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
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.