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Podcast

A Sense of Place: Stories of Stewardship from the National Park Service

Park History Program

This podcast introduces you to the people who take care of America’s parks. You’ll see parks in new ways. As experiments in social reform. As places where interpretive rangers and visitors contemplate big ideas. As spaces where the NPS aspires to hire an inclusive workforce. Each episode dives into the Park History Program’s rich oral history archives to find stories that are moving, funny, and wise. Come join us.

Episodes, transcripts, & photos also available at: https://go.nps.gov/sense-of-place-podcast

Episodes

The Helpers - Life, Death, and Safety in Our Parks

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LU ANN JONES (HOST): This episode contains stories of injury and death, so sensitive listeners are advised.

There are some National Park Service rangers that visitors hope to never meet: at least under certain circumstances.

Butch Farabee is one. And he’s got a lot of stories.

BUTCH FARABEE (NARRATOR): Here is this little six-year-old, laying on the floor. He's been gored by a deer. The local rangers are working on him; there's blood everywhere.

JONES: He was performing search and rescue and emergency medicine as a ranger -- along with JD Swed.

JD SWED (NARRATOR): A Boy Scout group was up there learning to climb. Near the end of the day, one of the kids needed a couple of carabiners, so he untied one of the ropes and then tied it off with an overhand, and then took the carabiners out so he could rappel one more time. Another kid rappelled off that rope, and it just came untied and he fell to his death.

JONES: They were on the front lines helping to develop the parks’ emergency response program. This would ensure that all protection rangers got advanced emergency medical and rescue training.

Accidents happen. And often, in really inconvenient places: remote trails, steep cliffs, deep lakes, swift rivers, hot canyons. And when they did happen, that’s when Butch, JD, and their fellow rangers would get the call.

I’m National Park Service historian Lu Ann Jones, and you’re listening to “A Sense of Place: Stories of Stewardship from The National Park Service,” a podcast series about the people who shaped the parks and the Service.

Today: The helpers: life, death, and safety in our parks.

Farabee joined the National Park Service in the 1960s, Swed in the 1970s-- right as two important trends emerged.

Outdoor recreation was booming--and people went to the growing number of national parks to climb, hike, backpack, ski, swim, and boat.

Around the same time, there was a national push to make sure that first responders received standardized emergency medical training -- that they knew more than basic first aid.

FARABEE: When you went to work in the morning, you did not know what the day was going to bring. I mean, you had to know what you were doing, because otherwise you’re going to kill yourself or kill somebody else.

JONES: They did a little bit of everything.

FARABEE: On one given day you could be jumping out of the helicopter, darting a bear, making a felony arrest, fighting a structural fire, and starting an IV on somebody—and then you could also just do the general run-of-the-mill, take a lost person report, you know?

But it was the totality of the excitement. It was the unknown.

JONES: Exciting, yes. But as Farabee and Swed know, search and rescue work takes an emotional and physical toll. Sometimes rescue turns into recovery. Searching for and rescuing is one thing; dealing with the trauma of recovering bodies is another.

Farabee remembers it well.

He got a call out to Tenaya Canyon in Yosemite National Park. It was August 1971.

A missing hiker.

Farabee and a fellow ranger ascended the notoriously dangerous rock face.

The young man had been missing for almost a week. The scene is gruesome. They put him in a body bag.

FARABEE: We had to lower this deceased young man several different drops of maybe fifty, seventy-five feet vertically down to the next ramp; I think we were fairly as delicate as you could be under the circumstances, but we still had to get the job done.

JONES: The descent was tough -- it was impossible not to jostle the stretcher and the body.

FARABEE: And I'd say, "Well, jeez, I'm sorry, Rick." Of course, I wasn't making fun; what I was trying to do was do as you say, gallows humor. I was trying to protect myself and partner a little bit.

Anybody that does much of this for very long has to do that. Now at a certain point, you sort of grow beyond that as well. You become hardened enough. I don't think an ER doc or a flight nurse who sees this sort of thing all the time probably doesn’t need to protect themselves that much very often. But when you're starting out, you do.

JONES: As for Swed, he first learned how to deal with fatalities as a seasonal ranger at Yosemite. A gallows humor can be emotional armor.

SWED: The way we dealt with it in those days is that night we got around the campfire and we drank a few more beers than we did the night when those things didn’t happen. And it was a macho deal, I learned later, you know, much later.

JONES: The work can also raise thorny ethical questions.

SWED: The young woman who rolled her truck and died and her parents wanted to go to the exact location. Of course, there’s a large blood spot. I took the fire truck out there and tried to wash it all off and I couldn’t. Then, morally, I had to decide whether or not I’d take them to the exact spot because of that bloodspot. I battled with that internally for a little while to try to figure it out--I don’t know if I asked for any help; I don’t recall that--but I decided that it was best to be honest. I’ve always done that with all the deaths, and I’ve handled hundreds with the Park Service in my career now, and that’s always paid off well for not only me but for the people that I was dealing with. I just set it up for them and told them, because I didn’t think it was fair to take them to a place that was a hundred yards down the road, because they would always have the wrong spot.

JONES: Butch Farabee has hundreds of missions behind him, but there’s one that still stands out. He often tears up thinking about it.

It was November 1977, Yosemite National Park -- and a little boy is bleeding profusely after being gored by a deer.

Farabee and a park nurse were returning from another call when they heard,

FARABEE: "Do you want us to bring the EMT kit?"

I heard that, and I didn't hear the response, but I recognized the voice as being one of my friends. So I went on the radio and, I said, "We've got the park ambulance, we’ve got a park nurse, can we help you guys?" Whatever it is, you know, we're there. They said “Yeah, report up to the ranger station.”

So we got there and here is this little six-year-old laying on the floor. What has happened is he's been gored by a deer. The local rangers are working on him, there's blood everywhere, his parents are there. So, the nurse gets on the telephone, calls the clinic inside the valley, and says, "Which way shall we go?”

JONES: The doctor tells them to head toward a hospital in Fresno— eighty miles away.

Farabee is driving. The nurse and the boy’s father are in the back. The boy’s mother, sister, and a family friend are following in the car behind. The roads are curvy and slippery with ice.

They are a few miles outside of the park.

FARABEE: The nurse says, "Butch, you better pull over. I can't get this boy's pulse."

So fortunately there's a pull off and I pull in, open the back doors, and we slide a backboard underneath this little boy, and the father is sitting right there in the back seat with the kid. The car with this unknown male and the mother and the daughter slide in behind us.

JONES: Farabee and the nurse begin CPR on the boy.

FARABEE: And this unknown male comes up and says, "Can I help you guys?" I said, "Get in the ambulance, drive us, don't kill us."

We go another fifteen minutes or so and we meet up with an ambulance that had been coming up to meet us. We switch. I know that this boy's not going to live.

And as we're getting closer to the hospital, I start talking to the father. Sort of prepping him. And this man is not blind. I mean he knows what’s going on. He's been, you know, very stoic. I'm preparing him mentally, or emotionally. We pull into the ER, emergency room driveway, and they've got him out there in a surgical unit real quick.

Forty-five minutes later or so, one of the surgeons comes out and the boy is dead. And the surgeon tells me, "Even if we'd been there, I don't know that we could've saved this boy," because what had happened is this little spiked horn had gone in and clipped the pulmonary artery on this boy, right underneath the heart.

I had a three- or four-year-old boy of my own at this point. And so this was really pretty emotional for me, and for many, many nights, it wasn't like I laid awake and thought about it at every waking moment, but there were a lot of times when I'd cry myself, not so much to sleep—but my wife, bless her heart, was very sympathetic, very supportive.

I mean, that’s forty years ago, and that’s probably the one that’s the most memorable.

JONES: Farabee participated in over a thousand search and rescue and emergency medical missions before he retired. There were lives lost, but a lot more lives saved.

FARABEE: I really enjoyed it. I mean when somebody got seriously, seriously hurt or killed, then it became more distasteful. But if you can get to them and alleviate that pain and/or get them out of their predicament, that was the challenge as well. And, you know, forty years ago, the state-of-the-art equipment, techniques, training was a heck of a lot less sophisticated than it is today. But when we went home at night, you had to assume that you did the best you can, even though you might have lost somebody.

JONES: JD Swed discovered that he had a gift for comforting bereaved survivors -- a skill honed as he worked in national parks claiming some of the most challenging terrain on the planet.

SWED: When I was up in Alaska at Denali, in those ten years there was almost a hundred deaths that I helped manage or dealt with directly, so I got really good at it. I still have people who write me letters or notes on the anniversary of their loved one’s death and thank me for helping them get through that. So it’s one of those things that I really take great pride in, in how I was able to help people all those times.

There were a lot of people, especially on my staff up at Denali, who didn’t want to make that call, couldn’t make that call, and I would always take that burden. And it never seemed to be a burden to me, because I always felt that I could really help people through.

I just was able to help people.

