The Guardian

During his reign as Park Service director from 1964 to 1972, George Hartzog paired a passion for the parks with political savvy to lead the agency through an era of tremendous growth.


By Mike Thomas


Early July 1970. Several months after his 50th birthday, a man sits on the Yosemite Valley floor amid a small gathering of flower-powered free spirits. Having earlier defied the park superintendent’s orders to vacate the nearby Stoneman Meadow, most of their carousing compatriots fled the premises after a violent face-off with horse-mounted rangers who rode in to forcibly clear the premises. Before it was over, scores of revelers were arrested and 30 hospitalized. These are the only holdouts. Concerned and curious, this man has come to infiltrate their ranks and hear their gripes—incognito. Fortunately, they never ask his name. And he never offers it.

His clothes are old but unremarkable. In a defiant departure from the era’s more unruly coifs, his hair is neatly trimmed, courtesy of a small barbershop near his office in Washington, D.C. An unabashed chain-smoker who alternates (sometimes in rapid succession) between inexpensive Garcia Y Vega stogies and tangy Parliament cigarettes, he puffs on one of the latter while they toke on something more herbal. Normally a devoted Scotch man, he gamely shares their cheap wine, swigged from a communal jug, and talks with them like an old friend before splitting the scene several hours later.

The next night he is among them once again, at an informal gathering around the Yosemite Campfire Circle. But this time he is obviously, surprisingly, not one of them. He is, instead, one of them—the suits, the status quo, the Man. More specifically, he is the man in charge of these lands where they’ve been made to feel unwelcome—or, as one toker had crassly dubbed him, “the big mutha_____.”

Hearing those words in mixed company made him cringe, but that vulgar handle was somehow fitting for the late George B. Hartzog, Jr., seventh director of the National Park Service, from January 1964 to December 1972. With a vice-like handshake, a booming voice whose volume and passionate intensity could make him sound angry even when he wasn't, and a tongue both silken and sharp, the head guardian of America’s vast natural wonders was no shrinking violet. And he exuded an establishmentarian aura.

But appearances can be deceiving. When it came to the public use of national parks, Hartzog was eminently egalitarian. True, he loathed the increase in crime and trash that accompanied the influx of young urbanites and carped about the “damned” automobiles that rudely invaded his wilderness. In spite of those problems, however, he vowed to make the parks more relevant to people’s daily lives. Hippies included.

“You can’t protect wilderness by drawing a boundary line around it and saying this is ‘wilderness’ and we are going to protect this, without some understanding and some relating of these things all the way back to where people are in the cities,” Hartzog said in a 1965 interview. “Because this is why you are protecting the lands and this is why you want to preserve them, so that they can be of value and benefit to people.”

Born in Smoaks, South Carolina, on St. Patrick’s Day in 1920, Hartzog was raised by parents who remained hopeful despite withering illness and increasingly harsh economic conditions. When their farmhouse burned down, times got even tougher. But Hartzog, who by age 17 was already preaching locally as a licensed Methodist minister, kept on keeping on. “Be somebody,” his mother and father said, and he took their words to heart. Having ceased his theological studies at Wofford College in Spartanburg for lack of funds, he served as a Georgia timber cruiser (measuring trees and collecting other data), a law secretary, and a National Guardsman. He also began studying for the South Carolina bar exam. In 1943, as World War II raged, he was drafted by the Army and spent three years stateside—at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and in the Boston area. Thereafter, Hartzog was hired by the General Land Office (now part of the Bureau of Land Management) and then landed a legal position with the National Park Service. Thus began his steady climb toward the summit. Along the way, in 1959, he stopped in St. Louis and laid groundwork for that town’s iconic Gateway Arch. Following a short-lived return to the private sector, also in St. Louis, he re-entered the Park Service fold as deputy director and finally as director.

In the introduction to Hartzog’s 1988 memoir, Battling for the National Parks, steadfast supporter and former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall described his hard-charging charge as an always “happy warrior who exuded reasonableness and good will.” Well, except when he didn’t. As was the case throughout his reign, Hartzog’s bold vision and bulldog approach perturbed and appalled more than a few folks of traditional mind. Upon hearing out his hippie detractors, for instance, he opened yet more park property to more people and “caught unshirted hell.” It wasn’t the first time, or the last. Still, one had to admire his moxie.

