Former Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Bob Barbee passed away on Oct. 2 at home in Bozeman with Carol, his wife of 58 years, by his side. He was 80 years old.
“The current and past employees of Yellowstone National Park send their deepest condolences to the Barbee family,” said Superintendent Dan Wenk. “Those of us who had the privilege to work for and with Bob all owe him a debt of gratitude. He gave us the ability to deal with complex issues and the humanity and compassion to engage with our advocates, adversaries and colleagues.”
Barbee was born on Nov. 12, 1935, in Columbus, Ohio. He graduated from Colorado State University in 1958 with an undergraduate degree in biology and returned to CSU to earn a master’s degree in natural resources management in 1968. He served a stint in the U.S. Army ROTC in Fort Benning, Georgia.
Barbee began his National Park Service career in 1958 with seasonal ranger positions in Rocky Mountain and Yosemite national parks. He then moved his young family to Carlsbad Caverns National Park for his first permanent position as an interpretive ranger.
During his 42-year career, he served as a fire ecologist at Yosemite and superintendent of numerous protected areas within the national park system including Cape Lookout National Seashore, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Redwoods National Park and Yellowstone National Park.
The legions of National Park Service employees who knew and worked with Barbee remember him with great fondness, not only for his wise and effective leadership but also his unfailing friendship and brilliant sense of humor. In all ways he exemplified the highest standards of American citizenship, and like the National Park Service’s founding director, Stephen Mather, there will never come an end to the good he has done.
Barbee’s cumulative achievements within the agency, and in particular in Yellowstone, are too numerous to recount. However, he will always be remembered for his handling of the epic 1988 Yellowstone fires and how he persevered through the intensity of that long summer. He faced hordes of people, thousands of news media, and an endless stream of politicians all wanting to dictate how he managed those fires.
With the hindsight of some 28 years now, it’s clear Barbee’s leadership in managing the extreme fire situation in 1988 ultimately shaped the future of federal wildland fire management policy. Many of the methods used in Yellowstone in 1988 are now mainstream tactics in managing large wildland fires for resource benefit, economics, and most importantly for human safety.
After 11 years as Yellowstone’s superintendent, Barbee became regional director of the Alaska parks, where he served until his retirement in 2000.
Barbee was a passionate outdoorsman and an expert alpinist who summited all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks. He was also a distance runner and a downhill and cross-country skier. A gifted photographer who studied and worked with Ansel Adams in Yosemite, he and his wife Carol visited all seven continents while he photographed the world’s great natural and cultural areas.
Throughout Barbee’s life and career, he was devoted to his wife and three daughters, they and are the proud grandparents of seven grandkids. They entertained presidents and kings as well as seasonal park employees who had no place to sleep for a night or two between jobs. Their hospitality is legendary, and many a national decision was made around their kitchen table or campfire with some of the nation’s highest officials.
Barbee was honored by his alma mater as a distinguished alumnus. He was recognized with the Department of the Interior’s three highest honor awards (Superior Service, Distinguished Service, and Meritorious Service) along with numerous other awards including those from the White House and the National Parks Conservation Association.
Barbee is survived by his wife, three daughters and seven grandchildren.
A celebration of Barbee’s life will be held in May 2017 in Yellowstone National Park.
The family has requested that in lieu of flowers donations be sent to Yellowstone Forever, formerly Yellowstone Park Foundation and Yellowstone Association. At the request of the family, the Yellowstone Forever organization is in the process of establishing a special project or scholarship fund in Barbee’s name. Contributions can be mailed to: Yellowstone Forever, Barbee Memorial Project Fund, P.O. Box 117, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190.
Yellowstone Forever is the primary partner organization of Yellowstone National Park and a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.