JONES: Today, any protection ranger you meet will likely be certified in firefighting, EMS, and/or search and rescue. At larger parks, they could focus or even specialize in just one. But in smaller parks they may do it all.

When JD Swed retired in 2009, he was the chief ranger at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California. When Butch Farabee retired from the National Park Service in 1999 he had served as the agency’s emergency services coordinator and had received the Harry Yount Lifetime Achievement Award, given to those who exemplify the rangering tradition.

“A Sense of Place: Stories of Stewardship from the National Park Service.” I’m your host, Lu Ann Jones. I conducted these interviews in October 2012 at the Ranger Rendezvous in Indian Wells, California. They were completed for the Association of National Park Rangers Oral History Project.

If you’re interested in more behind-the-scenes stories of the search and rescue life, check out Butch Farabee’s book, Death, Daring, and Disaster: Search and Rescue in National Parks. It’s a must-read.

This episode was produced by Emma Courtland and Robin Miniter, with assistance from Marcelino Vialpando, for the National Park Service. Music by Blue Dot Sessions.

In conversation with Butch Farabee and JD Swed. Who do you call when you’re in trouble in a national park?

The Changing Face of Conservation

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VOICEOVER: “The Service . . . shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks . . . by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of said parks . . .

LU ANN JONES (HOST): When the national park service was established in 1916, it set forth a singular mission:

VOICEOVER: . . . to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein . . . in such manner . . . as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

JONES: The language may be a little obtuse, but the message is clear: preserve the land and its history, help the public enjoy the parks, and do both in a way that insures the integrity of their resources for generations to come. This is the founding mission statement of National Park Service.

But rangers quickly realized the tension at the heart of that mission. Preservation -- by its very nature -- would limit the public’s access. Consequently, the interpretation of that mission – and how it manifests in the day to day lives of our rangers – has changed over the years.

I’m National Park Service historian, Lu Ann Jones, and you’re listening to “A Sense of Place: Stories of Stewardship from the National Park Service.” In this series, we’re diving deep into the oral history archives of the National Park Service, to bring you the stories of the people who shaped the parks, and the Service.

Today: The changing face of conservation.

DICK MARTIN (NARRATOR): When I was going to college, there was a movie—and I don't know who put it out, I don’t think it was the Forest Service —but it was about how to appropriately dispose of garbage in the wilderness. Lake wilderness with canoes and portages. Of course, in those days there was no lightweight food, it was cans or dried or smoked foods primarily—and so you had a lot of cans in your canoe. So what you were supposed to do was burn the can in the campfire—and then you're supposed to take it out to the middle of the lake and sink it. [chuckle] And that was what was taught in the movie.

JONES: When Dick Martin joined the National Park Service in 1962, prevailing wisdom on outdoor etiquette was questionable at best.

MARTIN: I was out there at Olympic National Park trying to, you know, keep poachers from poaching elk, and loggers from sneaking in and cutting down a tree [laughs]. There was a fair amount of illegal vegetation harvesting in those days, primarily for ornamental purposes. Picking some of the more attractive flowers for flower arrangements and also digging up some plants for landscape purposes in urban environments.

But in the late '60s there was a huge learning curve--not that the public is stupid, it had just been taught other things, you know, prior to the Pack It Out program.

JONES: There was a huge learning curve for the rangers, too. In a place like Olympic, there was a very slim staff.

Only 12 to 15 rangers tasked with responding to all the calls in a park that covered more than 900,000 acres--much of it challenging territory. Dick was what was known as a park ranger general. That meant he did a little bit of everything--and he was often learning on the job.

MARTIN: I really liked the variety of the job, because there was like, never a dull moment. You might have to change the oil in a generator in the morning, go change clothes and go to a school and give a talk. Always things to learn.

JONES: And for the first six years, the job was more or less manageable.

Then, something shifted. In the late 1960’s, the rangers found themselves inundated with a new kind of visitor.

MARTIN: We were just getting buried under backpackers!

JONES: The reason? Lightweight gear.

MARTIN: Nylon packs, lightweight sleeping bags, aluminum frame packs, lightweight stoves—which they'd had in Europe a long time, but only a few mountaineers, you know, in North America knew about.

JONES: Up until that time, lightweight gear wasn’t widely available in the U.S.

MARTIN: Just two or three places in North America where you could buy good leather hiking boots

JONES: Suddenly, the prospect of going out into the wilderness seemed a lot more manageable.

MARTIN: When all that stuff came along, it’s like, “Oh, my god, we can go out in the wilderness!”

And we don't have to carry a canvas tent anymore, we don't have to wear a canvas coat that's going to get soaking wet. The result of that was a lot of people started backpacking into the national parks all over the West, but particularly those that were close to urban areas, like Olympic. 

And they were shitting in the woods and making social trails and camping in the middle of meadows with fire rings, so they could sit there behind their fire and have a beautiful view of the sunset. Don't blame them a bit—I did the same thing myself many times. And of course, a bunch of them would get in trouble, we'd have to go rescue them or wheel them out of the backcountry with a litter.

JONES: For decades, park ranger had been a more or less reactive job – something happens, you address it, and move on. But now, the rangers couldn’t keep up with the demands.

MARTIN: We needed some way to deal with this!

Even though Olympic was not formalized legal wilderness, it was in fact wilderness, and we managed it as such and viewed that as our mission. How are we going preserve this, protect it? What are the appropriate steps to take?

JONES: In 1964, the Wilderness Act had established formal protections for large swaths of natural land. Olympic park -- though technically wilderness -- needed NPS protection. To do that, the rangers needed a management plan.

MARTIN: So, the first thing we did was close all the old traditional dumps. The park had all kinds of old dumps in the backcountry that went back to the days of the Forest Service and that the park had continued. So, we closed all those. Put in pit toilets where we thought they were needed. We made a really strong emphasis on trail management and trail maintenance, so that the trails were encouraging to visitors to stay on the trail instead of go wandering off, shortcutting, making their own trails.

We started one of the first Pack It Out programs in 1968 or '69. And we started a permit system. Not nearly as formal as came along in the '70s. It was quite a challenge to get acceptance. Concepts like Leave No Trace and Minimum Impact hadn't been invented yet. I mean, we were thinking along those lines, but we didn't really have labels or comprehensive concepts of what those things meant. Those came along in the '70s.

But in the '60s, it was still, “Let's try to educate people as best we can, let's take care of the trails as best we can so people stay on the trails, and let's educate people on safe practices as best we can.”

JONES: When Martin transferred to Mount Rainer, he brought that education strategy with him. Rainer was a higher-profile park—with even more traffic. Thankfully, he also had more resources to reach out to the public.

MARTIN: The staff was large enough and articulate enough and dedicated enough to get this done.

I think it went on for more than one winter, but for sure one winter—all the rangers and the interpreters, the superintendent, assistant superintendent going around to climbing clubs, hiking clubs, conservation groups, Rotary, schools, this club, that club, didn't matter, explaining what we were trying to do and why we thought it was necessary.

The regional office actually gave us some funding for the development of the campsites and some of the media and educational materials.

JONES: Part of that education was explaining why the NPS needed a permit system--a formalized way to determine what’s called a park’s carrying capacity, or the number of people who can use trails, meadows, cliff faces, and other resources without harming them.

MARTIN: Ultimately, what the park and the regional office decided to do was to call it an “experiment” [chuckles], the permit system and the quota system and everything. Worked like a charm.

JONES: Truth was, people were loving the park to death, so visitation had to be managed -- even limited. And from a management perspective, the new system of permits worked beautifully. But how did the visitors take it?

MARTIN: You know, anytime something new comes along, there's the “Ain't it horrible” crowds out there. And, you know, oftentimes that's justified. There're a lot of [chuckles] wacky ideas in the world that need to die, a quick death if possible! But in this particular case, the concerns were very predictable and understandable.

The mountaineering community, of course, was still a hundred percent in the mode of freedom-of-the-hills. And again, I don't blame them. I mean, I'm a freedom-of-the-hills type myself.

In order to enhance freedom, sometimes one needs to do things a little differently.

JONES: Permitting might have worked like a charm in Olympic and Mount Rainer, but the system would catch significant push-back in other places.

In 1985, Martin got hired to work at Wrangell-St. Elias. It was a new park. Only five years old at the time and struggling to implement their preservation mission.

MARTIN: The place was hugely controversial. I think it was certainly one of the most controversial parks in the system at the time

Wrangell was of course the largest park in the system then by far, and the largest in Alaska. Thirteen million acres. So, it was essentially the size of the state of West Virginia. And there were a lot of ongoing uses out there within the park that had been allowed prior to the establishment of the park.

One of the big ones, of course, was sport hunting.

The most intense hunting in that part of Alaska was for Dall sheep. Which are a beautiful species. White sheep. Coveted as trophies by all manner of hunters. Well, the establishment of the park meant eight million acres was now no longer open to sport hunting, including Dall sheep.

