Recipient Biography

Russell E. Dickenson


Russell E. Dickenson (1923-2008) received the Pugsley Medal in 1974 “in recognition of outstanding service in the management and conservation of America's priceless National Park Resources.” The citation said, “Throughout his 28-year alliance with that Service, he has demonstrated unusual ability and leadership in all phases of park management, including resource management and visitor protection, administration, master planning, and other activities.” Dickenson was born in Melissa, Texas, and graduated from high school in McKinney, Texas, in 1940. Subsequently, he graduated from Arizona State College (ASC, later Northern Arizona University) in 1947 with a degree in economics and commerce. At ASC, Dickenson recalled, “A predominant influence in my decision to work in national parks was the wise and understanding influence of a geology professor there.” He served four years with the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II from 1942 to 1946 attaining the rank of captain. He briefly attended college as a Marine under the V-12 program of the 1940s, a pre-officer candidate assignment.

He began his NPS career in 1946 as a park ranger at Grand Canyon National Park. During the next 20 years, he was given a variety of field assignments characterized by steadily increasing responsibility, which provided an unusually rich, experiential background to inform his subsequent decisions when he moved into senior management positions with the NPS: Platt National Park (chief ranger), Chiricahua National Monument (superintendent), Big Bend National Park (chief ranger), Glacier National Park (assistant chief ranger), Grand Teton National Park (chief ranger), Zion National Park (assistant superintendent) , and Flaming Gorge National Park (superintendent).

When he moved into senior management, Dickenson continued to seek a broad range of experiences. Between 1966 and 1969, he was regional chief of the Division of Resources Management and Visitor Protection in the Midwest Region; chief of new area studies and master plans based in Washington DC, becoming associate regional director in the National Capital Parks Region (NCP) in 1968. In this latter position, he reported to the regional director, Nash Castro (Pugsley Medal 1969 and 1979). When Castro left the NPS to become general manager of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, Dickenson assumed the regional director position. In a letter to his successor, Castro wrote:

I am sure that I have never really communicated to you my true thoughts for the tremendous job you did as my Associate Regional Director. In all the years that I have been in managerial positions, I have been blessed with top-notch associates, but none of them stands out as you stood out. It was not necessarily your competence, your talent, or your conscientiousness, that made you stand out as you did. It was a combination of all these things, but even more so, your great loyalty, which demonstrated itself every day in every way.

The prominence of this regional director’s position can be gauged from it being rated a GS-16 position on the federal salary scales. Dickenson became the first person in the NPS to serve in a field position with this supergrade. As director of the NCP, he was responsible for the supervision of 2,000 employees and the management of more than 47,000 acres of federal lands in the greater Washington metropolitan area. His outstanding leadership at NCP was recognized with the Department of Interior’s Distinguished Service Award for “being instrumental in developing a strong urban parks program and in implementing imaginative and innovative programs which promote the concept of urban parks.”

After five years at NCP, Dickenson was named deputy director of the NPS in 1973. In making the appointment, the director said, “Russ Dickenson brings to this key position the highest level of professional leadership and ability. He is a proven administrator and commands respect and loyalty from his many colleagues throughout the National Park Service.” There was widespread support for his appointment since the director who had been appointed by President Nixon was a political figure with no experience in the parks field. Horace Albright (Pugsley Medal 1930) for example, wrote to Dickenson saying, “Your appointment is an excellent one.” Indeed, during his period as deputy director, he essentially ran the NPS. Again, his effectiveness as an administrator was recognized with a Special Achievement Award for “…your superb work you have displayed initiative in accomplishing your assignments and a record of seeking methods for increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of operations.” 

When President Nixon’s politically appointed director of the NPS was fired, Dickenson felt he was the obvious choice to be named director. When this did not happen, he stayed and helped the new director transition into the position, and then transferred out of Washington DC to become director of the Pacific Northwest Region in Seattle. He remained there until May 1980, when the director of the NPS was forced to resign for reasons of ill health.

There was strong sentiment within the NPS that they wanted a respected NPS leader to be the new director. Accordingly, Secretary of Interior Cecil Andrus summoned approximately 20 senior superintendents and regional directors to a meeting and announced, “The next director is in this room, and I want you to decide who it will be.” They chose Russell Dickenson. In his announcement, the secretary said, “He has solid experience in both urban and rural parks. He’s an ‘old pro’ who can be expected to inspire confidence among coworkers and those concerned with the future of the great National Park System.” Having risen through the traditional ranks and earned the respect of his colleagues, Dickenson was enthusiastically welcomed to the director’s job and supported in his effort to restore organizational stability after a succession of short-term directors.

