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Former Park Service Director Dickenson Passes Away


Russell Dickenson, 1923-2008

Russell Dickenson, who managed to survive as director of the National Park Service under four different Interior secretaries and both a Democratic and a Republican president, has died. Mr. Dickenson, Park Service director from May 15, 1980, until March 3, 1985, passed away on February 19 at the age of 84.

Director Dickenson had the unique distinction of being the only Interior Department bureau chief to be held over from the Carter administration by President Reagan. A career Park Service employee who started out as ranger at Grand Canyon in 1946, Director Dickenson had to endure a deputy (handpicked by Interior Secretary James Watt) who worked to cut the agency's budget.

However, Director Dickenson slowly managed to see his agency's construction budget boosted over the years and got Secretary Watt, President Reagan and Congress to sign off on the Park Restoration and Improvement Program, which funneled more than a billion dollars back into park resources and facilities over a five-year period.

Director Dickenson also inoculated his park superintendents from political appointees within Interior, requiring that the appointees go through proper channels to get answers to their questions and complaints. At the same time, he expected his superintendents to follow the letter of the law.

When the Sierra Club in the early 1980s applied for a permit to collect signatures for their "Dump Watt" petition at Everglades National Park, the only advice Director Dickenson sent to the park was that officials make sure they issued the permit using the same criteria that they would use for any other First Amendment activity.

Director Dickenson also oversaw what some believe to be "the most conservation-oriented rewrite of Chapter 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations," and it was done while Mr. Watt was Interior Secretary. (Chapter 36 pertains, in part, to mining and other commercial uses on public lands, including NPS lands.)

Among the many awards he received during his career Director Dickenson became the first American to receive the Golden Flower of Rheydt Award from Germany in 1983, for contributions made in preserving the environment on a national and international level.

After his retirement, he co-authored a book titled National Park Service: The Story Behind the Scenery. He remained active as an affiliated professor in the College of Forest Resources at the University of Washington, served on the National Park Advisory Board, and was president of the Washington National Parks Fund, 1985-98.


Russell Dickenson was NPS Director when I entered on duty for my fist NPS job in 1982. Although I did not know much about the political underpinnings of the NPS then, I have come to realize that Director Dickenson did a marvelous job leading the NPS through tough political times and adversarial political appointees in the early 1980s. Part of his success, I believe, was due to the credibility he had from working his way through the NPS ranks and understanding the agency and its fundamental purpose from bottom to top. The central objective of every NPS employee's job is to pass the National Park System on to future generations in the same condition or better than s/he received it. I believe Director Dickenson met that objective even with many political hardships stacked against him. In Director Dickenson's memory I say thank you for a job well done, a life well lived, and the National Park System we enjoy today.

Scott - Couldn't agree more. Russ sat in the chair when everyone above him was anti-NPS mission.
President Reagan was no friend of the parks... "Seen one tree.. seen them all" But you know, that is what is happening riow and since 2001. The difference is in the resistance to the bad policies of the current administration.

It takes tremendous skill to resist the policies that hurt the parks, and still retain your job as a Director. Russ certainly "had it". We will all miss this man who was "larger than life".

What was most impressive about Russ was how he protected the parks from the political influence of people like Secretary Watt, Assistant Secretary Arnett and the people who worked for them. He and his senior staff in the DC headquarters took the heat and kept it off park superintendents. For that, he will always be on my list of true NPS heroes.

Rick Smith

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