The second big controversy was mining. When the park was established, there were fifteen active mining claims under BLM [Bureau of Land Management] authorization.

A third controversy revolved around the use of aircraft for sport hunting. The Park Service position was that aircraft is not authorized for hunting of animal species within the park and preserve.

So, there was an awful lot going on there.

JONES: They say old habits die hard. And that’s perhaps especially true when new regulations jeopardize more than just recreation, but local jobs and traditional ways of living.

In that first year at Wrangell, Martin struggled to find someone willing to rent him a place to live; he was publicly scorned and even threatened.

MARTIN: Dealing with a room full of unhappy local people was something I was poorly prepared for. It became obvious to me that there were few people I could go to in the National Park Service to provide me with advice on how to deal with this issue productively. Productively being how do we move the park forward, how do we establish NPS principles in management, and do this in a way that does not result in a mushroom-shaped cloud of acrimony, hostility and political repercussions.

JONES: But the answer, it turned out, was pretty intuitive.

MARTIN: The approach that finally evolved in my mind was that my role was to listen. My role was to be sympathetic and understanding. To explain what NPS was actually doing and proposed to do, to assure folks that their concerns would be listened to and considered and also to explain that the people have, in fact, spoken. That it is a national park.

So, the first year I was there, we had thirty-nine public meetings. Never turned down an invitation to go to a meeting, even if it was in a bar. Responded as best I could. Always got back with people regarding their concerns.

And over the course of a year I believe that we, the park staff, were gaining credibility with people because we were speaking facts, and we were responding sympathetically, understandingly, but factually.

The second year I was there we had fewer meetings, although still plenty. By the third year, some amazing things began to happen. Discussions about the park evolved slowly. Many of the concerns that had been expressed began to be relaxed a little bit. Totally, no. But I began to feel like I was more welcome when I went to the grocery store and the gas station in the towns around there.

It was one of the most learning experiences for me in my career. Was it different than being a ranger? Dramatically. In some cases, not quite as much fun. More going to meetings than going out in the park to monitor and check on park resources and park visitors. But very rewarding long term.

JONES: Dick Martin co-authored the first backcountry management plan for Olympic National Park, one of the first backcountry management plans in the National Park System. After his Alaska assignment, Dick served as deputy chief ranger at Park Service headquarters and as superintendent of Death Valley National Park and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. He retired in 2005.

This has been “A Sense of Place: Stories of Stewardship from the National Park Service.” I’m your host, Lu Ann Jones. Alison Steiner conducted the interview at the Ranger Rendezvous of the Association of National Park Rangers.

This episode was produced by Emma Courtland and Robin Miniter for the National Park Service, with help from Otis Gray. Music by Blue Dot Sessions.

In conversation with Dick Martin. How have ideas and policies about how we take care of park resources evolved since the 1960s?

A Park as Home

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LAUREL MUNSON BOYERS (NARRATOR): The family used to go for outings into the high country, and Dad used to carry me places in a banana box. You know, I was a little kid; we didn’t have backpacks. I think I just got the wind on my face and the feel of the mountains at a really young age, and it imprinted. There I was. I was stuck with it.

LU ANN JONES (HOST): Laurel Munson Boyers has called Yosemite National Park home most of her life. She was born there, and family roots run deep in the Sierra Nevada.

In the 1890s her great grandfather ran a store just south of what would become the park’s main entrance. Her grandmother developed what Boyers calls her “mountain smarts” as she grew up in the Sierra foothills and as she later shared fire lookout duties with her husband. Boyers’ parents worked for the park’s main concession company. Boyers and her brothers spent the early years of their lives there.

Her backyard was the entire Yosemite Valley. As Boyers recalled:

BOYERS: It was a pretty wonderful childhood I think to be raised there where this stupendous natural beauty and the world on vacation

JONES: It was the early 1950s.

The park system was beginning to boom. Soon new interstate highways would make parks easier to reach, and young families were eager to pile in their cars and travel. The Park Service needed new staff, new facilities.

What Boyers’s parents didn’t realize is that two decades later their little girl in the banana box would find her calling in the National Park Service and she became a pioneer in her own right.

I’m National Park Service historian Lu Ann Jones, and you’re listening to “A Sense of Place: Stories of Stewardship from the National Park Service,” a podcast series about the people who shaped the parks and the Service.

Today: A park as home.

We view Yosemite through the eyes of someone who first saw it as a child and never lost her sense of wonder. For Boyers, Yosemite is not only a park and wilderness. It’s also home, workplace, and lifelong companion. The park shaped her, and she shaped the park.

The 1960s and 1970s were a time of transition here in the states -- the Civil Rights Movement. Vietnam. Energy crises. The environmental movement. The women’s movement.

The National Park Service was feeling those ripples when it became Boyers’ professional home in 1976. It was an opportune time for someone with her outdoor skills, ecological values, and even temperament. Someone who had a sense of comfort and belonging in the woods.

BOYERS: I was physically fit for it and I think emotionally fit for it too, because I like people and enjoyed helping people as well as this commitment to protecting wild places. I was completely comfortable here, completely comfortable on my own, very comfortable in wild settings.

JONES: Boyers was among a trailblazing generation of women who assumed new roles as back country and law enforcement rangers, jobs that had traditionally belonged to men.

She came to know Yosemite National Park intimately. She became a bonafide ranger. She patrolled the back country on foot, horseback, and Nordic skis. She often spent weeks at a time alone, based in remote cabins or traveling through the farthest reaches of the park.

BOYERS: The rumor was that women couldn’t do the mounted ranger job because they were too weak to get the saddles up on the horses.

I was the first female wilderness ranger so it was kind of like I had to be really tough. I could show no weakness. You know, I had to be really strong; so, it was hard back there.

JONES: She was able to join early efforts at Yosemite to meet the national standards of legislation protecting wilderness.

The first orders of business: collect visitor data and draw new boundaries around the park’s wilderness area.

How many people could use a place in the wilderness before they muddied the streams or eroded trails or disturbed wildlife habitats?

BOYERS: We were really encouraged to try to find out as much as we could. We did great studies, you know. We did one when I was the Nordic supervisor, we decided we needed to try to find out what we could about Nordic users: “Are you carrying a map, yes no?” You know, “Did you do what you thought you were going to do?” You know, things that came back not only to resource protection but also for really good search and rescue information about what people think they’re going to do.

JONES: Yosemite was one of the most heavily traveled wilderness areas in the United States. Boyers’ boots-on-the-ground research measured how human use affected the park’s vegetation and wildlife.

By 1987 Boyers was the assistant wilderness manager in the park; a decade later she had moved up to manager.

As her career evolved, Boyers came to appreciate Yosemite more deeply as a homeplace. It was land that had belonged to several indigenous tribes that had been forcibly removed as well as her own birthplace. By the time she joined the Park Service, Native American inhabitants of Yosemite, new settlers, and government agencies had struggled for decades over who had the right to live there and use its resources.

BOYERS: I think in Yosemite that maybe the Park didn’t look at its indigenous populations very well for quite a while--people that had been there before or people that were actually using the land in a different way than sort of the way the Europeans came to use these lands.

JONES: Beginning in the 1990s, indigenous tribes from Yosemite revived a centuries old religious event known as “the walk.”

BOYERS: If they’re going west to east, they go from the Valley up through Tenaya to Tuolumne and into Bloody Canyon, so over Mono Pass and down into the east side there. It is the traditional route that they used for trade with the Paiute on the east side or the Mono Indians on the east side.

JONES: It lasted up to five days, with large groups of people -- crossing sensitive ecosystems of the high sierra from Yosemite Valley to the Mono Lake basin.

BOYERS: We’d spent so many years dealing with group size and capacity and people and limits and things, and then all of sudden here’s this group of sixty or eighty or as many as a hundred people that want to walk as a group, and it was something that needed to be talked about.

I think all of us realized that it was appropriate for them to do it and it was part of their tradition, but what about that many people doing it and what are they doing about all of the things we talked to other users about, and how do we protect the resource?

JONES: And it wasn’t just about stewarding the physical space -- it was also helping to honor the relationships that inhabited it.

BOYERS: Then there’s this thing, from a Native American perspective, or the tribes, the bears were their partners in life. The bears were part of their society. And for us to come in and say, “Well, don’t you have your food storage? Where are your food canisters?”

JONES: Laurel sought counsel from jay Johnson and les James. They were elders and leaders of the Southern Sierra Miwuk nation. One day, they went for a walk.

BOYERS: We went up to Mono Pass, and they were going to bless the route. They had wormwood smoke and took it up, and we talked all the way up. They’re both just wonderful, gentle souls, just amazing people. I was just delighted to be out in the woods with them. We went up and we got up on top of Mono Pass, and Jay lit the smoke and blessed the four directions, and they sang a song that was about the Walk.

