered bridges, boardwalks and trails. She was heart-broken.
She and a small team were given the task of studying the question of how many people could visit and recreate in Yosemite without harming the very resources that had attracted them in the first place. Her team tackled the project with enthusiasm, did research, held workshops, developed indicators and developed plans. She was then told that there would be no money to implement the plan. Shortly thereafter, a little more than a year after she had started work again in Yosemite, she was laid off, theoretically because of budget concerns. “. . . but I believe that funding for my job ‘went away’ because once again I was too outspoken in defense of park resources. I had been a thorn in the side of park managers...”
Following her husband’s transfer to the Boise Interagency Fire Center, the author began to focus on what she believed to be the causes for what she had witnessed in Yosemite Valley. She has several:
Finally, she asserts that politics made Yosemite different. “Based on my personal observations, there has never been any strong political will to maintain the ecological or the spiritual integrity of Yosemite Valley, or to restore what has been lost. As soon as some of the earliest Euro-Americans set their greedy eyes on the valley, dollar signs began to obscure the view of its profound beauty. And because the valley provides huge revenues to concession operators and local economies, the Park Service succumbs to the political pressure and doesn’t embrace resource protection and preservation as the highest priorities for Yosemite Valley.”
The remainder of this book contains the author’s prescription for a new vision for Yosemite. She sums it up this way, “Yosemite Valley needs a new vision for its future: a vision based in wildness, that protects and preserves natural and cultural elements first; a vision that allows people to come and rejoice in the valley’s grace and splendor; a vision with opportunities for visitors to connect deeply with the natural world; a vision not corrupted or coerced by economics or politics.”
This isn’t a bad prescription for any wild area whether it is managed by the NPS or not.
Many readers who have not worked in Yosemite Valley are likely to find the place names and sites a bit confusing. I must confess that the 40 years or so since I worked there have dulled my perceptions a little, also.
Readers not versed in the intricacies of the NPS planning process may find sections of this book require heavy lifting.
This is a fascinating look at how Yosemite operated at a time when, in the midst of recovering from a natural event — the flood — it had too many projects and too much money on hand to assure orderly, environmentally sensitive planning.
The author was in the middle of much of what happened. I think Ranger readers will find her observations quite interesting.