Administrative History
NPS Logo

Chapter Seven:
Refining the Message, Defending the Resources: The Quest for Institutional Support, 1980-1996

On a crisp fall morning in November 1995, the buildings and grounds of Fort Davis National Historic Site stood as empty as when the post was abandoned a century before. The eery silence occurred because of the failure of the U.S. Congress and the President to agree on a budget for the federal government. For the third time in 15 years, park personnel were "furloughed," or sent home indefinitely because their parent agency, the Interior department, had received no congressional appropriation with which to operate. Thus the park staff could not fulfill the mission mandated by Congress 35 years earlier to preserve the past for the future, and to instruct the visiting public about the heritage and tradition of the Davis Mountains.

It was fitting that the restored example of the "finest frontier military post in the Southwest" had no visitors or staff in the week before Thanksgiving, as the last two decades of the twentieth century bore little resemblance to Fort Davis' first 20 years of existence. A more conservative political climate under the presidential administrations of Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Bill Clinton reduced spending overall to public agencies. This meant that parks like Fort Davis would receive less attention and funding, especially as Congress continued to establish new units of the park service. From personnel to preservation to interpretive services, the staff and management of Fort Davis spent much of the latter part of the century consolidating the gains of the 1960s and 1970s, while trying to find more creative means to advance the cause of history in the far Southwest. [1]

The four superintendents that managed Fort Davis in its third and fourth decades of existence all faced the challenge of enhancing the richness and variety of historic resources that the park service had inherited and preserved. From Doug McChristian (1980-1986) to Steve Miller (1986-1988) to Kevin Cheri (1988- 1992) to Jerry Yarbrough (1992-present), the park's directors and staff knew that they would not soon return to the days of 1960s restoration, or the excitement of creating the living history programs of the 1970s. Perusal of their correspondence and reports, along with oral interviews, indicates the maturing process of Fort Davis as a park service unit, along with the need for staff and managers alike to be ever more thoughtful in meeting the needs of visitors and guarding the historical tradition of the old frontier post. This process began in the spring of 1980, when former supervisory ranger Doug McChristian returned to manage the park. In a 1994 interview, McChristian remembered how he wished to "influence the history of an area," and how concerned he had been as a special assistant in the Southwest Regional Office about the "decline of quality in the living history program." His first objective became the revitalization of the work that he and Mary Williams had undertaken in the early 1970s to bring the past to life, with better maintenance of the ruins and their foundations as allied priorities. [2]

Supt. McChristian
Figure 42. Superintendent Doug McChristian (1985).
Courtesy Fort Davis NHS.

McChristian's personnel, like many public officials in the early 1980s, found it difficult to accept the political rhetoric ushered in by the so—called "Reagan Revolution." The conservative Republican had swept to victory in the 1980 election by promising to "get government off the backs of the American people," and suggesting that those employed in public service did not measure up to the standards of the private sector. Reagan's promise to reduce federal spending for domestic programs, and expand dramatically the appropriations for the nation's armed forces, marked a significant shift in emphasis from the more generous spending habits of the Democrats in the White House and Congress. Compounding this was Reagan's choice as Interior secretary James Watt, an arch-conservative lawyer from Wyoming whose Mountain States Legal Foundation had championed the causes of the "Sagebrush Rebellion;" a 1970s protest movement originating in the public land states of the arid West, with citizens outraged at the regulatory power of federal officials and their perceived insensitivity towards the property rights of individual landowners. [3]

Even before the inauguration of Ronald Reagan in January 1981, Supervisory Park Ranger James A. Blackburn had to issue a memorandum to the staff entitled, "Support for Public Policy." He had noticed that "certain remarks made by employees in the presence of visitors have not thoroughly supported public policy of the United States Government." Conceding that his staff had the right of free speech, Blackburn nonetheless wanted no one "making remarks that might lead a visitor or other employee to feel that we do not care for the job or policy of our government (our employer)." The supervisory ranger recognized "the austerity of our present financial posture;" a condition that he agreed had "resulted in curtailed programs and reduced visitor services in the area of interpretation." Yet the Fort Davis staff "have not reduced our visitor services when it comes to quality -- if anything, we are constantly improving quality." Blackburn asked his colleagues "to provide our visitors with a positive outlook," and "to curtail negativism." If the staff would "all take a look at ourselves," they would realize that "we all experience some dissatisfaction with the restraints imposed upon us." Yet "we can gain public support," said the ranger, "by portraying to our visitors a can-do attitude; one that says we are aware of certain limitations in funding and personnel," and one that would keep "this dissatisfaction from showing to our visitors." [4]