I was moved to tears with it. It was so real to me and it was so genuine, and it was so clear that what they were doing was very appropriate and very much attuned to the woods. I was embarrassed that we were so bureaucratic about the whole thing. I was like, “You are kidding me.” I mean, this is real. These people are tied to this land. This is sacred to them. What in the world am I doing as a bureaucrat saying, “No, no, no, no, no”? And it totally changed my perspective on it.

JONES: And Boyers carried that perspective with her. Over the course of her career, she had witnessed a lot of growth -- in the Service, in herself. There’s an old saying that you are a product of your environment -- and it leaves one to wonder if the converse is true: how would Yosemite National Park be different without Boyers’ thumbprint?

She’s retired now. But before hanging up her flat hat in 2007, she made one last backcountry patrol: a ten-day horse packing trip with friends and colleagues that spanned her career.

BOYERS: We went as far as we could. We went from one end of the park to the other. All of us had done long trips. All of us had done ten-day trips. I used to do ten-day trips all the time, but not to cover one end of the park to the other, to go through all of the ecosystems. The south end of the park is very rolling, grassy, wildflowers, forested, and then you start working up higher and go over those passes, and you get into the Cathedral Range, and it has a character itself. Then you get into the Tuolumne drainage, and it has its own character. The north end is very rugged and rocky and up and down and up and down. Just to have that all in one trip was just magnificent.

I was so emotional on that trip because it was the end of my career and it was such a cool time, all these neat people. Coming down through Jack Main Canyon, which is one of my favorite places, there was a little wild bear, and he came down. He kind of was up on the hill above us, and he looked at us. But it was so wild. It was just a young bear, and it was so touching to me to know that this place was back there.

JONES: For Boyers the small bear was a striking symbol of all the fragile wildness she had worked to protect at Yosemite. Both she and the bear were at home.

This is “A Sense of Place: Stories of Stewardship from the National Park Service.” I’m your host, Lu Ann Jones. We were fortunate enough to sit down with Boyers for a number of interviews -- here, you heard excerpts from a series of interviews conducted by myself, Brenna Lissoway, James O’Barr, Heather Young, Greg Cox, Joan Ilacqua, and Kathy Komatz between 2010 and 2012.

This episode was produced by Emma Courtland and Robin Miniter, with assistance from Marcelino Vialpando, for the National Park Service. Music by Blue Dot Sessions.

In conversation with Laurel Munson Boyers. What’s it like to spend most of your life in Yosemite National Park, from childhood to wilderness manager?

The Hidden History of Park Publications

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LU ANN JONES (HOST): Today, when you visit a national park -- no matter which park you visit -- you receive a brochure with entry. It’s a glossy, sturdy piece of paper, folded in half and quartered, with a thick black band running across the top.

Whether you’re visiting a desert park or a forest park, a glacier or a beach, these cultural and literal roadmaps to the parks articulate a unified system of land management.

But it wasn’t always like that.

I’m National Park Service Historian, Lu Ann Jones, and you’re listening to “A Sense of Place: Stories of Stewardship from the National Park Service,” a podcast series about the people who shaped the parks, and the Service.

Today: the hidden history of parks publications.

ED ZAHNISER (NARRATOR): I don’t know how to make this story short. [laugh]

JONES: That’s Ed Zahniser.

ZAHNISER: I’m a retired senior writer/editor for the publications group of the National Park Service.

JONES: For almost as long as there have been national parks, there have been park brochures—but the earliest iterations were worlds away from the brochures we know today. The very first were created by the first park stewards, the United States Army in 1916, the year the National Park Service was born. Later, production was handed over to railroad companies, since most of the traffic to and from the parks was on trains.

Over the years, publications continued to evolve as the number of parks in the system grew—and grew. By the middle of the 20th century, there were over 250 parks. And each had its own brochure, with its own singular design.

For the publications department, it was a lot handle.

Something had to give.

The National Park Service began to reimagine publications as a system, rather than a collection of unique titles.

To articulate that system to the public—and keep up with the growing demand for publications— they needed standardization, in both the look and the voice of their print materials.

To meet those needs, in 1970 the National Park Service opened an Interpretive Design Center. For the first time, the parks’ various interpretive media functions – audiovisual, publications, museum exhibits – were located under one roof. Still, inefficiencies remained.

ZAHNISER: Shortly before I came, the protocol, I was told, was that the editors would write a manuscript and just sort of, in the parlance of publishing world, throw it over the transom to the designers, and they would lay that out as a brochure. And the size of the brochure would really depend on how long the text was or how short the text was.  So they weren’t that involved in the concept.

They were, like, illustrating a piece of writing. 

JONES: When Zahniser joined the office of publications at Harpers Ferry in 1977, the NPS was undergoing a cultural renaissance. They wanted to reach ordinary park visitors—folks who were curious about but not specialists in archeology or wildlife biology or geology or any of the myriad subjects explored in national parks. And revitalizing their publications was a big part of that mission. To do that, the publications office needed to make some changes: they needed a more efficient workflow; they needed a welcoming voice and standardized design; they needed Massimo Vignelli.

ZAHNISER: I thought that the best thing that ever happened to the office was Massimo Vignelli.

JONES: Modernist designer Massimo Vignelli had recently won acclaim for designing New York’s subway signage and maps. But the national park publication project presented the designer with a unique set of challenges. Chief among them was how to unite such naturally and culturally diverse sites under a single design standard, while still capturing what was special about each one.

His solution was misleadingly simple.

ZAHNISER: He established the idea of a design platform, and that the more gridded that platform was, the less time you spent wondering what size sheet of paper should we use, should it be horizontal, should it be vertical, should it be this wide or that wide? He established that for printing economy, but part of design is recognizing that you’re doing this on paper, and these papers go through presses, and presses are a certain size. So those sheets of paper were all standardized in width and modularized so you could have a narrow brochure, and it would be half of the whole sheet, and then you could have different lengths. 

JONES: Vignelli’s modular grid system measured roughly 16 inches by 23 inches. Those dimensions allowed the Park Service to create brochures in ten different sizes and formats. A distinctive black bar at the top maintained a consistent look; inside this bar, the pamphlet or page title is set in white Helvetica typeface. And he called it unigrid.

ZAHNISER: We had this theory of thirds, which I think still stands: which is that anything you look at can be pleasingly divided, I mean, intellectually pleasingly divided into three parts, visually and intellectually.

JONES: The unigrid is not just another template. It is a comprehensive graphic design system that standardized formatting and production. It allowed the designers, writers, and cartographers to focus on content and creativity while conveying a strong visual identity for the agency. Perhaps most importantly, Vignelli’s unigrid concept allowed designers and editors to work together, to focus on visual and written content simultaneously.

ZAHNISER: So that set the stage, I think, for the writer and the designer and eventually the cartographer to really work together in advance of doing anything, to work together on what’s the story, how do we tell it, how do we divide it up.

I think Vignelli at least intuitively understood that a reader makes a preconscious decision when looking particularly at print. There’s a preconscious decision of whether or not this looks like I can readily read it, and today there are so many other options instantly available, that if you look at something and the type is too dense, you will move on.  So, you’ve wasted whatever effort you put in, you know, big budget, into trying to communicate.

JONES: All this time and effort for the sake of communicating with visitors they would probably never meet. And that’s the job of the Service members at the Interpretive Design Center -- toiling behind the scenes to enhance the visitor experience, through engaging print materials like brochures and signs, and later, books.

ZAHNISER: Vignelli was not a writer, but he was a genius designer, just no question, and a visual genius, too. Because in that Yosemite book, like we were talking before this interview about how we provided him with six hundred photographs. He came to our office to work on that book, and we started at about ten o’clock in the morning.  So we had these six hundred photographs, and he went through a lot of the photographs. I had been working with the photographs for a couple of months, so I had a pretty good grasp of what they were and how they related to the different parts of the book that we were trying to present.

At around ten o’clock in the morning, I started showing him photographs.  Well, like at three in the afternoon, he might say, “You remember that photograph you showed me?”  And he could describe that photograph from five hours ago with enough precision that I, who was pretty familiar with the whole body of photographs, could find that photograph and hand it to him.  Also, I watched him. Every once in a while, he would just stop and stare off into nothing, and I realized he’s going through every page in that book in his head.

So, what we got from him were little thumbnail drawings of each two-page spread in the book, little thumbnail gestures with his fat pen, but the gestures were so accurate that the designers could place all the photographs that we selected out to go with that thumbnail dummy.  We started that book at ten a.m. and finished at midnight in the conference room. We just stayed in that office and worked that whole time.

We got the manuscript set in the typography of the book.  So, as he was working on it, he was reading it, and I was in heaven, because he kept saying, “Wow, this is interesting. Did you write this?” No, he said, “Who wrote this?” I said, “Well, I wrote it.” He kept saying that, which that was great validation for me. But that was back in the days when we had time to work on those books, because there’s a lot of great stories attached to Yosemite if you have time enough to learn them and put them out.

