San Juan Island
Administrative History
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CHAPTER 4:
San Juan Island National Historical Park Management


Since its creation in 1966, park staff has worked to define the park, its goals, and its operating needs. Early in the planning stages, it was determined by a NPS Western Regional Office planning team that the staffing levels at the park would be kept low and would rely on regional office staff for technical assistance support. By comparison to other parks in the region with similar types of resources and acreage, the park staff has remained small. This results in a management situation where staff serves in different roles as needed.

Since the management record for the park is incomplete, there are management decisions for which the reasoning behind them remains unknown. There are, however, a few general characteristics of park management that are identifiable over the years. The first characteristic is the feeling that, even though the park has existed for thirty-three years, it seems new. To some NPS staff, both at the park and in the region, the park still feels and operates like a new park that has yet to come fully into the system. In interviews with past superintendents, the idea that the park still felt like a new park when they came "on board" was a recurring theme.

The island environment also shapes park management, in ways that other parks in the region have not experienced. Location adds a special twist to park management on several levels. First, the rural quality of the island and its small population sometimes leads to difficulty getting or maintaining supplies and equipment. There are no super-warehouse stores on the island, and prices for certain materials can be higher than on the mainland. The nature of the island tourist economy and the vacation property market also lends to a higher cost of living. An additional factor career NPS staff considers in looking at openings with the park is the lack of job opportunity available for spouses or other family members around the islands. The park hasn't traditionally attracted high levels of career NPS personnel for positions outside of superintendent and chief ranger. A good percentage of staff has come from the island or nearby mainland communities.

On a larger scale, there is something to be said for "island time," meaning action on the island can move at a slower pace. In 1985, the regional office sent a study team to the park to review the management structure and make recommendations on how the park could be more effectively managed. When Deputy Regional Director Bill Briggle wrote to Superintendent Hastings to inform him of the study team's arrival and intentions, he noted that he asked Darryll Johnson, the regional sociologist to "analyze the impact of insular living on the staff, their attitudes, productivity, etc., in hopes of gaining greater understanding of an island work environment and the possible problems facing our people while on such an assignment." [1] The concept is an intangible and the true level of its impact over the years is elusive. The only thing known for certain is that the concept was considered at regional levels of management and that thousands of people "escape" to the island every year to enjoy its attitudes and environment. It is the reason people retire there.

The island environment can be said to influence another characteristic of park management: the attitudes of NPS staff from other offices. One can reason that island time is partially responsible for the perception that the park is a "sleepy" park, with not much activity occurring. This is not true; there is plenty going on, and plenty that could be going on given appropriate staffing and funding levels.

That the park is perceived as sleepy is derived from research interviews of NPS park staff and their observations about the NPS staff at region, Washington, D.C., and even at other parks. There is the almost unanimous opinion among park staff that, for many years, the park was treated as a great place to get to visit. All park staff referenced this in some way or another. NPS personnel invited to the park for the purpose of assessing park needs would see the park, tour the island, and then leave. Park staff expressed difficulty in getting further response after such visits, and some honestly were left with the impression that the trip in itself was really the goal, and not to resolve any of the park's problems or issues. This is not meant to imply that all staff visiting the island have not followed through with assistance; it is only meant to convey a message that was consistent in park staff interviews completed for this history.

The Pacific Northwest region is home to three big natural parks, Olympic, North Cascades, and Mount Ranier. It is a consistent theme in the region that all the small historical parks, San Juan among them, has a difficult time receiving a commitment from upper management at the regional and national levels in the shadow of these three dominant parks. So while regional technical staff tried to assess, program, and lobby for management needs at the park, they are equally frustrated by the lack of support and lobbying power coming from upper management.

Frustration has also been an intangible force at work at the park and was evident in 80% of the interviews the author conducted. Job satisfaction is based on a feeling of achievement and accomplishment; this is true for any work environment. A great deal of park planning has never been implemented, despite work by the staff to get support and funding for a variety of projects and programming. The general feeling the author observed is that staff basically operated on survival mode, that a majority of their time was spent trying to maintain basic operations, but not generally making progress on issues or projects. This atmosphere is a stressful one and it results in burn out of personnel. The idea that park staff believed that upper level NPS management was not listening has also contributed to this problem.

With those characteristics underlying the basic framework of park management, a review of park development shows that the park has spent a majority of its history trying to define itself, its goals and programming needs under the shadow of the region's big three parks and the frustration created by the lack of support from upper management in implementing recommended planning efforts.


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Last Updated: 19-Jan-2003