The superintendent had to acknowledge that the ambition of the NPS in the 1960s had given way to a more conservative time. In the 1970s, the Park Service had refurnished several buildings at Fort Davis, including an officer's quarters, a kitchen and servants' quarters, and the post commissary. Yet these facilities required personnel to interpret their story to the visiting public, and historians to research that story. McChristian soon realized upon his return to Fort Davis that one reason for the perceived "decline" in living history was the reduction in staff in the late 1970s. In a memorandum to the regional office in March 1981, the superintendent provided a table of hiring trends since 1975. In the division of interpretation, for example, there had been ten seasonals that year, along with two permanent staff and three "Cooperative Education" employees. By 1980 the Park Service, responding to declines in congressional support, reduced the number of workers at the park. The regional office also lowered the pay grades for new hires; a pattern that McChristian called "a false economy because it naturally tended to lower the quality of programs and caused some activities to be canceled entirely." A second indicator of the fiscal constraints of the 1970s was the requirement by Congress that the NPS absorb the "Classified Pay Increase" (CPI) in each park's operating budget. Rampant inflation in the years after the conflict in Vietnam had driven consumer prices and wages upward in a seemingly endless spiral, as much a function of the rise in energy prices as in the explosion of government spending criticized by conservative politicians. McChristian would thus have to find money in his allocation from Santa Fe to cover 60 percent of the staffs pay raises; a situation that he called "the single most [important] factor adversely affecting the park's funding." This meant no hiring of seasonals for the summer of 1981, delays in standard maintenance procedures (such as mowing the grounds, painting the trim on buildings, clearing of nature trails, etc.). [5]

Since a commitment to public service was a hallmark of the NPS, and because Fort Davis represented a signal achievement in living history interpretation, McChristian decided to press forward with as thorough a program of storytelling, reenactments, and scholarly research as his budget limitations allowed. In May 1980, he provided his staff with a clear explanation of his principles and goals. "I believe that we have an obligation to insure that what [the visitors] are seeing, touching, tasting, and so forth," said the superintendent, "is a worthy substitute for the real thing." He challenged the idea that "visitors won't know the difference anyway" by suggesting that it was "unprofessional" and misleading to the public to denigrate the personal nature of living history. "Visitors look to us as the experts," said McChristian, "and depend upon us to be correct." He extended the quest for "authenticity" to the daily dress of his staff "from the skin out," mindful that wool undergarments were "often uncomfortable at first to a 20th Century person.' Nonetheless, accuracy in detail meant "interpreting life by their standards [the nineteenth-century frontier]," so that the staff could dramatize to visitors "the contrasts between the quality of life then and now, changes in style and custom, health factors, and the uses of energy as contrasted with the present day." [6]

Interpreting the authenticity of Fort Davis through living history led McChristian to develop plans to study other aspects of the park's natural and cultural resources. He asked Dr. James T. Nelson, professor of range animal science at Sul Ross State University, to undertake a vegetation study "to recreate and maintain the natural features" that "accurately reflect the historic scene of the late 19th century." The superintendent needed base maps of vegetation such as "grasses, trees, shrubs, and cacti." He also wanted to know of the "various vegetative zones," the plant life "now present but exotic to the area," and those plants "not present but.. . probably a part of the historic scene." Yet Fort Davis also faced intrusion into the serenity of the park with the increase of Air Force flight testing in the Davis Mountains. Superintendent McChristian had to write in February 1981 to Colonel Harold Dortch, commander of Tactical Training at Holloman Air Force Base (HAFB), to complain as his predecessors had of the "sonic booms" occurring as part of the overflights of high-speed aircraft. "I hope that you share our concern for preserving our nation's military history," said McChristian, since "a public that has the opportunity of understanding our military's role and traditions are more likely to be supportive of its actions today." The Air Force, however, did not respond to the superintendent's entreaties, leading McChristian in November 1981 to complain to regional officials: "Apparently, the Air Force would like me to believe that I am imagining things." McChristian and his staff contended that "when one hears a thunderbolt-like crack from a cloudless sky and feels the entire building tremble, he can assume either an F-15 has overflown the area or that the Almighty is upset with the National Park Service." The staff thus had no choice but to record the time and date of the sonic booms, since "until we have hard evidence upon which to base our complaint, we cannot present a convincing case for claiming possible damage to the structures at Fort Davis." [7]

A critical factor for the staff and management of the park was the continued imbalance of interpretation of the black experience at the post. Prompted by the NPS' inquiry about Fort Davis' "Minority Interpretation Action Plan," the staff discussed in 1980 what Mary Williams described as "the positive and negative aspects of our interpretive programs as they effect and are affected by minority cultures." As part of Doug McChristian's call for more authenticity in telling the Fort Davis story, the staff reviewed its exhibits, collections, publications, and interpretive presentations. They discovered, for example, that two slides in the museum audio-video program that supposedly depicted black troopers of the 9th Cavalry "actually were of white soldiers." The noted Southwestern artist Rogers Aston donated to Fort Davis "two beautiful historically accurate bronzes - one of an Apache Indian and the other of a Buffalo Soldier." Mary Williams acknowledged that these statues replaced "a large copy of a [Frederick] Remington sketch of an Apache and a Buffalo Soldier" because the original, "like some of Remington's other sketches of black men, . . . depicted the Buffalo Soldier as a very physically unattractive person." Fort Davis also redesigned the "shared officers' quarters" to represent the rooms of Lieutenant Henry Flipper, and also examined the possibility of commemorating in 1981 the centennial of Flipper's court martial. Less successful were the staffs efforts to hire a black seasonal. One young man from Howard University in Washington, DC, wrote that he could not afford to move to Fort Davis, while a second student from Tuskegee Institute in Alabama reported that "because of personal problems he could not accept the appointment." Fort Davis then turned to Sul Ross for help, but "no qualified black students have expressed any interest in the program." [8]

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 22-Apr-2002