JONES: Unigrid was adopted as a cost-saving endeavor, but it would end up changing the way the publications team approached their written interpretation efforts as well.

ZAHNISER: So, that started to help you think about telling stories, because most places have more than one story.  A place like Yosemite it has a natural history, it has a human history, it has a National Park Service history, it has a controversy history, and it has, in my opinion, the most spectacularly concentrated, stupendous scenery that I’ve ever seen anywhere. 

We eventually convinced Vince, our boss, Vince Gleason, that since an increasing amount of energy was going into design, and into refining the cartography, that we needed writing that came up to those sorts of standards of communication.  

JONES: Before this publications department renaissance, most of the writers were scientists and research historians. They had their own agendas about what should be covered. And this created some tension.

ZAHNISER: We fought to present these natural parks, so to speak, as cultural places, because some of them had a cultural history that was greater than some cities. So that was a big breakthrough in treating parks holistically as a human experience, as natural experience, as humans as part of natural history, natural history as part of humanity.

I quickly realized that one of my jobs as an editor was to protect the readers from geologists and archaeologists, because they want to take people so far into the weeds--because they’re not thinking about the reader.

JONES: Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about. Serving the visitors. Creating materials that anticipate their needs and speak to their interests. Materials that echo the ethos of the National Park Service at large, and communicate with one voice:

The parks may be diverse, but the Service, that is singular.

ZAHNISER: I think somewhere you asked about, or maybe I made up my own question about, “How do you measure success?” For me, it was like I was out in Yellowstone, out of my car but at a viewing place or something, and there’s these people on bicycles and they’re reading the park brochure and reading it as a group, sort of.  “Hey, did you read about this?

“Yeah.”

“Well, did you read about this?”

“Yeah.”

That’s success.

JONES: Over 25 years later, the NPS still uses unigrid for all its publications.

Ed Zahniser wrote and edited new unigrid park information brochures for many National Park System areas. They included Channel Islands, San Juan Island, Death Valley, Petrified Forest, John Muir, River Raisin, Bryce Canyon, and Yellowstone. Also, among his publications are national park handbooks on Apostle Islands, Assateague, Big Bend, Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite, North Cascades, Yellowstone, Glacier Bay, and the U.S. Virgin Islands sites.

Ed retired in 2013, after 36 years with the National Park Service publications group at Harpers Ferry Center for media services.

This has been “A Sense of Place: Stories Of Stewardship from The National Park Service.” I’m your host, Lu Ann Jones. My colleague Betsy Ehrlich and I conducted this interview in November 2015 at Mather Training Center in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. It’s part of our National Park Service oral history collection.

This episode was produced by Emma Courtland and Robin Miniter, with assistance from Marcelino Vialpando, for the National Park Service. Music by Blue Dot Sessions.

In conversation with Ed Zahniser. Why do national park brochures have a distinctive look?

Maps

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NANCY MORBECK HAACK (narrator): Some people will never be a map reader. They will never get the information. It’s not because they’re dumb. Their mind’s just not wired that way. So, it’s another thing we had to consider always with the maps we made because I think it’s even less than half of the population can successfully get the information from a map.

LU ANN JONES (host): That’s Nancy Morbeck Haack. She spent 34 years working with the National Park Service publications group at Harpers Ferry Center.

HAACK: Originally when I came, I worked on everything. You name almost any park that was around before 1970, I worked on it.

JONES: Over the course of her career, Haack researched and designed dozens of maps for the Park Service, but among her most lasting contributions was the impact she made on the philosophy of cartographic design and information within the NPS. That philosophy was grounded in childhood experiences.

HAACK: Even before I went to college, I loved maps. I read maps. I was what I’ve always called a “map head.”

We traveled all over the country when I was a kid, four kids in a station wagon; first time, no seatbelts. [laughter] Went to lots of national parks, and I usually got to read the map because I could.

Nobody taught me. It’s like people who are good at music—I understood it. I understood it right away.

I read Esso maps, Esso road maps, extremely clear and concise. They weren’t full of a lot of extra stuff, unlike Rand McNally or National Geographic maps. They worked, you got to where you needed to go, and they always were there. So that was always, in my mind, my standard of what a good map looked like.

JONES: I’m National Park Service historian, Lu Ann Jones, and you’re listening to “A Sense of Place: Stories of Stewardship from the National Park Service.” In this series, we’re diving deep into the oral history archives of the National Park Service, to bring you the stories of the people who shaped the parks, and the Service.

Today: Maps.

HAACK: Vince Gleason was the head of National Park Service publications at Harpers Ferry Center, and he really wanted to move forward in the design world with the brochures. I had even noticed as a kid and a young person that the brochures were all over the place--all different colors, sizes, shapes, style, even messages, because there was no centralized structure for them.

JONES: The problems with the existing park maps may have been imperceptible to the average visitor. They were certainly attractive, and detailed – but the question remained: could anyone actually read them? The consensus was: not really.

So, when Haack joined the Park Service in 1977, her primary objective was designing maps that focused on communication first and foremost. To do that, she’d had to consider the way regular people actually absorb information, and tailor her designs to their needs. Questions of orientation and labeling and how thick the lines should be were all driven by a single purpose: the need to communicate.

The most significant design switch involved moving to a four-color system.

HAACK: I was hired as a professional cartographer. Vince was very excited that he would have someone who could help on his path to this high-style, high-quality four-color maps. So, my job was to plan, design, and what we say compile, meaning collect the information for the map itself.

Vince used the maps as one of his justifications for four-color. Now, he wanted that for photographs, too, of course, because we had brochures that were orange and blue. I mean, really unattractive things. Purple. Purple water.  My favorite thing is the purple water.

Haack had studied under some of the preeminent cartographers of the day at the University of Wisconsin. She’d learned the latest mapping technology as well as generalized cartographic theory. Among the most significant lessons she’d learned: that a map is a system of communication. Appearance is important, but design decisions have to be motivated. The colors, lines, the symbols – they should all cater to the way people actually think.

In other words: no purple water.

HAACK: Vince had his definite ideas, most of which were crazy. Because of the language of maps, he wanted the maps to look like the terrain. So, he wanted all the desert maps to look the same. If there weren’t trees, he wanted it to be brown.

I would show him examples of Yosemite. Yosemite, up in the northern or the highest parts of Yosemite, there weren’t any trees. Was he going to show that differently than Yosemite Valley? Now, this was way before all these aerial photographs are being used as maps. This was still when I felt very strongly that the parks had to be green. That’s what people expected. They saw green, they think park and they think National Park, because it was a National Park brochure. So that took a long time to work through that, to keep it simple. Red roads, green parks, blue water.

JONES: The shift to four-color maps prompted a whole other series of map standards. Standards Haack wasn’t fully prepared to implement on her own. She had trained in the philosophy of cartography, but not the philosophy of general publication design. For that, she teamed with the chief designer for park publications, Nick Kirilloff.

HAACK: He was looking for much more of a grace of form. When you put an area label on, for example, the computer or a person who had no training would just plop it on there, but he would position it so it covered the area that it was identifying and there was no mistake of what it was. I mean, that sounds so obvious. Cartographers had all sorts of rules about the first position, the second position, where to put a label according to a town dot, and he didn’t follow those rules. He went with what worked, how people could understand that that label went with the dot.

JONES: But aside from standardizing the width of lines, use of colors, and where to put the labels, the new park maps had a different approach to visual communication. A different way of thinking about the way the maps are used.

HAACK: The visitor-use map, it’s different than a map up on a wall, it’s different than a map in a book, it’s different than a map in an exhibit.

So, some parks are very welcoming. Other parks were pretty set in their ways. If it was a new map, it was easier to have a highly edited map, because the genius of the map is what’s not on it. We had a map done by a contractor of Mesa Verde and it showed the sewage lagoons. We didn’t need to show the sewage lagoons for the visitors, but it was complete. So that’s the sort of thing to think about. A map doesn’t have to show everything. It shouldn’t show everything. It has to have a reason, whether you’re driving around or you’re highlighting where things happened.

One of my favorite ones is constant requests for detail maps. So, I had to convince them that the public didn’t need to know where the ice machine was on the brochure map. That wasn’t the function of the brochure map. Usually when you were there, you looked around, you could see everything, so it was a waste of time and money, but people were so in love with maps, they thought that that was a solution. Of course, the percentage of people who couldn’t read the map, anyway, it didn’t reach; that information didn’t get to them. So, we still had detail maps that showed you where the ice machine is, but not as many.

Parking lot maps, yes, the famous parking lot maps that show you how to get to the Visitor Center. I’m sorry. We all go to shopping malls. We find our way into the stores, right? [laughter] So there are a lot of unnecessary maps.

JONES: Sometimes it took a bit of convincing park staff to see the value of a more selective approach--but only a bit.

HAACK: I think the proof was when they saw the map and they could read it. I think that’s what swayed them. So, there wasn’t a lot of “No, no, no” on my part. It was taking in all the information, creating the appropriate map.

