From 1997 to 2001, the National Park Service was led by its 15th Director – a leader who was unanimously confirmed and proudly served as the first African American Director of the NPS. As part of our continuing celebration of National African American History Month, we spoke with Director Robert G. Stanton and asked him to reminisce about his inspiring career.
Q: What is your earliest memory of visiting a national park?
A: My first visit to a national park was in the summer of 1962 for my appointment as a Seasonal Park Ranger at Grand Teton National Park. I was recruited for this position while a student at Huston-Tillotson University (a historically black university) located in Austin, Texas. During the era of segregation, this tremendous opportunity was made possible through the stellar leadership of Secretary of the Interior Stewart Lee Udall.
Q: How did you get involved with the National Park Service?
A: I became involved through the leadership of Secretary of the Interior Udall. My Seasonal Park Ranger experiences at Grand Teton National Park in the summers of 1962 and 1963 working under the supervision of an outstanding staff of career professionals and learning about the mission of the National Park Service influenced me to ultimately seek a career with the National Park Service in 1966.
From 1966 to my stepping down in 2001 as the 15th Director of the Natural Park Service at the end of the Clinton Administration, I had over a period of 35 years served in a number of key management and executive positions including Superintendent of Virgin Islands National Park and Regional Director of the National Capital Region.
Q: Why did you feel it was important to establish the African American Experience Fund (AAEF)?
A: Since many of the parks commemorating African Americans, and major events involving African Americans, are generally lesser-known it was decided that in order to maximize awareness and support these parks should be grouped into a network. This network was established as the AAEF of the National Park Foundation. I was privileged and honored to serve as the first chair of the Board of Trustees.
Not withstanding their significance, the people and places commemorated in the AAEF parks are sometimes overlooked in our collective history. They indeed warrant a level of promotion, public awareness, appreciation, use and support on par with other parks in the National Park System. Thus the principal focus of the AAEF is to assist the parks in resource preservation, interpretation/education, youth employment, community engagement, and outreach so that all Americans are connected to the richness and diversity of the African American experience as preserved and commemorated in the National Park System.
Q: How do you celebrate African American history in our national parks during National African American History Month and year-round?
A: I am privileged and honored during African American History Month to serve as a speaker at a wide range of programs and special events, including reading at local schools. On a year-round basis, I am engaged with a cross-section of organizations engaged in historic preservation, education, tourism, and civic engagement. In these activities I always promote the areas in the National Park System that preserve and commemorate African American experiences and contributions to the development
of our country.
Q: What has been the favorite part of your job?
A: I’ve enjoyed working closely with the dedicated men and women of the U.S. Department of the Interior in addressing a wide range of issues and opportunities. I, too, have enjoyed engaging with individuals and organizations of diverse interests and backgrounds as the Secretary’s representative to National Advisory Committees, Commissions, and Boards. My most favorite of all my job activities is my direct engagement and support of our youth.
Q: What is the greatest challenge facing our national parks?
A: With the realization that parks are not islands unto themselves, the value and benefits parks provide to the American people and our international visitors must be woven into our daily thinking and actions. Parks are (or should be) exemplars of the highest standard of environmental quality and must be fully accessible to all.
The challenge then is to sustain these high standards in the midst of a rapidly changing world through the engagement of citizens – all citizens. My philosophy is that when people have an understanding and appreciation of the parks and their benefits, they will join in the army of stewards to care for these resources through personal conduct at home, in their communities, and in the parks. That will be the ultimate savior of the parks – citizens caring.
Q: What can individuals do to support our national parks?
A: Individuals can support the parks through learning about the parks and the mission of the National Park Service. They can enhance their understanding and appreciation of parks through personal visits and information available through the media; participation in park educational and recreational programs; expressing their concerns and support of parks to their government representatives and management agencies; participation in park planning; providing volunteer services; and donating resources to park(s) of their choice.
Q: If you had not pursued a National Park Service career, what course would your life have taken?
A: I would have continued my first career employment as a college/university administrator.
Robert G. Stanton, former Director of the National Park Service from 1997-2001, is a Senior Advisor to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. He provides executive level advice and support to the Secretary on a wide range of environmental, educational, organizational and management challenges, and opportunities and works closely with the bureaus and offices in advancing the Secretary and the President’s goals for the Department of the Interior. He served as the first chair of the Board of Trustees for the African American Experience Fund of the National Park Foundation.