Richard West Sellars' accidental but distinguished National Park Service career

 

On a late October afternoon, Richard West Sellars orders a bowl of black bean soup at Harry's Roadhouse in Santa Fe, N.M. At least twice a week, he has lunch here with other former and current National Park Service employees. Today, Dan Lenihan, a retired underwater archaeologist, describes diving to survey sunken ships at Bikini Atoll, a nuclear test site in the Pacific Ocean, back in the 1980s. Sellars muses about the Texas School Book Depository, now a national historic landmark, where a rifle and shells were discovered after President John F. Kennedy was shot: "Kennedy was in Dealey Plaza for about less than a minute, but that changed forever the landscape there," he says in his slow, deliberate manner.

Nearly four years into retirement, Sellars' passion for the park system hasn't dimmed. Sellars, who wears a bright white beard and round spectacles, spent 35 years with the agency, much of it teaching officials how to manage historic sites. From 1979 to 1988, he served as Southwest chief of historic preservation, architecture and archaeology. He left to write a history of natural resource management in the parks. It was a daunting task: Sellars, who has no scientific background, initially panicked when he saw the wall of biological papers in the agency's archives. But then he realized, "I didn't need to know about bird life in Crater Lake or snakes in the Grand Canyon. This was a study of people managing biology."

His 1997 book, Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History, charted the influence of agency administrators and landscape architects, whose tourism-driven agenda often eclipsed biologists' efforts to preserve ecological health. "I was really going against a lot of tradition in the service, its belief in itself as a preservation agency," Sellars says. "And it was, in many ways. But I was probably showing some of the real gaps in that effort." The book is widely credited for inspiring the Natural Resource Challenge, a 1999 initiative that made resource management and preservation the agency's top priority. The challenge continues to support invasive species management, restoration projects, biological inventories, and air and water quality monitoring.

Yet Sellars' Park Service career was accidental. He grew up in sleepy Decatur, Texas, where automobile touring was more popular than outdoor recreation. "I wasn't born to be a ranger," Sellars laughs. "I never recall people in my hometown having a backpack, and I think they would have poked fun at you if you had one."

In 1966, Sellars took a summer job in Grand Teton National Park. He hoped to become a history professor, and saw his time in the parks as temporary. But a stint as a historian at the Fort Laramie National Historic Site in Wyoming convinced him to stay.

Fort Laramie -- a military frontier post -- also helped shape his ideas about how not to preserve historic sites. The Park Service restored its buildings in a patchwork fashion, furnishing the interiors with Victorian reproductions. The bakery was restored to its 1876 condition, while a weapons safe-hold reflects the 1850s and a commanding officer's residence the early 1860s.

"The public thinks that that's what historic sites are supposed to look like -- that when you open the door it looks like the historic occupant had just left and you're sort of reliving the past through this recreated environment," says Dwight Pitcaithley, a friend and former NPS chief historian. Sellars, however, developed a deep disdain for complete -- and expensive -- restorations. "If something is historic (because of) its association with a person or an event, then you maintain as much of the original condition and materials (as you can)," he says. Rather than reconstructing buildings and recreating period decor, Sellars believes in supporting enduring structures, and using interpretive signs, displays and photographs as windows into what's been lost. He says you can tell equally accurate and compelling stories this way -- with much less meddling. His approach has "affected a generation of cultural resource managers and superintendents," Pitcaithley says.

These days, Park Service-related work still consumes much of Sellars' time. Now and then he strays from his backyard office -- a renovated two-car garage decorated with Navajo rugs, landscape posters, bird prints and an empty Yellowstone Whiskey bottle -- to see an opera with his wife, go birding, or read autobiographies. In the 1970s, he started a reading group with his colleagues: They'd read Park Service policy documents and meet weekly to discuss them. Sellars still meets with the group via teleconference to dissect books on history, writing and historic preservation.

He keeps a black leather notebook in his breast pocket to jot down ideas. He also has a cadre of note cards scrawled with reflections on policy over the years, and journals -- stacks of 8.5-by-11-inch notebook and archival papers filled with quotes, opinions, and recollections of family events and agency projects since 1973. Stored in a fireproof cabinet, they constitute the raw materials for his next book: an autobiography that explores the evolution of historic preservation policy in the agency. As he works, he strives to remain, as one colleague described him years ago, "more loyal to history than to the National Park Service."