JONES: The same standards applied to wayside maps.

HAACK: Once again, it’s a visitor-use map, so it has to be how they understand it. If you’re standing looking north, a north-oriented map is fine, or if you’re standing and the map is a big overview and you’re not really looking at anything, a north map is fine, but if you’re looking at something, the map better be oriented just as the vision is. And that’s been an ongoing fight, and I’m sure it’s still going on today. The people don’t get it. Like a trailhead, you want it to be going out and coming back as you’re looking.

JONES: Considering how each map would be used by the visitors assured there was no one-size-fits all approach to cartography in the parks. But it also assured that park visitors would always find them useful. Consider battle maps, which operate on a totally different organizational logic, and consequently, offer a different set of challenges.

HAACK: There are many, many excellent battle maps out there, which most people, even map readers, can’t understand, and they don’t need to understand, right? We don’t need to know where so-and-so stopped and tied his shoe on the way to the left oblique or whatever. [laughs] But the Civil War buffs need to know that. That’s what the difference is. I ran into a lot of pushback from Civil War people because I didn’t want to have maps that looked like that. I wanted maps that would just briefly tell the big picture and move on. If somebody wanted to know where a particular regiment was, there are tons of maps other places. They don’t need it in the brochure map or even in an exhibit map that way. There are tons of places they can find that.

So, the whole thing was, once again, simplify, simplify. Our late great publications historian, Ray Baker, was excellent at summing up all—he knew all the little details, but he could sum up the big picture better than a lot of parks could, and that’s what led me to realize you could make a very simple map, what we would call multiples, small multiples or series of maps showing change over time, and it would be a snapshot of that time. The only way to really show battle action is with animation, and we couldn’t do that in a brochure. The films do a great job of that. That’s where you show what happened in the battle, because you really show the troops moving back and forth.

The other thing they didn’t like is I didn’t use all the traditional battle symbols. I used arrows, but there are lots of crazy rectangles with slashes through them and things that meant things to people who knew the code, and even putting a legend wasn’t good enough. We found out really early that people read the width of the line as the number of troops, even if you didn’t intend that, so we were very careful after that to not show—sometimes you show a wide base because they were coming from a big area. Well, they read that as many more people.

JONES: Haack is credited with really driving this movement toward a more visitor-centered approach to cartography in the park service. With designing maps to help regular people navigate the sites they were visiting – which was challenging, since, for years, Haack wasn’t sent to the sites she was mapping.

HAACK: I didn’t go to parks for a long time. It was awful. I made maps of these places without going to the parks for the Park Service. I’d been to a lot of them on my own time. So that was another issue that to be a visitor advocate was really difficult when I was never a visitor [laughter].

JONES: So how exactly did she design maps of places she’d never visited in a professional capacity?

HAACK: It’s magic. [laughs] No, a lot of research, a lot of research, and we didn’t have the Internet for research, lots of books. The thing that was so great about Ray Baker, this historian I mentioned, is you could go in and ask him any question about anything, not just history, and he’d turn around and get a book off his shelf and give it to you. [laughs] So it was a treasure trove, a treasure trove of information. I’m an information-driven person.

JONES: Eventually, Haack did get to make more site visits—and the parks she visited were better for it.

HAACK: Well, Mesa Verde is the one that comes to mind--no one could figure out how to leave that park. [laughs] They’d come to these intersections and there’d be a sign to here, a sign to there, but no sign to park exit, no sign to the Visitor Center, no sign to anything. And they [park staff] actually were very grateful—Bill Gorden was the editor out there with me—very grateful to us because Bill and I had traveled quite a bit and cursed out signs everywhere we went, particularly in non-park areas in New England. We thought they [the signs] were sort of like downtown Washington, D.C., how horrible they are. So, Mesa Verde, they took our advice, they changed the signs, and now people can leave. [laughter]

JONES: Nancy Haack retired from the Park Service in 2011. And since then advances in navigational technology have only made the world more accessible. These days, travelers are more likely to turn to their iPhones than print maps. Unless they happen to be visiting a national park, where the scarcity of cell towers means that GPS is less likely to work. For those visitors, Haack is happy to know her print maps will always be available to help them find their way.

HAACK: Yeah. The idea that you are contributing something for these park visitors was important to me, so that kept me going, kept me coming to work.

JONES: This has been “A Sense of Place: Stories of Stewardship from the National Park Service.” I’m your host, Lu Ann Jones. My colleague Betsy Ehrlich and I conducted the interview with Nancy Haack in Purcellville, Virginia, in 2016.

This episode was produced by Emma Courtland and Robin Miniter, with assistance from Marcelino Vialpando, for the National Park Service. Music by Blue Dot Sessions.

In conversation with Nancy Haack. Who makes sure you can find your way around a national park?

The Urban Parks Mission

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ED RIZZOTTO (narrator): When I was first there, one of the staff referred to one of the students as “emancipated.” And I thought it was a racial pejorative.

LU ANN JONES (host): When Ed Rizzotto joined the National Park Service in the mid-1960’s, the country was at a crossroads.

RIZZOTTO: Because the only time I’d heard “emancipated” was in terms of slaves after the Civil War. It turns out it’s quite a specific term. These were kids who’d been picked up and been brought into court at the age of 16 or 17. They weren’t legally adults. But the judges had looked around and their parents were in jail, dead, drugs, whatever. They declared these kids at 16 or 17 legally responsible for themselves because they had no one else in the world.

We would find them and bring them back in. I mean, they literally came with the clothes on their back. And we’d get them through high school. We’d get them clothing.

JONES: Just two years earlier, Martin Luther King, Jr. had led 250,000 people to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, demanding civil and economic rights for African Americans. All across the country, people were waking up to social inequities in America. And many felt called to respond -- including George Hartzog, then-director of the National Park Service.

"What higher purpose can a national park serve," he asked, "than to be responsive to the crisis in our society, to the voice of the underprivileged, to the voice of the protester who's objecting to the institutional status quo?"

Question was: How could the Service address the changing needs of the population, when most of the big, iconic parks were hundreds of miles from the nearest cities?

The answer? Establish new parks -- where people actually lived.

I’m National Park Service historian, Lu Ann Jones. And you’re listening to “A Sense of Place: Stories of Stewardship from the National Park Service.” In this series, we’re diving into the oral history archives to bring you the stories of the people who shaped the parks and the Service.

Today: the urban parks mission.

In 1972 Congress created two parks to serve city residents: Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, and Gateway National Recreation Area in New York City. That’s where Ed Rizzotto held several positions from 1988 to 1994.

RIZZOTTO: Gateway was a unique experience. It was trying to do Park Service stuff for people in a big urban area who are never going to see the Park Service any other way. I mean, there’s people in New York who never leave the city. Never drive.

JONES: For those urban New Yorkers, Gateway certainly delivered on the national park promise.

RIZZOTTO: We had a wonderful national wildlife refuge there, which you can reach on a subway line. The A Train goes to Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which is part of the park. If you’re a birder, you can go there and build your life list like crazy. In a good year, we might have 400 species of birds in the park. Some of which were there all the time.

There’s a lot of things you can do in New York only at Gateway. Like camping. Like horseback riding in a natural area. A lot of the salt water beaches. The park meant a lot to people.

JONES: The rangers at Gateway offered much more than outdoor adventure and world class birding.

They wanted the parks to feel relevant to the community, to design programs that addressed the needs and struggles of people in the surrounding boroughs. And that meant offering job training and education to youth, helping them learn skills that they could turn into work that paid well.

RIZZOTTO: When I first came there, the Park Service and the Department of Labor put their money together to run a training school that was within the park.

We were training restoration technicians--carpenters, bricklayers, and people who are in restoration masonry. And the way I describe that is, if you had an old house, that should have had four gargoyles--do you know what a gargoyle is?--and your old house only had three gargoyles, my kids and their instructors could copy one of the gargoyles and make you the fourth corner of the house.

So, they did very high trade stuff. We had great instructors. The original intent of the program was, they would become preservation people in the Park Service.

JONES: The program was called Job Corps. Originally established in 1964 as part of the War on Poverty, Job Corps has gone through many changes over the years. What made it different, though, was its approach to poverty, which was a problem of environmental and economic circumstances. The Gateway Job Corps program offered surrounding youth a comprehensive set of services that included health care, nutrition, social work, and the arts. Students completed a general education diploma and they learned a career skill.

During Rizzotto’s stint as director of the Gateway Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center, the NPS hosted roughly 125 students at a time. Job Corps gave them room and board and 24/7 programming, completely free of charge – which was critical, because many of the students were extremely poor. Some were even homeless.

RIZZOTTO: I remember one time I was counseling one of our tough kids. He thought he was going to be expelled. He wasn’t going to be expelled. But he started crying. I wasn’t being tough with him. He just was sad. He had come in sad. But you saw kids, these were out of the Bronx. These were tough kids.

