A Conversation with Robert G. Stanton: Land&People

The first park that National Park Service Director Robert G. (Bobby) Stanton ever visited was Greenway Park in Fort Worth, Texas. It was also the only park in that city where African Americans were allowed. Stanton grew up in the Fort Worth community of Mosier Valley, settled by freed slaves in the late 1800s. He attended a segregated elementary school, and by the time Bobby was eight years old he was driving a tractor for his father, who baled hay for local farmers.

His early experiences of parks clearly made an impact, for in 1962, as a twenty-two-year-old college student, Stanton borrowed $250 to buy a uniform and a train ticket to Grand Teton National Park, where he worked as a seasonal ranger. In 1966 Stanton joined the National Park Service full-time. In a thirty-one-year career, his assignments have included serving as superintendent of Virgin Islands National Park, deputy regional director of the Southeast Region, and regional director of the National Capital Region, which includes forty national parks and monuments in and around Washington, D.C. Last June Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt enticed Stanton out of retirement to become the National Park Service's first African-American director. In this post Stanton oversees 376 parks, monuments, and historic sites, along with a $1.6 billion annual budget.

How did you become interested in parks and the National Park Service?

I was a student at Huston-Tillotson College–a church-supported, private, historically black college in Austin, Texas–when Interior Secretary Stuart Udall sent a representative to promote employment opportunities in the department.

What I heard attracted me to a seasonal ranger position in Grand Teton National Park. That was my first Park Service employment–indeed, my first visit ever to a national park. I had never even been outside of Texas. We were a family of limited means and did not take vacations.

So you have seen some big changes in the Park Service over the last thirty-one years. How would you describe those changes?

The responsibilities of the Park Service have increased substantially in that time. Today we administer more parks, more types of parks, and more types of park programs. We now give technical and financial assistance to the states and communities. We manage more archaeological and historical resources, as well as managing complex natural ecosystems. We administer parks, historic sites, and monuments that represent the rich cultural diversity of this nation–resources that speak to the contributions of Native Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, African Americans, and others. We also have more of an urban presence–historic sites such as monuments in Washington, D.C., or Independence Mall in Philadelphia, but also major urban recreation areas in New York, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Ohio. All that has resulted in a more diverse Park Service–and a more diverse Park Service staff–than thirty years ago.

Do you have favorite national parks? Which most inspire you?

Well, Grand Teton will always be a favorite, of course. It was my first park and its grandeur is absolutely fantastic. But others inspire me personally because they relate to African-American history–sites such as the home of noted abolitionist, orator, writer, and great friend of President Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and the memorial to the great educator and human rights leader Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, both in Washington, D.C. Or, in Atlanta, the home of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a national historic site that TPL was instrumental in establishing.

What do you think the parks have to say about us as Americans?

For one thing, they show how we have grown as a nation. Some parks commemorate our leaders and events in our history of which we are the most proud. But other parks represent historic events that we are perhaps not so proud of. For example, the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas, which TPL helped the Park Service acquire, commemorates the monumental U.S. Supreme Court decision that desegregated public schools. Under our Constitution, we never should have been a segregated society, but we recognize that segregation did take place. In a real sense, such a park teaches how the nation has matured from one era to another.

What else do you think parks have to teach us?

Certainly to respect the land and the other species that occupy it–animals and plants. But in their diversity, the national parks also teach us that there is a great variety of points of view in the country, that many of us come from different backgrounds. In promoting this understanding, I think, parks have a way of unifying us as one people and one nation.

What are the Park Service's biggest challenges? Where do you need to put your energy?

Obviously, we need to care for the resources. We have launched a major interagency program for the restoration of the Everglades and are working to protect wildlife in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. But when I say "resources," I'm not only talking about wildlife and vegetation. We also have more than 23,000 historic structures to preserve and over 8,000 miles of roads to maintain. We are developing major transportation plans for Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Zion national parks, where private vehicles are putting pressure on the resource. While we are doing all this, we must also be sure we are serving the public and acquiring land and resources as Congress authorizes.

Could you say a little more about acquisition? I take it you believe the system will continue to grow?

I believe that Congress will continue to add land and resources to the national parks, although obviously not on so large a scale as twenty-five to thirty years ago. As history continues to be made, new historic sites will be established to commemorate places and events. In the future we will work more cooperatively with public and private organizations, joining forces to preserve the nation's resources, whether they are administered by the Park Service, by the states, by counties, or by city park systems. For instance, when I was director of the Capital Region, we worked with the Trust for Public Land to acquire land for Piscataway Park–that's a fantastic park in southern Maryland that protects the views from Mount Vernon. When major organizations take the lead in acquiring such lands, it becomes sort of a building block, and others often join in the endeavor. Coalitions, that's what it is all about.

You have spent much of your career in urban parks, especially around Washington. Would you say something about the importance of urban parks, including urban national parks?

It is the intensiveness of use that really sets these parks apart. It's my very strong belief that parks, along with wholesome recreation, and cultural and historical programs, contribute tremendously to the quality of life in urban areas and are critical to the integrity of the social fabric. Many parks also support commercial activities and serve as a source of employment, and otherwise contribute a direct economic benefit to the community.

Of course this intensive use also presents special challenges to protect public safety and keep facilities in the best condition. Our goal is always to manage a park so that everyone has a great experience. As you may know, the 1999 budget proposal includes $2 million for the Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Act Grant Program, which allows local communities to address urban recreational needs. This funding proposal marks the first time funds for this program have been requested since 1996.

There are so many demands on the park system. Where is the money going to come from to fund old and new programs, not to mention land acquisition and the backlog of repairs?

Well, it's tough. As you know, in this year's budget we've asked for $94.2 million–more than was enacted in 1998–and we will continue to rely on direct appropriation. One of my objectives as director is to develop a comprehensive budget for the next five years that takes into consideration the priorities to acquire lands, to manage those lands, to upgrade facilities, and to provide for services. But we are also increasing our involvement with the private sector and public organizations that assist us with donations of financial resources, in-kind services, or properties. In addition, under a test plan implemented in 1996, Congress has given us the authority to retain some of the revenue generated by park entrance and recreation fees, and these revenues are dedicated to facilities where the dollars were collected. That's a tremendous opportunity that Congress has given us.

Do you see a role for the public in protecting and providing parks and cultural and recreational places?

Oh, yes, very much so. This is an individual responsibility that we share as citizens–to recognize that parks are special places that should be used in a respectful manner. That's the major challenge I would give to the American public–to be respectful of our heritage.

You have said that parks can help us better understand our total environment, how we treat each other, and how we take care of our neighborhoods.

I think parks are learning places. They help us understand how we relate to other living things–to animals and birds and plants–and especially to one another. We all come from different walks of life, and the national parks represent the rich diversity of this nation. They teach us that while recognizing and respecting our differences, we as a nation and as a people should come together as one.

Land & People, 1998
Neil Strassman is a news reporter at the Star-Telegram in Fort Worth, Texas.