Saturday, July 4, 2020

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    At this year’s meeting of the National Association

    of State Park Directors, Director Fran Mainella made a surprise award

    of the career Harry Yount Lifetime Achievement Award to Walt Dabney,

    currently director of Texas State Parks and past career ranger,

    superintendent and national chief ranger for the National Park Service.

    Following his years in Washington, Dabney served as

    superintendent of four parks in Southeast Utah – Canyonlands and Arches

    National Parks and Natural Bridges and Hovenweep National Monuments.

    His management of these areas earned the respect and cooperation of all

    the communities concerned with the future of these areas. While

    overseeing these parks, he designed and implemented a comprehensive

    backcountry management plan for Canyonlands and successfully managed

    proposed expansions to both that park and Arches.

    Dabney’s departure from the National Park Service

    after 30 years to become director of Texas State Parks was a loss to

    the NPS but an equivalent gain for his home state.

    The Yount Award is given to rangers whose

    performance “exceeds normal expectations and reflects initiative,

    imagination, perseverance, competence, creativity, resourcefulness,

    dedication, and integrity.” Recipients must also possess a record of

    “substantial significant ability, performance and capability which

    results in both tangible and intangible benefits to the ranger

    profession.” Recipients of the career Yount Award have displayed such

    attributes and abilities across their entire careers.

    From the very beginning of his career as a seasonal

    naturalist at Yellowstone in 1969, Dabney’s career was a textbook

    example of what has been called the “renaissance ranger” – the ranger

    who is equally at home teaching natural history, hanging from a cliff

    in a technical rescue or arresting poachers. But it was his very first

    assignment after his graduation from Texas A&M in 1970 that set the

    tone for his years in the National Park Service.

    He went on to a series of ranger assignments at

    Yosemite, Mount Rainier and Grand Teton National Parks, developing and

    refining his abilities in search and rescue, law enforcement, emergency

    medicine, wildland and structural firefighting and a host of related

    ranger skills. Then, in 1983, he became resource management coordinator

    at Everglades National Park, which had and has the largest resource

    program in the system and provided experience in the practical

    application of scientific information to resource problems in wildland

    fire, minerals, pest management, marine fisheries, air quality and

    exotic plant control.

    Because of his breadth of experience in this

    traditional triumvirate of ranger responsibilities – interpretation,

    resource management and law enforcement/emergency services – Dabney was

    ideally qualified for his next assignment as chief ranger for the

    National Park Service, a position he held from 1986 until 1991. It was

    during these years that Walt made perhaps his most permanent mark on

    the agency.

    Building on the work of his predecessors, Dabney

    began a concerted and extended effort to revitalize the ranger

    profession – by revamping policy to meet contemporary realities, by

    pushing forward efforts to enhance staffing and funding, by working to

    improve esprit de corps, by dramatically increasing communications

    between the field and central offices (in both directions), and by

    employing every forum possible to advance the ranger profession.

    Over the course of his first several years, he

    brought in an unprecedented number of career rangers to work tours in

    the central office and to take on and resolve problems that had galled

    them in the field. At one point, he had a staff that had collectively

    logged over 300 years in the field in over 60 parks. There was no

    program that did not advance through the efforts of his staff under his

    guidance, solid support and inspired leadership.

    The centerpiece of this effort was Dabney’s push to

    improve ranger careers. When the new park ranger standard was issued in

    1985, fusing the old park technician and park ranger series into one

    standard, field implementation was leading to lowered grades. This

    adversely affected the morale of the ranger force and the recruiting

    and retention of people for what has historically been the most

    critical workforce in the National Park Service. Related to this

    problem was the service’s long-standing problem of failing to establish

    career ladders and manage career development of its employees.

    Dabney’s personal involvement in ranger personnel

    issues and the actions he took to ameliorate these problems resulted in

    the upgrading and retention of trained and dedicated rangers,

    interpreters and resource specialists. Moreover, the emphasis he placed

    on effective position management led to initiatives in other NPS career

    fields, most of which resulted in comparable increases in pay, career

    options and employee morale.

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