Richard West Sellars’ distinguished National Park Service career

  • Richard West Sellars at the Grand Canyon.

    Judith Sellars
 

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 one of the agency's top priorities. 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. Ultimately, however, he realized the market for an academic historian was small, and he applied for a full time job with the service. He was hired and began working at the Denver office of the Park Service in early 1973.

After his retirement, 35 years later, he examined the interpretation of the nearby Fort Laramie National Historic Site, in Wyoming. In his analysis, Fort Laramie -- a military frontier post -- was an example of how not to preserve historic sites. For example, 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."

*This story has been amended to more accurately reflect the circumstances of Sellars' career in the National Park Service and his later analysis of the Fort Laramie National Historic Site. Sellars was hired into the Park Service in 1973, after a deliberate application (not an accidental one), and he wrote about Fort Laramie after his retirement. He did not serve a stint at Fort Laramie, as originally reported, but rather worked at the Denver office of the Park Service. His 1997 book, Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History, spurred an initiative that made resource management and preservation one of the agency's top priorities--not a singular top priority. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • OFFICE ADMINISTRATOR AND BOOKKEEPER
    Posted: July 19, 2021 Application deadline: August 27 or until position is filled. Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking a fulltime Office Administrator...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Posted: July 15, 2021 Application deadline: August 21, 2021 or until position is filled Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking three full time...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
  • DISCOUNT SOLAR PANELS
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
  • SWEET MOUNTAIN HOME
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...