CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

George B. Hartzog Jr., who was one of the architects of the modern national park era, died June 27, 2008, at the age of 88.

For me personally, Hartzog was a go-to guy, an oracle of wisdom who had the colors of the agency coursing through his veins.

During a span of nine years, between 1964 and 1973, Hartzog served as Park Service Director after working his way up the ladder of civil service. Amid his long retirement, I sought his counsel on many an occasion to talk about internal agency policy maneuvers, the implications of backroom deals, and other forms of Washingtonian high jinks.

Most of all, I would just phone Hartzog and have the pleasure of listening to him wax eloquent about how national parks define us as citizens living in an inclusionary society where rich and poor stakeholders have the opportunity to pass down a common heritage.

“You have no idea, Todd, how rare it is in the world,” he would advise. “There’s nothing more American than our national parks.”

It’s telling that Hartzog, no sufferer of fools, was beloved and feared on Capitol Hill. Remarkably, he served under both Democrat and Republican White Houses but he refused to bitterly array issues as being either “pro-business” or “pro-environment.”                 

It was strategist Hartzog who helped lay the groundwork that finally resulted in passage of the Alaska Lands Act, which brought more crown jewel acreage into the Park System than at any other time in U.S. history. He opened the door for more women and non-white males to enjoy civil service careers in a ranger uniform and assume leadership positions.

A relentless proponent of historic preservation, he was friends with the Rockefeller family, who were instrumental in creating Grand Teton Park. With a gentle manner, Hartzog mentored young rangers, captains of industry, presidents and members of Congress on the enduring value of conservation.

“Hartzog was able to leave behind a legacy that to this day is unsurpassed in the amount of land acquired, and the amount of legislation passed to protect public lands,” the late former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall said, noting that he also was a reminder of the “glories of public service and the legacies our best bureaucrats leave to future generations.”

Any career Park Service veteran worth their salt stood in awe of Hartzog and if he called BS on agency shenanigans, it was akin to being reprimanded by a much beloved parent who thought you were compromising family principles.

Shortly after the new millennium began, when a Bush Administration political appointee from Cody stood accused of trying to single-handedly rewrite the Park Service’s management operations manual, in order to make it easier for private businesses and industries to commercially exploit or abuse parks, I called Hartzog on the phone.

In his husky voice laced with a soft southern twang, he said, “This is the most serious threat to the system I have seen in my experience with national parks. What they are doing, by design, is aiming to treat national parks as generic public lands without offering special recognition of their special character as part of the heritage of America. The National Park Service is the one agency, overseeing the special places in our society, where there is an opportunity to restore a sense of common community and allow interpretation and reflection without any partisan politics.

“Parks represent the one place you can go and feel yourself in contact with the larger environment to which all of us report and behold the man-built places of history that are treasures and foundational to our heritage,” Hartzog added. “What they are doing is stripping away the protection. Parks are not settings where you want all terrain vehicles running all over the place. But some people in this administration apparently see it differently.”

When I asked him what the public could do about it, his response was pure Hartzog: “They should get in touch with their representatives in Congress and tell them they need to put a stop to it. Congress is where important decisions about national parks should be made. One individual with a personal agenda shouldn’t be allowed to have so much control, unchecked.”

Hartzog’s heart always reminded me why those standing guard over our public lands on the homefront are heroes just like those who serve the nation in military uniform do. They may not literally give their lives in blood, but they’ve devoted their lives to protecting not only the present but the future.

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org), is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly. His feature on the delisting of Greater Yellowstone grizzlies appears in the winter 2018 issue of Mountain Outlaw and is now on newsstands.