Stanton, Robert 1940–
Robert Stanton 1940–
National parks administrator
In August of 1997, Robert Stanton was sworn in as director of the National Park Service, becoming the fifteenth director and first African American to head the agency. Founded in 1916, the National Park Service (NPS) administers 376 sites across the United States. These include not only national parks, but also seashores, lakeshores, battlefields, presidential homes, national memorials, and other historic sites. Some 265 million visitors come to these locations annually. The NPS has over 20,000 permanent and seasonal employees, and operates on a yearly budget of approximately $1.6 billion. At the time of Stanton’s nomination for National Park Service chief in June of 1997, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt said in a prepared statement quoted by the Washington Post that Stanton “understands the vital role the national parks play in preserving our heritage and how much they mean to millions of Americans that visit them each year. His outstanding record of achievement demonstrates that he has the energy, commitment and leadership ability we need at this time in this very important agency of the government.”
Robert Stanton was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1940. Growing up in a segregated community in the 1940s and 1950s, Stanton had no association with national parks. While attending Huston-Tillotson College, a historically black institution in Austin, Texas, Stanton heard a speech by then Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall in which Udall urged young people to look beyond traditional careers. In 1962, Stanton followed this advice by taking a summer job as a park ranger in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, operated by the NPS. “It was a fantastic job. I realized then that this was a fine agency,” Stanton told Linda Wheeler of the Washington Post.
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Huston-Tillotson College in 1963, Stanton did a year of graduate study at Boston University, then returned to Huston-Tillotson to work in the college’s public relations office. In 1966, Stanton resumed his association with the National Park Service by taking a job as a personnel management specialist at the agency’s Washington, D.C. headquarters. Three years later he became a management
At a Glance…
Born Robert George Stanton in Fort Worth, TX on September 22, 1940. Son of Alvin Herbert and Bethel Lee Blackburn Stanton; married Janet Miljoice Moffatte, July 27, 1968; children: Rhonda Lynn, Braniff Lamont. Education: Huston-Tillotson College, B.S., 1963; graduate work at Boston University, 1963–64; George Washington University, 1968.
Career: Director of pubic relations, Huston-Tillotson College, 1964–66; personnel management specialist, U.S. National Park Service, 1966–69; management assistant, National Capital Parks-Central, 1969–70; superintendent, National Capital Parks-East, 1970–71; superintendent, U.S. Virgin Islands National Park, 1971–74; deputy regional director, National Park Service, southeast region, 1974–76; assistant director of operations, National Park Service, national office, 1976–78; deputy regional director, National Park Service, National Capital Region, 1978–1987; associate director of operations, National Park Service, national office, 1987–88; regional director, National Park Service, National Capital Region, 1988–97; director, National Park Service, 1997—.
Awards: Interior Department, Distinguished Service Award, 1987; Presidential Distinguished Senior Service Executive Rank Award, 1993; American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration, fellow, 1993; National Council of Negro Women, Distinguished Service Award, 1994.
Addresses: Home —Fairfax, VA; Business —U.S. National Park Service, 1849 C Street, NW, Washington, DC 20240.
assistant at National Capital Parks-Central, a division of the NPS Washington, D.C. regional office, and, in 1970, became superintendent of National Capital Parks-East, another division of the Washington, D.C. region. Steadily moving up the National Park Service ranks, Stanton was superintendent of the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park from 1971 to 1974, then served as deputy director of the Park Service’s southeast region, based in Atlanta, from 1974 to 1976. Returning to Washington, where he has worked ever since, Stanton was assistant director of operations for the national office from 1976 to 1978, and deputy regional director for the NPS Washington, D.C. region from 1978 to 1987. After serving for a year as associate director of nationwide operations, he was appointed director of the Washington region, a position which he held until January of 1997.
As director of the National Park Service’s Washington region—one of seven regional directorships in the National Park Service—Stanton was responsible for the care and protection of forty sites. These include such national icons as the White House, the Washington Monument, and the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, as well as lesser known sites such as the Mary Mcleod Bethune Council House National Historic Site, home of the African American educator and activist and first headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women. Extending well beyond the borders of the District of Columbia, Stanton’s Washington region oversight also took in Civil War battlefields at Antietam in Maryland and Manassas in Virginia, the Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia, and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, which stretches nearly two hundred miles along the Potomac River from Washington’s busy Georgetown section to rural western Maryland. Stanton told Wheeler that he considered all of the Washington region sites as important but, if the “heritage factor” was added in, he would have to single out as his favorite Cedar Hill, home of nineteenth-century African American abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass in Washington’s Anacostia neighborhood. “Douglass is my man,” a smiling Stanton said to Wheeler.
Stanton considers public support of national parks and historic sites extremely important. As Washington regional director he lent generous support to volunteer initiatives to assist the National Park Service. In 1990, when residents living in the vicinity of Washington’s derelict, drug-infested Meridian Hill Park—ignomini-ously known as the most violent national park-—came to Stanton with an offer to help clean up the once-elegant park, Stanton greeted them enthusiastically. Within three years, crime in the twelve-acre park dropped by eighty-two percent, attendance increased dramatically, new trees and flowers were planted, and water once again flowed in the park’s fountain. Meridian Hill Park volunteer Steve Coleman told Wheeler that “Bob Stanton is a champion of these partnerships. We invite him to things, and he comes. That surprised me. At his level, he was interested in our tree plantings and lighting ceremonies.” Since 1970, the National Park Service has operated the Volunteers in Parks program, a vehicle through which the NPS can accept and utilize voluntary help from the public. Each year more than 85,000 volunteers donate more than 3 million hours of service at NPS sites.
