You are here

Ask A Former National Park Superintendent


As a member of the National Parks Traveler community for more than five years, I have noticed that many stories touch on aspects of National Park Service management and policies.

Often, comments on these stories have posed questions about NPS management procedures and practices. Sometimes the questions are answered by persons who know the subject. Sometimes the questions go unanswered.

It is heartening to know that so many people care about the national parks and want to be involved in improving the parks and their management. Along those lines, we are starting a new Q&A feature: Ask A Former National Park Superintendent.

Questions regarding NPS policies and practices can be submitted and I will answer one question or more every other week. Questions can be of any subject or park, but we will not address or comment on individual people or employees.

The goals of this effort will be to post accurate information, resources for further information where appropriate, and to encourage vigorous and informed discussion of national park management.

With that said, raise your questions via comments to this post, and I'll pick one or more to answer.

Costa Dillon is a recently retired veteran of 35 years with the National Park Service. He was the superintendent of Fire Island National Seashore, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and Homestead National Monument of America. He was also the Superintendent of the Horace M. Albright Training Center, responsible for the orientation training for all new NPS employees.

He is the recipient of the Department of the Interior Meritorious Service Award, the National Park Service Sequoia Award for Interpretation, and the Secretary of the Interior's Award for Long-Term Achievement in Diversity. He is an Honorary Fellow of Indiana University's Eppley Institute for Parks and Public Lands and is currently an Adjunct Instructor in the Department of Recreation Management and Policy at the University of New Hampshire.


What a wonderful addition to the National Parks Traveler! I love the parks, both scenic and historic.

But I am fascinated by looking inside the organization that makes it all tick.

Expect lots of questions from me.


Why is it impossible for NPS managers to come to grips with chronic budget shortfalls without reducing services to the public or increasing their direct cost the public. Any manager knows that everything the NPS does is not the same priority, but to me campgrounds and other services provided to the public (at no or minimal charge) are at the top of the heap and should be preserved no matter what. Why not start realistically looking at the entire infrastructure of a park and determine what functions/positions are absolutely necessary and which ones are in the nice to have category.

Here's a story for you that gives you the context of my question. I worked at a large park in Utah for 10 years as a senior staffer to the superintendt and it appeared obvious to me and others that an entire law enforcement division (with several permanent rangers devoted to nothing but writing tickets) was totally unnecessary. There were virtually no law enforcement issues to contend with at this park and those that did occur could have easily been handled by the local sheriff. Back in the day (Gramm/Rudman), this potential cost savings was brought up to the superintendent as a way of great savings for that park and he stared back at me with a deer in the head lights look.

Totally agree with you both. This IS the biggest problem with the parks I visit. In less than decade the amount of LE has increased dramatically. They waste tons of time and money on unnecessary beauracracy, weapons, cameras, radars, signs, gates, fences, and then can't find time or money to maintain the park. I used to seek out park employees to ask about conditions and nowadays they have no clue and then proceed to ask for papers.

Its a disgrace and hopefully we can continue expose this anti-visitor culture and return the NPS to it's glory days when they actually served the people.

While I agree with much of what previous posters have written, there are some hyper-anti NPS statements in some places. I've never detected even a trace of "anti-visitor culture" anyplace in any park.

There are some traces of the Great American Entitlement Mentality in calls to avoid increasing campground and other fees. That seems to me to be a real hypocritical contradiction when we have people calling on one hand for less government spending while shouting a moment later that making us pay the actual cost of our activities is wrong.

I do remember the days when every ranger, whether interp or "protection" could cite wayward visitors. I remember the days when we carried our weapons in a briefcase. (We had to purchase our own equipment.) But I also remember the day when I was up against a motorcycle gang with one of them advancing on me with a ballpeen hammer he'd just used to beat a restaurant manager senseless and I had to fumble around trying to get my revolver out of its hiding place. Or the time I made my first felony arrest with two subjects and had not been able to afford a set of handcuffs. My supervisor didn't have any, either.

There needs to be balance. Balance, unfortunately, is something that seems to be becoming more and more scarce in virtually every aspect of American life.

Again, we need to ask how many of these "disgraces" have been imposed upon park managers by various Congressional or other dictates? So I'll toss in a question for the former superintendent --- how often are our park managers helplessly caught in the middle between two or more competing mandates from above, and where do those mandates come from?

There is one thing that is sure: the park superintendent has to manage his/her protection division (Some people call this the law enforcement division, but that term is too narrow for my taste.). He/she has to make sure that this division is contributing to the atrainment of park goals and objectives. If there is little law enforcement activity in the park, put them to work managing resources, patrolling trails or working an information desk. In my experience, too many park managers let the protection division determine what it was going to do and what its priorities were. I always asked my protection rangers to be "adequate" sidewalk interpreters so they didn't always have to refer inquisitive visitors to the nearest interpreter. A good park manager spends time trying to break down the walls that sometimes exist between the divisions in a park. After all, we are all in this together and we are trying to accomplish the same three goals: 1.) preserve and protect resources; 2.) provide high quality visitor services; and 3.) maintain productive relationships with park interest groups. The protection division has a role to play in the accomplishment of each of these goals.


Rick, it seems to me that most resources are put into number one and what's left is half heartedly applied to others. Emphasis on LE has been the biggest priority it seems to me, the veterans memorial debacle this summer is a perfect example. LE overrides common sense these days it seems.

Are superintendents forced to spend more resources on LE than know is necssary?

Are superintendents happy with not being able manage the park with their own discretion?

Do superintendents believe the publics input is honestly taken into account during NEPA based proposed changes?

Thank you Traveler, this will be an interesting new column. The issue of LE rangers is a complex one, things are quite different from the days when many of us older retired rangers back in the sixties started on the job, then we did do more of what perpetual seasonal, Lee, others have commented on, but the job has changed dramatically. The issues include training, liabilities, public expectations, enhanced retirement issues, personal regulations, Homeland Security assignments, Interagency Public Safety Cooperative agreements, well the list goes on. In all of the above, standards must be met that include mandated training and qualifications, % of time involved in law enforcement duties, etc. . Much of the above protects both the LE ranger and the NPS and is designed to insure a very professional LE (Fire, SAR, EMS are also on the list), service to the park and the visitor. The issue of the maturity that comes with experience is an old one, and as Mr. Rick Smith points out, good leadership at each NPS unit at each supervisory level should encourage this. I do agree that our top flight, well trained, physically fit, young LE Rangers right of police schools can be a handfull (I am sure I was one), but generally speaking, our supervisory rangers are on top of it.

Beach--I can't answer all your questions definitively because there are more than 300 superintendents who manage in different ways. I am sure, however, that those who survive concentrate on the last two goals and are not law enforcement freaks. There are certain criteria, however, that have to be met. For a while, and I am not sure it is still true, superintendents had to fill protection positions while they could let those in other divisions (resources management, maintenance, administration and interpretation) go vacant. Secondly, publlic safety is a huge issue in parks. Remember that many who go to parks are entering an alien environment, They don't know that it is easier to climb up than down. Tney don't recognize how swift water can knock them down. They don't really understand that park animals are wild and that parks are not pettting zoos. So, a certain number of protection division employees are necessary. They protect visitors from the park, the park from visitors and visitors from visitors. So, even in a small park, there may be more protection division employees than you think are necessary.

I agree with the perp seasonal that the rangers should range, all of them. You can't be an outstanding employee unless you know the park and its resources, no matter what your job is.


National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide