Recipient Biography

James M. Ridenour

James M. Ridenour (1942-      ) received the Pugsley Medal in 1993. He was raised in the farm country of Wabash County, Indiana. His parents were house parents and counselors at White's Institute, a combination orphanage and resident juvenile delinquent facility housing approximately 200 children from ages six through 18. He grew up as one of the "kids" with farming chores and endless hours of sports activities designed to keep everyone busy and out of trouble. His athletic skills resulted in eight varsity letters at Wabash High School, where he was elected both class president and student body president. He was a National Honor Society member and received a Rector Scholarship to DePauw University.
In his first year at DePauw, Ridenour played on the freshman football and baseball teams. He also scrubbed pots and pans to earn his meals at a college fraternity. It was during this time that his great uncle, Dr.Garrett Eppley, then chair of the Indiana University Department of Recreation and Park Administration, encouraged him to transfer to Indiana University and major in recreation and park administration. Eppley was prominent in the field and Ridenour participated in conversations with many of the field's leaders, who Eppley brought to the campus.
While there were discussions with the IU baseball coach about a scholarship, a severe eye injury suffered on the intramural fields during the mandatory year of ineligibility after a transfer dashed Ridenour's hopes of a future in baseball. He said, "It was an injury that changed my life. I went from being a baseball player to a student. Had the injury not occurred, I might have struggled along to a mediocre career in minor league baseball. Instead, my life took a whole new direction."
After finishing undergraduate and master's degrees in recreation and park administration at IU, Ridenour married Anna Jean McClure, also an IU graduate, and they started their careers in Indianapolis. He worked in recreation therapy at LaRue Carter Hospital, and his wife started her teaching career at Speedway High School.
The Vietnam War was in full swing, and by the spring of 1967, he was in the Army Medical Corps. After a short period at Valley Forge Hospital, Ridenour was sent to Vietnam where he, 10 enlisted men, and one medical doctor set up an aid station in the mountains near the Cambodian border. Later, Ridenour became company commander of the 7lst Evacuation Hospital near Pleiku. This hospital was frequently under fire, especially during the Tet Offensive of 1968.
Ridenour returned to his family in June 1968, finished his military obligation, earned a master's degree in public administration from Colorado University, and started on a civilian career. He became personnel director of the Colorado Department of Agriculture and was promoted to director of administration for that department. An interest in getting closer to Indiana led him to accept a position with the Council of State Governments, an organization funded by and for the 50 state governments. There he served as a consultant and advisor to elected officials of state governments.
Moving to West Lafayene, Indiana, Ridenour entered into a partnership to build and operate a racquet and health club. At the same time, Ridenour was serving as a volunteer fundraiser for President Ronald Reagan, Senator Dan Quayle, and Governor Robert Orr. All three men won the office they were seeking, and all three offered Ridenour a position in their administrations. Wanting to stay in Indiana, he accepted the position of director of Natural Resources for the state in 1980, a position he held for eight years.
When a new governor was elected, Ridenour moved to spend a few short months on the faculty of Purdue University before being offered the position of director of the National Park Service in 1989, under President George H.W. Bush. In that position, he was centrally involved in the conflicts over fires in Yellowstone, wolves in Yellowstone, the Alaskan oil spill, and hurricanes in the Everglades. During his administration, 13 national park sites were added to the system. Most notably, Ridenour led the celebration of its 75th Anniversary. He initiated a year-long process to develop a vision for the future direction of the NPS. The report on this process, known as "The Vail Agenda," was a milestone in NPS history. Ridenour commented: "From the start I wanted it made clear that this was not to be a whitewash of past practices by the Park Service, I wanted the agenda to be wide open." The end result was a 137-page document that was a blueprint for the future direction of the NPS, containing six strategic objectives and more than 140 specific recommendations. Ridenour believed the funding priorities assigned to the NPS were inappropriate, and he railed against what he termed "the thinning of the blood." He said:
Members of Congress have blatantly disregarded standards that have been traditionally used in evaluating the creation of new national park units. They have also disregarded the professional opinion of the NPS staff. They have turned 'pork barrel' into 'park barrel' units. They are 'thinning the blood' of the NPS. Many of the units being voted in by Congress are not worthy of national recognition but get voted in anyway. That thins the quality of the system and puts additional financial demands on an already badly underfunded program. We are not taking care of the Grand Canyons, the Yellowstones, the Everglades, and the historic sites such as Independence Hall, while we spend hundreds of millions of dollars on what can best be described as local or regional economic development sites. To me, that is thinning the blood of the system .
He accepted that many of these sites had great value to the areas in which they were located, but they were not of national significance so he considered it more appropriate for them to be acquired and managed by state and local entities. He was frustrated that the parks' infrastructure was crumbling with an expenditure backlog exceeding $2 billion, while millions of dollars were spent for projects that did not meet NPS criteria, and he worked to change the priority of the Congress.
A major accomplishment of his tenure was the reform and restructuring of NPS concessions regulations. Park concessionaires were politically influential, and most directors had avoided challenging the extraordinarily lucrative contract provisions that many of them enjoyed. He succeeded in reducing the possessory interest value of a concessionaire's property to "book value" or "depreciated value" rather then the previous "market replacement" or "appreciated values." This made a dramatic difference to the calculation of a fair purchase price for their assets if a contract was not renewed. He also removed the preferential rights of existing concessionaires in the bidding process. These two changes and several other more minor amendments , reformed the contract arrangements. They took unusual persistence and courage to execute but ensured the American taxpayer was fairly treated.
Ridenour was an advocate of using alternatives to full federal acquisition of proposed park lands; of working with other government organizations and private entities to protect lands inside and outside the system; he sought to achieve a greater financial return to the NPS from park concessionaires; and he was in favor of higher usage fees. He sought greater privatization of some services and facilities:
Most campers don't care who cleans the restrooms, picks up the trash, or runs the utility and sewer systems; they just want a nice camping experience. I suggest we look at privatizing many, if not most, of the campground operations in the national parks, while keeping the educational programs and nature hikes with the NPS. The public loves these programs, and they shouldn't be changed.
Early in his administration, he recognized the need to improve NPS science and worked to build a stronger science and resource protection capability, including geographic information systems, for the NPS. Under his leadership, the NPS commitment to education was energized through the establishment of the "Parks as Classrooms" program. The responsibilities associated with being director of the NPS moved Ridenour into international circles as he visited with leaders throughout the world. Especially close ties were cultivated with Mexico and Canada.
When President Bush's term of office ended in 1992, Ridenour returned to IU to start the Eppley Institute on Parks and Public I.ands. The Institute served as an outreach arm of the university by providing advice and counsel to park and recreation programs throughout the country. It provided students with real world experiences and job contacts. During his eight years at IU prior to his retirement, Ridenour taught both undergraduate and graduate courses on the historic development, current status, and changing patterns of public policy in outdoor recreation and related environmental management in the US. He continued with his volunteer activities in government circles and served as an advisor to then Governor George W. Bush on parks and natural resources issues in his presidential election campaign. Once the 2000 presidential elections were finally decided, President-elect Bush appointed him to the Department of the Interior transition team.
Ridenour, ].M. (1994). The national parks compromised. Merrillville, IN: ICS Books.
Craig M. Ross and Joel Meier contributed to the development of this profile.