And I said, “Gee, what’s going on?”

He said, “Are you going to expel me?”

Here was a kid who was homeless. His mother and baby sister were homeless, too. They were living in a shelter somewhere. And the three of them were counting on him graduating, getting a job, and then they would have an apartment. They would all be off the street and could live as a family again. He was like 17 years old.

JONES: Everyone knows national parks as places to hike, learn history, observe wildlife. But national parks as sites of vocational training? Of social reform?

RIZZOTTO: People would criticize us. That’s why I mentioned, it wasn’t that expensive. The whole deal, including clothes for these kids, work clothes and relaxing clothes, was almost $15,000 a year. But at the same moment, across town, their peers were at a place called Rikers Island. You know what that is? It’s a juvenile facility, and that was costing the city 42 grand a year. So, I just said, just in the taxes we’re saving you, and then when they get jobs, they’re paying it back. This is a no brainer.

Cause people saw it like, what are you doing--this is a social thing. We were doing good things for lots of people. It was a program I felt really--I felt good about a lot of these Park Service things. I felt good about that. And those kids are probably still out restoring buildings, for all I know. Maybe they’re contracting. Ellis Island is being fixed now, maybe they’re there. They’re old enough so they’re probably be training other people. Maybe other kids are there. I don't know, but it was a pretty cool thing.

JONES: For many of the rangers in the National Park Service, stewardship is more of a calling than a job. But this may be especially true for urban rangers. Rangers like Rizzotto, for whom each day presented new opportunities to change the social landscape of the community -- not just through programming, but through small gestures of humanity and service that bonded the people to the park -- and even saved lives.

RIZZOTTO: Riis Park is a big ocean beach that the Park Service runs down there. It’s a historic structure, all restored, but a big waterfront.

When it was very hot, a lot of people would come down from what we would call tenements. The upper part of the city had old, old, nasty housing that typically didn’t have any air conditioning. You’re living in little boxes, not even necessarily with air shafts. They’d come down to the park for the day, normally closing at sunset. But we let them stay.

We put a few extra rangers on. And they’d bring their blankets and their picnic gear and they’d kind of roll up in their blankets. We’d let them sleep on the beach because it was so much better than forcing them back up into their probably what you’d call slums.

I mean, people would die in those places. I don’t mean everybody. But older people who are under stress. No air conditioning. Maybe nobody watching them. It was shelter, okay?

When you look at how the balance is in Congress, we need people valuing us, understanding us, supporting us, from every place. They can’t be just rich white kids who went to prep school and had the summer to travel out west. It’s got to be kids from the city. And kids from poor families. If you’re having a hard time with food and you’re living off McDonald’s, and a park is 20 dollars to get into, then you wouldn’t go. But you can go to Gateway and you can remember that they took you in at night when it was too hot and uncomfortable to go home.

And those people got to come to the parks, get the experiences. It’s a hot day. Don’t worry. The parks are open. Everything will be fine. Rangers are here to watch you.

JONES: After Gateway, Ed Rizzotto moved to the Northeast Regional Office in Boston to be closer to his aging father. There, he held a number of administrative positions. He enjoyed all of them because they forwarded the Park Service’s mission.

Rizzotto retired in 2011, after a nearly 46-year career, mostly with the Park Service. He now lives on Cape Cod.

This has been “A Sense of Place: Stories of Stewardship from the National Park Service.” I’m your host, Lu Ann Jones. Alison Steiner conducted the interview in October 2013 at the Ranger Rendezvous in St. Louis for the Association of National Park Rangers Oral History Project.

This episode was produced by Emma Courtland and Robin Miniter for the National Park Service, with help from Otis Gray. Music by Blue Dot Sessions.

In conversation with Ed Rizzotto. How have national parks served as places of social reform?

The Evolution of Interpretation in the NPS

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LU ANN JONES (HOST): When you visit a national park, the rangers are easy to spot: grey shirt, green pants, tan flat hats. But there’s one type of park personnel that you’ll probably spend the most time with: the interpretive rangers.

They’re the park service storytellers.

Their job is to communicate to visitors the meanings of artifacts, events, and landscapes through the act of interpretation.

Interpretation is a practice, but it’s also a philosophy -- and one that is always evolving.

I’m National Park Service historian, Lu Ann Jones. And you’re listening to “A Sense of Place: Stories of Stewardship from the National Park Service.” In this series, we’re diving into the oral history archives, to bring you the stories of the people who shaped the parks, and the Service.

Today: Connecting people to parks through interpretation.

Becky Lacome was 13. She was hiking with her scout troop in the Sierra Nevada. They had stopped on the trail and listened in to the park ranger’s talk. And then it struck her: maybe someday she could do this, too.

BECKY LACOME (NARRATOR): When I had that epiphany at 13, I think I later realized when I was in college that it was a spiritual gift. That it was a calling. It was my personal mission.

JONES: She got her first permanent Park Service job in 1986 at Mammoth Cave in Kentucky -- it’s the longest known cave system in the world. It was about 400 miles of surveyed, underground caverns.

LACOME: The only way to see Mammoth Cave was on a guided tour, and so we had to have a huge interpretive guide force. It’s a tradition there, there were many multigenerational cave guides and seasonals, many of whom were teachers during the year, and came back to do their first love of cave guiding in the summer. A lot of tradition. Steeped in tradition.

JONES: When Lacome began her career, the NPS had long been tackling the question: what was the most effective way to communicate with visitors about what they were seeing?

In the 1950s, a man by the name of Freeman Tilden became one of the first people to articulate the principles of what we call “heritage interpretation.”

Tilden’s goal: Help NPS visitors to connect. Encourage them to care. Tilden promoted the idea: “Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.” Through engagement, he insisted, would come a love for the land: environmental and cultural stewardship.

LACOME: It was always assumed if we did that well, people would care about national parks and support us in preservation just by learning more about these places.

JONES: During the 1960s and 1970s, park visitation soared and the number of park units grew. But slim budgets had reduced the ranks of interpreters, and opportunities for career advancement for interpretive rangers stalled out.

Becky was lucky. By the time she joined the NPS, interpretation was coming out of its slump. Energetic new leaders began to focus on interpretation as a practice and a profession. In the 1980s, the first formal training program was called Interpretive Skills.

Yet certain assumptions shaped NPS interpretation philosophy: the interpreter was the expert -- and visitors were simply passive listeners.

LACOME: It was very much about the interpreter, the park ranger, as the authority, the source of the knowledge, the font of knowledge for the public. It was largely a one-way communication strategy. But then that was the way people were taught and learned at the time. That’s the way I grew up learning. The teacher. The lecturer.

JONES: Interpretive talks were pretty formulaic.

LACOME: One thing that they actually taught us which now we laugh about, the mantra was, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Have a good theme. Introduce that theme. Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Then tell them. That’s the body of your presentation. That’s all your facts and information and stories. And then tell them what you told them.” In other words, recapitulate. Put a bow on it. And a nice conclusion.

JONES: But new ideas were brewing. The Service was on the cusp of what was being called an “interpretive revolution.”

In the 1990s, the new idea was meanings-based interpretation--or as one proponent put it, how to connect hearts and minds to places, objects, and other park resources.

This played out in the NPS by helping visitors find personal relevance in the events that the parks commemorate, the buildings and landscapes that they preserve, the stories they tell.

LACOME: That whole notion of connections, the notion of appealing to people’s intellects as well as their hearts, that just went crazy across the broad profession.

We started talking about meanings and relevance and intellectual/emotional connections. And connecting the tangible resources of national parks with their intangible meanings and the big universal concepts that they represented.

JONES: In hindsight, Lacome calls the early 2000s a "golden age" of interpretation in NPS. She would find her calling as a training specialist in the Interpretive Development Program at Mather Training Center in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Her job was to help interpreters think about new ways to connect with visitors.

LACOME: It became about trying to fulfill Tilden’s principle of making it relevant, of helping audiences find personal meaning in the stories of national parks.

JONES: Then, in the 2010s, interpretation evolved yet again: park rangers were now urged to share agency with visitors.

LACOME: And using the word “agency” not as referred to ourselves as a government agency or bureau, but in the more broadly philosophical definition of that term as all Americans have agency or should have agency. They should have voice when it comes to their national parks.

JONES: In the past decade, the parks became even more audience-centered and more interactive. Rangers invite visitors to share their stories and relate those stories to what they see around them. Experiencing the parks has become a collective endeavor.

LACOME: If we really believe that these places belong to the American public—“find your park,” this is your park—then we can’t always be speaking for them or to them. It really needs to be collaborative. And we’re a long ways from completely figuring out what that means.

JONES: Twenty-first century interpretation is dynamic and always changing. Our national parks can be safe spaces to engage in dialogue, to explore essential questions about the challenging issues of the day--race, immigration, income inequality, climate change, environmental justice, and more.

