Leadership in the National Park Service: A Plenary with Former NPS Director Robert Stanton

March 22, 2016

Meridian Hill Park in 2008. Photo credit: National Park Service.

Joan M. Zenzen is an independent historian based in the Washington, DC, area. She has written four administrative histories of national park sites and is currently working on ones on Voyageurs National Park, Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical park, and Rock Creek Park. She is chair of the OAH Committee on National Park Service Collaboration.

Meridian Hill Park had stunned visitors in the first part of the twentieth century with its formal Neoclassical design, complete with cascading fountain and statuary, in the heart of Washington, D.C. But by the 1980s the park had suffered from decades of fitful National Park Service attention, with the agency trying to counter increasing drug use, sexual activity, and vandalism in the once noble space.

In 1990, community members formed the Friends of Meridian Hill Park and invited NPS representatives, including then-Regional Director Robert Stanton, to work collaboratively in re-establishing the park’s former glory. Stanton, who will be the featured speaker at the Friday evening plenary on the Centennial of the National Park Service, displayed the leadership qualities that have long characterized himself and a vast array of other NPS employees over the past 100 years. Stanton went to the Friends of Meridian Hill meetings and supported such efforts as improving lighting and trimming back plantings to reduce the number of areas where criminal activity might occur. When the rehabilitated park, designated in 1994 as a National Historic Landmark, opened, Stanton was there, cheering the Friends group on. His leadership fostered what these volunteers set out to do, with terrific results benefiting the city and its residents.

Robert Stanton, at the NPS Centennial plenary on Friday, April 8 at 5:15 pm, will talk about leadership and its evolution in the National Park Service. He will also comment upon how leadership will guide the future of the agency. Gary Nash (OAH president 1994-95 and co-author of the OAH-sponsored study Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service will chair and moderate the session and William Cronon (a longtime OAH volunteer, Executive Board member from 2008-11, and president of the American Historical Association in 2012) and myself will participate. This constellation of leaders across the history profession will afford an opportunity to talk about the direction of our profession writ large and what today’s leaders need to know to steer a way forward.

But the real draw is Robert Stanton, who served as the first African American Director of the National Park Service from August 1997 to January 2001. Stanton was a career civil-service employee of the agency, having served as superintendent of National Capital Parks-East and Virgin Islands National Park and then in various management positions in the NPS Headquarters and National Capital regional office. He served almost nine years as the Regional Director for the National Capital Region before President Bill Clinton appointed him to the directorship. He went on to serve as Senior Advisor to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior and was appointed by President Barack Obama on October 30, 2014 to a four-year term on the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP).

Directors, like Stanton, plus superintendents, interpreters, resource managers, facilities employees, and law enforcement officers have displayed a variety of leadership qualities since the 1916 establishment of the National Park Service. A superintendent at Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia turned the ire of one angry park neighbor into a powerful force for preservation. That park neighbor went on to inspire a coalition of activists to oppose the construction of a huge shopping mall beside the Civil War battlefield. A park ranger at Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota used a non-confrontational approach to educate users about the park’s rules and regulations without escalating these interactions into antagonistic situations. An interpreter at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Vermont used the mansion’s fallout shelters (an unexpected feature in the conservation-themed park) to encourage visitors to discuss the interconnections between the Cold War and the environment.

More than 20,000 NPS employees care for 409 national park sites. As a whole, they display such important leadership qualities as vision, communication, collaboration, responsibility, problem-solving, passion, and commitment. They embody, as Robert Stanton is quick to point out, leadership and outstanding professionalism, working to improve diversity, youth programs, and resources preservation, among many other accomplishments.

Come hear from one of those leaders on Friday evening, learn about leadership in the agency’s past and present, and join a conversation about leadership and history in the century to come.