In January of 1997, Stanton stepped down as director of National Park Service’s Washington region, citing a desire to devote more time to his private life and his family. Stanton and his wife Janet, whom he married in 1968, have a daughter, Rhonda, and a son, Braniff. The demands of his busy career caused Stanton to miss much of the growing-up of his children and he did not want to repeat the situation with his grandchildren. However, the resignation of Roger Kennedy as NPS director in March of 1997 made Stanton a likely choice as Kennedy’s successor. A personal request from President Bill Clinton to become the new director brought Stanton’s retirement to an end after only a few months.
Stanton was nominated for the National Park Service directorship by President Clinton in June of 1997. The nomination was unanimously approved by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on July 23, 1997, and by the full Senate on July 31, 1997. William J. Chandler, an official of the National Parks and Conservation Association, said of Stanton to Linda Rancourt of National Parks, “Bob has the depth of firsthand knowledge of park issues that can come only from a long career with the Park Service. We are glad to see that the President chose an NPS leader from among the service’s ranks. We are glad to see that the political gamesmanship that can paralyze Washington did not get in the way of a swift nomination.”
Stanton’s top priority as NPS director is to put the agency on a sound financial footing. Although a yearly appropriation from Congress will remain as the National Park Service’s major source of funding, Stanton has identified three other areas from which funds can be derived. Firstly, he will cut costs by making intelligent use of technology and by providing good supervision of employees. Secondly, he will raise fees at historic sites and recreational areas. In January of 1997, a three-year fee demonstration project was initiated which gave the Park Service permission to raise fees on an experimental basis. Stanton is a strong advocate of giving the National Park Service permanent authority to raise fees. “My sense is that to assist us in administering our maintenance and resource preservation program, it has tremendous benefit. With respect to public reaction, it’s been very, very favorable,” Stanton said of the fee demonstration project to Ashley. Thirdly, he hopes to turn to the private sector as a source of funding. In 1996, Congress rejected legislation allowing corporate sponsorship of national parks but Stanton believes there is still a role for the private sector. “It is important that corporations and businesses get involved in the parks, not only for-profit organizations, but nonprofit organizations. There are many civic, community, conservation and preservation organizations that contribute substantially, in terms of volunteer projects, in-kind services. The private sector, consistent with Park Service policies and guidelines, has a role … in meeting some of our requirements, in business services, maintenance and resource management,” Stanton told Ashley.
Another of Stanton’s priorities is to increase the involvement of youth in National Park Service programs. As director of the Washington region, Stanton expanded the Parks as Classrooms program and contracted bus companies to transport children in schools too poor to hire a bus.
“I insisted that young people be involved in our programs. I underscored it as a priority. It is the accomplishment I am most proud of,” Stanton told Wheeler. Stanton would also like to see more scientific research done in national parks and plans to continue working with the United States Geological Survey and other agencies to insure that management decisions are based on sound science. Stanton considers national parks to be both recreational areas and places where natural resources are being preserved. However, he believes that when decisions must be made favoring one use or the other, Stanton puts natural resource protection above recreation. “It is a management decision to discern what level of visitor use can be accommodated without harming in an irreparable way the resources. We have to make some hard decisions, and regulate use; regulate ways in which you mitigate the adverse impact. It’s an easy thing to describe; it’s a difficult thing to accomplish,” Stanton explained to National Parks.
One method of accommodating visitors to national parks while diminishing the adverse impact of visitation on the natural environment is to introduce forms of transportation to replace private cars and recreational vehicles. “We are looking at the possibility of trying to institute in the not-so-distant future a transportation system at Grand Canyon and Yosemite. Some years ago, while I served as regional director for our national capital region, we put into place a visitors’ transportation system at Harper’s Ferry Historical Park that allows visitors to enter the park, park their cars, see an orientation and then board a bus, which takes them to the historical portion of Harpers Ferry Historical Park. That system has been quite successful,” Stanton told Ashley.
The national park system remains alien to many African Americans and members of other minority groups. Minority employment at the NPS has also lagged behind that of other government agencies. In the mid-1990s, the National Park Service was identified as the federal agency employing the fewest people of color. Among Stanton’s goals as director is to make the NPS more relevant to urban dwellers, especially non-whites. “What I believe is one of the major challenges of the Park Service is to convey the significance of these parks. Probably one hundred parks have a home page on the Internet. As more information is made available and more educational opportunity becomes available to people irrespective of their economic, social, ethnic or racial backgrounds, the greater their appreciation will be for their own heritage…. Philosophically, it’s just a matter of the Park Service reaching out to all sectors of the community to make sure every citizen has the opportunity to learn a little bit more and increase appreciation of their own national parks,” Stanton explained to Bob Ashley of Trailer Life.
In regard to developing a more diverse staff, Stanton believes that substantial gains have been made but more effort is required. “It’s a need that requires a great deal of attention and action … I have shared with the leadership team of the National Park Service emphatically that we will improve … that kind of a representation with respect to women, with respect to racial/ethnic groups, as well as employees who have disabilities. We need to do that,” Stanton told National Parks.
A large man with a warm but formidable presence, Stanton has not let the details of directing the National Park Service keep him from losing sight of the agency’s higher purpose. Stanton told Wheeler, “The parks are of a tremendous value to the country. They can be a source of inspiration, like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that is a place of healing. They are a way to recognize the rich diversity of this country and to solidify us as a nation, as one people.”
Jet, July 21, 1997, p. 38.
National Parks, September-October 1997, p. 12; November-December 1997, p. 42.
RVBusiness, October 1997, p. 24.
Trailer Life, December 1997, p. 49.
Washington Post, January 16, 1997, Maryland sect., p. 9; June 29, 1997, p. B3.
Information also provided by the National Park Service, Office of Communications, Washington, DC, and the National Park Service website (www.nps.gov).
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