Recipient Biography

John A. Townsley

John A. Townsley (1927-1982) received the Pugsley Medal in 1982, shortly before his death. The award citation stated, "This award is predicated on John Townsley's eminent career with the National Park Service, and his lifetime contributions to the cause of conservation, unselfishly given on behalf of the United States of America." Townsley was born in Yosemite National Park where his father, Forest S. Townsley, began his career in 1904, which was twelve years before the NPS was formally established. The senior Townsley was stationed at Yosemite for 30 years, and was chief ranger there from 1915 until his death in 1943. Throughout his NPS career, John Townsley wore with great pride the distinctive leather NPS hatband of his father -- one of the handful issued to those pioneers in NPS leadership. He was 16 at the time of his father's death. It meant that he and his mother had to leave Yosemite where he had lived all his life, but he returned the following summer as a seasonal fire guard.
He served in the US Marine Corps and subsequently graduated from Colorado State University with a B.S. degree in biology in 1953. During his college years he continued to work in the park as a seasonal ranger. One of the individuals who worked with him at that time spoke of his admiration for him. "He really was sensitive to the environment. 'I don't want a sign of humans in this area when we get through cutting wood' he would tell his crew." He was a large man, well over six feet tall, with a frame that suggested he could wrestle a grizzly if he wanted to. One of his jobs in the pre-electricity days of the 1950s was cutting 20 to 25 cords of firewood. "He would challenge us to see who could chop the decaying trees the fastest and cleanest, and he always won."
After graduation, he was appointed to a permanent park ranger position with Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in 1955. He was subsequently transferred to Yosemite as a ranger, and then moved to Oregon Caves National Monument as a management assistant. He was appointed to the Department of Interior management training program in 1959, worked as a parks planner on the Mission '66 staff in Washington DC from 1960 to 1962, and became a policy analyst for the NPS director from 1962 to 1964.
He was appointed to his first superintendency at Sagamore Hill early in 1964 before being reassigned as the first superintendent of the newly-formed New York City group, which included the Statue of Liberty and seven other park areas late in 1964. He remained there for three years, and his accomplishments were widely recognized and applauded. The challenge of responding to a wide range of agendas of influential citizens and organizations with an interest in New York City shrines and monuments was handled with aplomb. He developed an outstanding maintenance program for the several units, involving difficult logistics in terms of supplies, materials, and transportation; brought about effective protection through coordination with New York City law enforcement officials; and effected efficient manpower utilization resulting in a higher standard of interpretation and protection. His leadership was key to overcoming serious obstacles to the establishment of a Job Groups Conservation Center in Jersey City. The Job Corps was a public employment program funded by the federal government at that time, and the Jersey City project was a milestone since it was the first such center established in an urban setting.
In 1967, he became superintendent of Mount Ranier National Park where "he made numerous contributions to the planning and development of that park and displayed intelligent and inspiring leadership in preserving its natural values." Townsley returned to Washington DC as assistant directer for operations of National Capital Parks in 1972, and a year later became deputy director. His years there were marked by the effective cooperation of local and federal officials, and were highlighted by innovative planning and developments at Constitution Gardens, Anacostia, and the President's Park.
Townsley was appointed superintendent of Yellowstone National Park in 1975. An immediate challenge was to resolve problems with the principal concessioner in Yellowstone at that time. Facilities were decaying, and the level of services to park visitors was deteriorating. He coordinated, directed, and  on his own initiative, pursued the issue of contract performance with the concessioner through departmental and legislative channels, and personally directed an action plan toward improvement of concession facilities. When it became apparent that the concessioner would not initiate the capital investments necessary to improve services to the park visitor, he began a program directed toward cancellation of the contract and purchase of the concessioner's possessory interest. In coordination with the Denver Service Center and the Rocky Mountain Regional Office, Townsley put together a professional team to analyze the condition of concession buildings, utilities, and concession equipment to determine precisely the degree of depreciation and to establish a maintenance program which would provide on a continuing basis assurance that plant operations would be maintained and protected. Foremost in his mind were the needs of the park visitor, the entitlement of each and every individual to receive a quality experience when visiting Yellowstone National Park and leave with a feeling of enrichment and appreciation. In fighting to have the concession taken away from the Yellowstone Park Company, which had held the contract for decades, Townsley put his career on the line. For his work in this area, he received a special achievement award from the NPS in 1979.
