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Reshaping Our National Parks And Their Guardians, The Legacy Of George B. Hartzog Jr.

George Hartzog, Jr., was the last of his kind, a throwback of sorts, a director of the National Park Service who lasted for nine years under both a Democratic and Republican president.

He was a cigar-chewing, Scotch-loving, Stetson-wearing, lover of fishing, hard-charging director who often knew exactly what he wanted and found a way to get it. One way or another.

Rising from a South Carolina cotton patch to direct the National Park Service from 1964-72, Hartzog is considered by many to be one of the finest directors of the agency. But many also considered him guided by the winds, with frequent department reorganizations and personnel reassignments. If, in Hartzog's opinion, superintendents weren't cutting it within six months of their postings, they were moved to another park, we learn. But is that necessarily a bad thing; worse would be leaving someone in place who couldn't succeed.

Hindsight is a great balancer of perspective, especially that of individuals.

In recounting the career of the late director -- Hartzog was the seventh director of the National Park Service -- Kathy Mengak cites both his flaws -- his temper, for instance -- and his accomplishments in moving the Park Service forward during one of its most dynamic eras.

But her book, Reshaping Our National Parks and Their Guardians, The Legacy of George B. Hartzog, Jr., is more than a biography of the director. It also traces the evolution of the Park Service at a critical juncture of its growth as the agency expanded briskly and integrated its workforce with African-Americans and women moving into mid- and high-level positions.

Armed with reams of interviews she conducted with Mr. Hartzog before he died in June 2008, and with access to a vast archive of information that rose up around him, Ms. Mengak delivers a sturdy biography of the man. She also offers a picture of a seemingly more autonomous Park Service than the one operating today. To that point, in analyzing his legacy, the author notes that "(M)any say Hartzog was the last powerful director before the position fell to political appointees and the real power moved into the secretary of Interior's office."

Recent Park Service directors, at least, seem to be guided greatly by their bosses in Interior. No doubt that's due in part to the increasingly political institution Interior has become, to the ever-increasing political pressures from outside its walls, the growing layers of bureaucracy within, and to the desire for job security.

Hartzog didn't seem to face the same power struggles from above. Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, who was impressed by how Hartzog organized support for the proposed Ozark National Scenic Riverways and got to know him fairly well during a two-day trip down the Current River, cleared the path to the directorship for him and let him shake up the Park Service.

Young and energetic, Hartzog 'hit the ground running,' according to (Park Service historian Robert) Utley, and 'launched all sorts of non-traditional initiatives.' His unorthodox style appalled many, especially the more traditional veterans. A nearly constant stream of reorganization schemes kept old and new employees 'constantly off balance and scared for their jobs and programs and staff.' Whether he reorganized through genuine interest in organization excellence or used it as an 'FDR-like ploy for keeping people alert and competitive,' or both, is open to question. Regardless, reorganization was 'a constant fact of life that kept everyone in turmoil and diverted much time and energy to efforts to defend what one had or grab what someone else had.'

No one question that Hartzog was totally in charge of the Park Service and very much a hands-on director. As Utley described him, he was a micromanager who 'professed to delegate freely ... but everyone knew the delegation to be heavily qualified by the imperative to exercise it as the chief wanted and to cross him at your peril.' Those who served during the Hartzog years remember him as harshly demanding, but they also nostalgically recall the creativity, innovation, and excitement.

His attention to detail and his hands-on approach went beyond the agency's walls, as Hartzog was exceedingly hands-on with those in Congress who could impact the Park Service one way or another.

"Hartzog spent considerable time and energy cultivating friends and influence on the Hill. One of the first things he did as director was to make every member of Congress aware of his programs," writes Ms. Mengak. "When he arrived in 1963 as associate director, he knew nine members of Congress. By the time he left, he knew at least three hundred and was on a 'howdying' basis with the rest. He reportedly wore out a pair of shoes every three months traveling around the halls of Congress, paying particular attention to influential committee and subcommittee members."

As for his efforts to diversify the Park Service, in 1968 Hartzog placed Grant Wright in charge of the U.S. Park Police -- "the first black man to head a major police force in the United States," notes the Park Service -- and also appointed Lorraine Mintzmyer as superintendent of Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, just one stop along a career that saw her rise from a secretarial position to become regional director of the Park Service's sprawling Intermountain Region.

He also pushed an unprecedented effort to create urban parks -- places like Golden Gate and Gateway national recreation areas. In an appearance before a House of Representatives committee to push for Golden Gate, the director told the politicians, "There are millions of young people thjat are being reared in asphalt and concrete jungles completely isolated from their natural and cultural inheritance, and they are growing up with no appreciation of the important values that undergird our Republic."

At times Ms. Mengak's text seems slim, as she skims through periods of Hartzog's career rather than digging into it. While she mentions that Paul Gantt, a fellow military clerk Hartzog got to know while the two worked in the Seventy-Fifth Infantry Division, was "destined to exert a major influence on his career," that influence isn't dissected, other than a mention that Gantt helped Hartzog land interviews with the General Land Office and the Interior Department's solicitor's office.

And despite serving as assistant superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park for almost 18 months, we learn little of Hartzog's work there, other than that his boss encouraged him to join the Rotary and become involved with the PTA and a local church (so as to become better known in the community) and that he coached a youth baseball team comprised of boys and girls, girls who slugged their way to victory.

Little is said to how Hartzog handled the riots that broke out in Yosemite National Park in July 1970 -- the Stoneman Meadow riot broke out when rangers tried to evict visitors camping illegally -- other than a reference that he "flew out and traveled around incognito to assess the situation."

In the end, though, Reshaping Our National Parks And Their Guardians sheds keen light on the impact Hartzog had on the Park Service, and provides perhaps a primer on how Park Service directors can best affect their agency and its impact on not only the landscape, but on those who flood into the parks.

Traveler footnote: If this book appeals to you, you can help the Traveler by buying it through the Amazon link above, as we get a teeny commission on sales from our site.

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