He preferred improving the service’s stewardship of its existing parks to seeking new ones. Dickenson’s attitude toward new parks was closer to Mather’s than to expansionist directors such as George Hartzog and William Whalen, and he publicly expressed concern that too many parks was reducing the quality of park management. This suited the Reagan administration’s ideal of smaller government. Thus, when James Watt became Secretary of the Interior, Dickenson was the only Interior bureau chief whom he kept. He was surprised to be retained as director by the Reagan administration. However, Dickenson considered his job to be one of “consolidating our gains,” not expanding the system and this was an attitude that Watt endorsed. Dickenson expressed his consolidation rationale in the following terms:

The years 1960 to 1980 were glory years in terms of additions to the National Park Service system culminating in one of the greatest additions of all time, another national park system in itself, the Alaskan National Parks in December 190. What a legacy to pass along to those who follow us!

But at the same time, there was concern that the traditional standards of admission for entering units into the National Park System were being compromised. There was some evidence, indeed, that the political process was beginning to dominate some of that selection process. There was concern about economics and travel and tourism instead of what truly ought to be the kinds of criteria applied. Fortunately, most of the units of the National Park System meet every one of those criteria. But some of us recognized that the great expansion of the previous 20 years had been made possible partially through the deferring of certain essential maintenance.

Some believed this strategy was shortsighted, but Dickenson argued, "The system is a dynamic one. I think that as the American people want the system to grow, it will grow. However, at the present time, there are no really outstanding candidate natural areas left. Possible candidates honoring distinguished Americans will as always be considered.”

Outside of Alaska, fewer than a dozen areas were added to the NPS under Dickenson. The appointment of James Watt as Secretary of Interior, and other similarly minded political appointees, meant Dickenson was on the defensive trying to protect the NPS from commercial abuse for the remainder of his tenure. Watt shut off dialogue with conservationists, opened the door to concessionaires, and directed Dickenson to evaluate park managers based on the money their parks produced. Dickenson viewed his mission as holding the NPS together in the hostile Reagan environment. Dickenson later recalled, "Every operating principle established throughout our working lifetime was challenged.” He went on to explain: 

We spent a lot of our working hours trying to defend the past and what we were doing – things tested through trial and error – as making good sense. We were subject to constant end-running. People seeking redress of grievances would no longer come to the bureaucracy, but found a willing listener in an Arnett, or Ric Davidge, or Watt. So many went the political route, and we would catch it coming back the other way.

“The bureaucracy is overbearing, the government is overbloated, spending the taxpayers' dollars unwisely” – all of these were biases of the administration, as if the president was running against the government. It's incomprehensible when you sit in a director's seat as a non-political appointment and are expected to revise and challenge the very apparatus you're in charge of.

Conflicts were especially serious in the budget area. As Reagan attempted to reduce federal budgets, the Park Service was targeted. Watt replaced Dickenson’s deputy with a Reaganite political appointment who insisted on slashing the budgets. Funds for operating national parks fell by 20% from their 1980 high. The construction budget took an even bigger blow, from more than $211 million in 1980 to under $70 million in 1981. The administration proposed zero funding for land acquisition. Yet, throughout the Reagan years, the park operations budget remained higher than it had been as late as 1977 and 1978. Further, by I983, construction funding was back above $225 million as Watt endorsed a Dickenson program to fix health and safety problems in the National Parks and Congress was persuaded in 1981 to pass a Park Restoration and Improvement Program which allocated more than $1 billion over five years to park resources and facilities.

Dickenson retired in 1985. He received approbation and expressions of appreciation from a wide spectrum of colleagues and associates for his courage and statesmanship in guiding the NPS through difficult times and sustaining the morale of park employees. A Los Angeles Times editorial at the time of his retirement commented:

Dickenson was thrust into the uncomfortable position of carrying out the new policies of the Reagan Administration and, at the same time, buffering the Park Service and its professional ranger corps from the political vicissitudes and outright nastiness at times of his boss, Interior Secretary James G. Watt.

Some critics thought that Dickenson could have used a little more Smokey the Bear gruffness in dealing with Watt on important policy issues. Perhaps he could have-and lost his job on the spot. What Dickenson did was battle like a good general on behalf of his troops, preventing a major purge of veteran park personnel to unwanted jobs in the Siberia of other Interior agencies.

After his retirement from NPS, Dickenson co-authored a book with Horace Albright titled National Park Service: The Story Behind the Scenery. He remained active as an affiliate professor in the College of Forest Resources at the University of Washington (1986-92), served on the National Park Advisory Board (1985-89), and was president of the Washington National Parks Fund (1985-98). He was a member of numerous boards of directors, the North Cascade Institute (1986-91), Student Conservation Services, Inc. (1985-91), Tourmobile, Inc. (1986-2002), Eastern National Parks and Monument Association (1990-2004), and the Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission (created by treaty between the U.S. and Canada for British Columbia and Washington’s North Cascade parks, 1985-92).

Frome, Michael. (1992). Regreening the National Parks. Tucson,AZ: University of Arizona Press.
Dickenson, Russell E.(1985).The national park service today and tomorrow. Charlottesville,VA: University of Virginia School of Architecture, Benjamin C.Howland Jr.Memorial Lecture.