The president of the Burlington Northern Railroad, who had a personal, rather than aprofessional, interest in Yellowstone wrote an unsolicited letter to the assistant secretary of Interior in 1978 stating:
I have been so impressed with the ability of John as a manager with good practical sense, a first-rate diplomat who is extremely able in dealing with all the various publics with which he invariably comes into contact, a person exceptionally well-versed in all aspects of the park.
Townsley had the ability to observe and see things both in people and in the outdoors that others missed. He saw possibilities in situations which others did not perceive or consider.
While services are the most visible part of administration, Townsley's true love was the wildlife and the land. He had a reverence and concern for all things natural. His policy was one of nonmanipulation, based on the philosophy that society is making a positive statement if it preserves a place where "a grizzly bear can make its home." One of his favorite activities as superintendent of Yellowstone was to pull his car off the side of one of the park roads near dawn or dusk and just sit. He once explained that if you did that, and waited a few minutes, some creature was bound to appear and give you a show. "Just sit and wait and watch," he would say.
He had the ability to get to the heart of a problem with a minimum of fuss­, always bearing in mind the ultimate effect on people. His friends saw Townsley as a coach and a trainer, and a man who, as he grew older, grew wiser, learning to delegate more of the tasks to younger people. William Briggle (Pugsley Medal 1993) recalled Townsley's wonderful sense of humor, which often permitted him to accept and correct his mistakes, frequently with a smile. He also had a reputation for fearless honesty -- never a cover-up -- and he dealt with people in an even-handed manner, Briggle recalled.
Townsley died in Billings, Montana, following a long bout with cancer. In the Congressional Record soon after his death, a congressman from Nebraska commented:
He was a wise man and a man of strong convictions who loved his job. He was the standard by which national park superintendents measured their achievements and young rangers cast their aspirations. He was in the grandest traditions of the National Park Service, a man for all seasons.
In the same bulletin, Russell E. Dickenson (Pugsley Medal 1976), who was the NPS director wrote:
In an organization devoted to the highest standards of public service, in a National Park System devoted to integrity and stewardship, John Townsley stood out. He represented the benchmark by which we can measure commitment to principle, and the wisdom, discipline, and the courage to act accordingly. It was perfectly obvious to all of us privileged to know and work with John that his personal and professional life blended in a credo for parks that was basic and fundamental: conservation of the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife and provision for public use and enjoyment in appropriate ways so that they would remain unimpaired for the enlightenment and pleasure of future generations.
Elsewhere Dickenson recalled :
John Townsley was a personification of the park ranger. He brought dynamic leadership to every assignment, character to every setting, and enthusiasm and a sense of professional pride to every association. He was truly one of a kind.
Horace Albright (Pugsley Medal 1930), who knew him from his infancy in Yosemite, called Townsley "One of nature's noble men;·and one of Townsley's peers wrote:
No one loved the Park Service more, nor could anyone articulate so well in philosophical terms, the underlying spirit of the service that gives it that certain mystique and pride. And even as he spoke, he was never repetitive, pretentious,or dull.
I always felt a sense of awe in his presence not because of his physical size, which was considerable, but rather because of his enormous intellectual capacity. John radiated authority and at the same time he possessed an aura of charm. He charmed all who met him. He had an elegant majesty. He was sophisticated; he was down to earth; tough as any man! And he loved life and living.
Sargent, S. (1998). Protecting paradise: Yosemite rangers, 1898-1960. Yosemite, CA: Ponderosa Press.
(1982,October!). Congressional Record.