Recipient Biography

Pete Dangermond


For more than four decades, Pete Dangermond has worked diligently in acquiring and protecting land for park systems, land trusts, state conservancies, and various governmental jurisdictions through purchases, conservation easements, and dedications. Although Pete did not set an objective of being a conservation icon, his actions and practices have made him one of the most recognized leaders in the field. Pete's love of the natural environment is embedded in his soul and can best be observed in his tenacity and passion towards environmental protection. His intense work ethic, deep interest in public use of conserved land, non-aggressive negotiating style, strategic thinking and tactical actions, and visionary approach to conservation have led to the protection of over 150,000 acres of land and provide testament to his hard work, good planning, and passion for resource preservation.

In 1961, Pete began his career in southern California as a planner for San Bernardino County where he learned that success results from having an achievable vision, a good plan and a committed work ethic. As a young man, he met and worked with local, passionate conservationists, which resulted in the creation of his profound environmental ethic and aspiration to conserve and protect historic and natural lands. He became personally committed to protecting land. In 1965, Pete was transferred to the budding regional park department where he became Deputy in charge of acquisition and planning. During his tenure, he created a regional park master plan that was adopted and implemented by the Board of Supervisors. The plan was based on the earlier "white paper" that Pete wrote documenting the lack of parks in the county of San Bernardino, and the importance of protecting natural resources. The master plan was significant in many ways. Most importantly, it molded Pete's understanding of how vision-based planning can be utilized to convince community constituents and decision makers to act in realizing their dreams.

Pete also recognized that virtually everything in the natural environment is connected together, including people and politics. In a short four year period, Pete helped acquire and establish eight regional parks totaling approximately 8,500 acres. In 1969, Pete was recognized for his leadership qualities by being appointed as the Director of Riverside County Park and Recreation Department.

Pete's vision for the Riverside County Park system was to expand and protect the critical natural resources that were being impacted by development. He knew his success could only be achieved by preserving the most unique resources in a county of many natural wonders. He also knew that success would be a result of engaging the park supporters and conservationists in the fourth largest county in the nation. When he arrived at Riverside, the Parks Department consisted of six parks approximating about 1500 acres. Pete's goal was to create a park system that encompassed all the major biotic life zones in the county and establish regional parks and trails that rivaled the best park systems in the state. After nine years as Director, he had accomplished much of his goal by establishing major parks in virtually every biotic community in this richly diverse county. In fact, he created one of the leading regional park systems in California consisting in over 22,000 acres of park land. Pete became a regional park icon and led the profession in creative acquisition techniques, imaginative regional park design, and revenue generation through concessions, leases, partnerships, and fees.

Pete's vision for a self-sufficient parks agency came during a cyclic recession in our country which resulted in the potential bankruptcy of New York City. The prevailing thought of the time was a never-ending stream of money in public entities to finance parks but the New York City dilemma brought home the reality that public funding was not infinite. Pete understood that park leaders also needed to be responsible stewards of money as well as their park resources. Consequently, he devised a self-sufficiency strategy for Riverside County Parks and created what he termed the "Target Zero" plan. This plan's intent was to enhance eight of the county’s park units that would both create private enterprise jobs, and make the park system self- supporting and provide needed public services. The plan laid out strategies for revenue generation through gate fees, park events, revenue generating facilities and concessions and leases. At the same time, it provided uniquely designed destination parks that offered family recreation and educational programming to help instill an environmental. Just after the commencement of "Target Zero" effort, in 1978, Pete left Riverside County to become the Director of the Monterey County Park Department. Shortly thereafter, Proposition 13 was approved by the California electorate which changed the future of public services in California and eventually across the nation.

Self-sufficiency became an important focus of park systems throughout California after Proposition 13 was passed by the electorate. Government budgets were drastically reduced and park systems, being discretionary, were hard hit. Yet, one organization prevailed because of a self-supporting direction established by Pete. His vision was simple:

  • stabilize growth of the system unless new facilities could generate sufficient income to cover costs;
  • redesign existing park units to allow generation of  fees and charges to help cover cost;
  • establish major revenue generating facilities such as race tracks and major regional destinations; and
  • create an enterprise fund for parks to allow revenue generators to help cover costs for facilities that are not capable of generating significant revenue. 

Pete's revenue model, or at least parts of it, was adopted by many agencies in California as a way to weather the budget reduction storm. Even today (2012), with this prolonged recession, parts of Pete's model are in effect and being applied throughout the nation. Pete was one of the early pioneers in applying this model in the nation during his tenure with Riverside and Monterey Counties, California. Incidentally, Monterey County Parks Department is 96% self-sufficient and has chosen to never achieve the 100% goal for political reasons.