LACOME: We can’t just sit and ignore those issues in the national parks. In fact, national parks are the places to have those conversations. They are the premier, primo places, because we can tie our understanding of history represented in these nationally significant places and landscapes to where we are now as individuals and as a society. And what does that mean for the future? What did we learn from the past and the present that helps us be better citizens, that helps us establish a more healthy planet and just society in the future? Big stuff. The big stuff, right?

JONES: The National Park Service has played a major role in the evolution of the interpretive profession. Over her 32-year career, Lacome feels she has been blessed with the opportunity to contribute to that process. Now in retirement, she hopes the NPS will continue to lead the way -- helping interpreters and visitors pose big questions. Questions we can all ponder together.

This has been “A Sense of Place: Stories of Stewardship from the National Park Service.” I’m your host, Lu Ann Jones. My colleague Betsy Ehrlich and I conducted this interview in November 2018 at the Mather Training Center in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. It’s part of our National Park Service Oral History Project collection.

This episode was produced by Emma Courtland and Robin Miniter for the National Park Service, with help from Otis Gray. Music by Blue Dot Sessions.

In conversation with Rebecca "Becky" Lacome. How do interpretive rangers create safe spaces to explore challenging issues of our times?

The National Park Service Reckons with Representation

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KEVIN CHERI (NARRATOR): I did run into some old law enforcement reports, called case incident reports. I was looking through them and I saw case incident reports written on me.

LU ANN JONES (HOST): The pages were pink. They were tucked into a folder in a metal filing cabinet, in an office that had once been a general store.

It was 1978. Kevin Cheri was going through papers in his office. He was working his first permanent ranger assignment at the newly formed Buffalo National River Park in Arkansas.

The park's formation was contentious. Some community members were angry at the National Park Service because they had lost land to the government. It fell on the rangers to make the peace.

And these attempts to make the peace--well, Cheri found them recorded on these pink-paged incident reports. But what surprised him the most was that he found himself included.

CHERI: The statements that the rangers documented, they were threats against me. They

actually were death threats against this new ranger.

They [park staff] were feeling out the community and letting them know that they had hired a black ranger. And the responses were, you know, “Well, he won’t last long,” or, “We’re going to kill him,” or stuff like that. And that was eye-opening.

JONES: Cheri was an easy target. You see, he was the first and the only African American on staff. In fact, he was usually the first and the only African American throughout a career that spanned four decades.

America has a complicated history with race. And naturally, the National Park Service does, too.

I’m National Park Service historian, Lu Ann Jones. And you’re listening to “A Sense of Place: Stories of Stewardship from the National Park Service.” In this series, we’re diving into the oral history archives, to bring you the stories of the people who shaped the parks, and the Service.

Today: the National Park Service reckons with representation.

I was able to catch up with Cheri on the phone — he’s still in Arkansas these days.

Cheri grew up in New Orleans. He first came to the National Park Service in the 1970s through a program that recruited students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

CHERI: So, everything that I was about to embark on was foreign to me. And I was completely naïve of even what I was stepping into. Despite the fact that I was somewhat of an introvert, joining the Park Service was probably the one impact in my life that changed that in me.

JONES: The NPS assigned him to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. The site and the culture of the Southwest intrigued Cheri, and he returned for three more summers.

CHERI: It didn’t take me long to fall in love with the mission of the agency, as well as the people that worked there. I think I was so impressed with the attitudes of people in the Park Service that worked together. The family atmosphere, the support, and their whole energy they showed toward what they did, that it was contagious for me. And I began to consider that as a possible career.

JONES: He became a permanent ranger. He wore the uniform. He now would be formally representing the agency. But there was also something else, something really big.

CHERI: I began to realize, you know, I have a unique opportunity here. Because I’m representing Black America to them. So, I better put my best foot forward. So, I put a little pressure on myself to say well here’s my opportunity to change the way these folks will see Black people in the future, and how they may treat them in the future, if they just get a chance to get to know me.

JONES: This was an ah-ha moment to Cheri. He realized he was about to be informally tasked with a kind of educational and emotional labor that his employee handbook had never mentioned.

CHERI: I thought, well, maybe if they get some inkling of what Black people are like, maybe they wouldn’t be so hostile or negative toward them. Because they truly were, they just didn’t have a clue.

JONES: Perhaps this responsibility of representation wouldn’t have fallen on him if the workforce of the Park Service had been a bit more diverse -- but it just wasn’t.

The truth is, people of color have historically made up a small portion of the National Park Service. Like every American institution, the agency still suffers the consequences of racial segregation and exclusion even as it works to create a workforce that fully reflects the public that it serves.

As Cheri rose through the ranks and eventually became a park superintendent, he made hiring a diverse staff his mission.

CHERI: I had no excuse. I was in a position of power. I needed to lead by example. I needed to get some diversity here.

JONES: Today, the people who visit parks and the people who work in parks are still overwhelmingly white. Researchers have many guesses as to why: the long shadow of discrimination and racial segregation in the parks themselves make people of color feel unwelcomed. The history of segregation: segregated bathrooms, picnic areas, camping spots, and cabins.

And then there are barriers to access: the cost of park admission or the lack of public transportation to remote parks.

CHERI: I don’t like the terms “underrepresented groups.” I prefer the “underexposed,” that we just don’t have exposure to these things to know and therefore what opportunities are there, or to take advantage of some of those opportunities. I mean, even my own kids, if it weren’t for me in this agency, they have yet to go to a school that highlighted anything about working for the National Park Service. You know, so how would they know, if not for me, about this agency? And so, we need to think about, as we’re trying to reach out to other groups, if we’re doing a good enough job.

JONES: Exposure was part of Cheri’s job. But he also pushed proactively for inclusivity --for a more diverse workforce. But it wasn’t easy.

CHERI: And many people in the Park Service were still very much against affirmative action. They still thought it was a quota program and didn't understand that for years these different groups, whether it was a minority group or women, were not getting the opportunities to, or even the knowledge of the agency and the opportunities within the agency to take advantage of them. So, when you were approaching them, it was so foreign--yeah, recruitment might have been a challenge, but it was not impossible. When I became a manager, I was having immediate success. Why was that? Well, it was all about attitude. I didn’t look for the excuse. And I found that people just leaned on that excuse too much.

JONES: Cheri returned to Buffalo National River in 2007, this time as its superintendent. When he retired in 2018, he counted building a diverse staff as one of his greatest achievements.

CHERI: When you have accomplishments in anything you’re doing, that’s what keeps you going. So yes, there were the challenges, but it was also the success. At the minority end of it, again, that opportunity to open doors and break barriers, was another thing I was committed to. I said, you know, there’s a purpose I have now in life that I can see that I can serve in this agency, and it means putting up with some crap sometimes. But in the end, the agency will be better off if I’m doing what I think I’m doing, and what I thought I was doing right. By doing things right and being a good representative of my minority group, not only will I help maybe inspire other minorities to follow in my footsteps, but also I’m dispelling these stereotypes and opinions of people who’ve never been exposed to a black person, and certainly a black supervisor, that hopefully they can gain a positive outlook in the future, and maybe have better relationships in the future because of their opportunity to work with me.

JONES: But that accomplishment came with a price. When he attended his final meeting of park superintendents, Kevin Cheri revealed the burden he had carried for decades--and reminded colleagues of work yet to be done.

CHERI: When I got up in front of the group just to, of course, thank them for their support and just say parting words, I could not hold back my emotions. I was overwhelmed with that now this is ending and what I had experienced. I had to be honest with them. I told them how difficult it has been in this agency to constantly be, always have to be the first or the only. In so many cases throughout my career, that it wasn’t just in the beginning, or the old days. It was even at that point. I pointed it out to them that look in this room, you know, even now, I’m the only male black manager. I said, when you try to tell people things have gotten better, you can’t look at this room and say that.

I mean, we’ve got to be honest with ourselves. I said, I’m still finding myself to be the one and only. And just to kind of explain to them how difficult that can be at times, and how hard that was. Because again, the constant worry about how you would be perceived. The constant worry about how you would be supported. And living through these experiences. So yeah, I could barely get the words out. It was a highly emotional time for me. But I kind of felt they needed to hear it.

JONES: As America grows more diverse, the diversity of the National Park Service’s workforce is crucial. This diversity fosters richer, more complex dialogue about our most treasured places. The NPS recognizes that it needs to keep asking hard questions about its own history of diversity and inclusion—and recommit to change. 

This has been “A Sense of Place: Stories of Stewardship from the National Park Service.” I’m your host, Lu Ann Jones. I conducted this interview in 2018 with the help of Isis Plaza, an intern with the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Internship Program. The interview was completed for “Telling Our Own Untold Stories: Civil Rights in the National Park Service Oral History Project.”

This episode was produced by Emma Courtland and Robin Miniter for the National Park Service, with help from Otis Gray. Music by Blue Dot Sessions. 

In conversation with Kevin Cheri. How does the National Park Service hire a workforce that is diverse and inclusive?