In 1980, Governor Jerry Brown, chose Pete to be California State Park Director. Although Pete's term as State Park Director was brief, he applied the revenue generating approach to that system. California State Park and Recreation Department is the second largest park system in the nation, only following the National Park System. Creating change in a large, bureaucratic system is not easy, but Pete made significant effort to make the Department self-supporting. His endeavor saw a revenue increase in the system from $14.9 million to $29.0 million in two and one-half years. He also saw the value in expanding volunteer service to the Department and helped create 75 not-for profit support associations to not only provide interpretive and educational programs but to build and staff gift shops and stores.
During his tenure, Pete promoted the establishment of state parks in urban areas which was a major departure from previous policy. One of those parks was Chino Hills State Park, a major state park in Orange County, California. When creating the master plan for the San Bernardino County Park system, Pete saw the obvious north-south imbalance of state parks in California. Not only were there few state parks in the southern part of the state, the majority of people lived in the south and they could influence future elections. Pete became aware that a balanced system met recreation need, preserved unique historic and natural resources, offered park opportunities throughout the state, and were adequately funded to ensure financial sustainability. He also realized that a park system is sustained because of citizen involvement. But, with the change in Governor, and political party in California, Pete left government 22 years after his career began and established his own consulting firm, The Dangermond Group.

After being involved in publicly-funded park systems for several decades, Pete found it a challenge to transition into the private consulting world. The change from working for others to being on his own required a new line of thinking and new reality of what one can do and for whom. The biggest paradigm shift came from the recognition that, as a consultant, one is no longer trying to accomplish his own vision but helping others to fulfill their vision. Additionally, patience was required to respond to the demands and schedules of his clients rather than those of his own. But, his public sector experience ended up working to Pete's advantage. He was able to broaden his scope of work and concentrate on projects that had meaning, but to a different group of clients. His new clients believed in land conservation and protection, environmental enhancement, and land design that encompass good planning and development. Pete's resume cites numerous projects over the years and those that are highlighted include the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Riverside Land Conservancy, Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and the cities of Riverside, Galt, Stockton, and Redlands, and Counties of Inyo and El Dorado. Projects that Pete accomplished for the Riverside Land Conservancy are significant as they involved land acquisition. 

During his career, Pete either protected or acquired over 150,000 acres of land. His involvement with the Land Conservancies has led to protection of thousands of acres Desert Mountains. Specific projects include the preservation of much of the natural portions of the Santa Ana River in southern California, protection of Mystic Lake, a large vernal pool in northern Riverside County, preservation of the Santa Rosa Plateau, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy protection of the Indian Canyon Palm Oases near Palm Springs, California, and much more. He is currently working on the acquisition of Vail Lake in south western Riverside County. That 20,000-acre acquisition is not included in the 150,000 acres that were acquired or protected under Pete’s leadership.

Pete is truly an environmental leader. Currently, he is President of the Save-the-Redwoods League, an organization that helped establish the California State Park system, and is a protector of old-growth redwoods. Pete has successfully advocated for a new League position by which it will assist the state park system to keep open three of the redwood parks listed among the 70 parks slated for closure in July 2012. He is leading workshops to stimulate local citizens to become engaged in state parks near their homes and create organizations that can be supported by Save-the Redwoods League. Pete has also led the League in a State Park Resources Assessment that looks for efficiencies in the park system and a task force to determine how to keep state parks financially solvent. Pete's leadership directed the League in working with the California State Parks Foundation to establish a voter initiative to fund the state park system. He also guided the League Board of Directors to pledge $2 million to the initiative campaign. During Pete's term as Save-the-Redwood League President, he has steered the Board of Directors towards land acquisition, support of the State Park system by advocating for financial solvency while maintaining the systems high reputation, and expanding the League's membership base and fund-raising effort.

Pete and his wife Joan have been married for more than 50 years. They enjoy a rich family life with their five children and six grandchildren. His immigrant parents who came from Holland and settled in Redlands, California, gave Pete a "work ethic and dedication to family that has been his life model and inspiration."

This year, the Academy also named Pete a Parks and Recreation Legend for his outstanding contributions to the profession. Pete Dangermond is a park and recreation "icon," and his legacy will be the role he has played in the park and conservation movement of California and the nation. Undoubtedly, he has earned and deserves the Cornelius Amory Pugsley Medal bestowed by the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration. [current as of 11/2012]