“Generally speaking, in my experience in most places, a leader who tries to fairly radically alter the direction of an organization stirs enmity within the organization,” says Duncan Morrow, a Park Service veteran and assistant to the current director, Jon Jarvis. “And I never saw much of that with George. Whether you agreed with him or disagreed with him, you respected him and you accepted that, at least in his mind, where he had chosen to go was reasoned out. It wasn’t just some arbitrary thing that he decided to do.”

While Hartzog was pleased when his notions met with enthusiasm, he also relished a political skirmish and faced down ideological foes much as he had on his high-school debate squad. The informally trained lawyer in him emerged, too, gathering and organizing facts that bolstered his views and undercut conflicting ones. “He could tie anybody’s tail into knots and just have total control,” author and erstwhile parks historian Bill Brown says. “He was always beautifully prepared. He could tame the devil.”

And Hartzog gamely pushed the envelope, or shredded it altogether, when more diplomatic tacks failed. After President Nixon took office in 1969 and the Park Service budget was cut by 4 percent, necessitating staff reductions and other adjustments, Hartzog made good on a threat to close all parks—including such tourist-mobbed areas as the Washington Monument and the Grand Canyon—two days a week. “Even my own staff thought I was crazy,” he admitted much later. Of course, sometimes a little crazy goes a long way. So intense was the public outcry that Congress eventually rescinded the cut.

“George has a healthy respect for Congress, not a callous disregard,” Pennsylvania congressman John Saylor said four decades back, “but he’s willing to stand up and fight. Some days I wouldn’t trade him for anyone in the world, and some days I could kill him.” Though he readily wielded his influence and outsized personality like anvils, Hartzog was savvy enough to know when and where strong-arm tactics had the greatest effect. As Park Service historian and Hartzog colleague William Everhart puts it, “He knew whose feathers he could ruffle… He knew when he had to be careful.”

New Yorker scribe John McPhee, who profiled Hartzog for the magazine in 1971, detailed his subject’s multifaceted approach to advancing certain goals—which included, aside from urbanization, the hiring of more women and minorities, the aggressive (and expensive) expansion of park land, the alleviation of overcrowding, and the preservation of historical landmarks. “Implementing his programs,” McPhee wrote, “he attempts to inform, influence, entice, flatter, outguess, and sense the mood of congressmen, senators and various members of the Administration, including his own overlord, the Secretary of the Interior.”

President Johnson was in that group as well. Throughout his single term, which closely coincided with Hartzog’s initial four years as Park Service director, Johnson was an immensely important ally. Not only that, he and Hartzog got on swimmingly. The two charismatic Southerners were, after all, quite similar in manner and method. “Like Lyndon Johnson, Hartzog had a talent, by joshing cajolery tinged with an overtone of coercion, for getting his own way,” former Park Service chief historian Robert Utley wrote in his 2004 book, Custer and Me: A Historian’s Memoir. Further comparing Hartzog to the “Great Society” president at whose pleasure he served when congressional and public support for ecological issues was higher than ever, Utley praised the “urbane and crude, open and devious, kind and brutal, caring and ruthless” Hartzog for masterfully manipulating “the reins of power on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Doing so, Hartzog believed, required face-to-face contact. “Any preacher knows the first thing you need to do is go out and call on your congregation,” says his oldest son, George, a United Methodist minister who has done his own share of preaching. “You need to know the people. In other words, people don’t care what you know until they know that you care. Dad was always, as he would say, out pressing the flesh. And that was not only for people he knew were allies and friends, but also people who were in opposition to him.”

One of Hartzog’s staunchest backers and an uncommonly devoted parks advocate was Nevada senator Alan Bible, chairman of the Interior Committee’s Subcommittee on Parks and Recreation. Hartzog’s wife of 61 years, Helen, recalls her husband’s mention of a particularly amusing run-in with Bible on Capitol Hill. As Bible approached him, Hartzog recounted, he said, “George, I ain’t a-gonna, I ain’t a-gonna.” When they met up, Hartzog asked, “Senator, what ain’t you a-gonna?” Bible’s half-serious and presumably smiling response: “I ain’t a-gonna make the whole United States a national park—not even for you, George!”

Walking the marble-floored halls of the Senate and House office buildings and the U.S. Capitol, where he testified eloquently at countless congressional hearings and reportedly made monthly visits to every congressional committee member, Hartzog claimed he wore out three pairs of dress shoes annually. By the end of his nine-year stint he was closely acquainted with 300 lawmakers and on what he termed a “howdyin’” basis with a couple of hundred others. From personally guided trips to dazzling parks for political powerbrokers and their wives to countless cocktails downed in the name of business, Hartzog gave to get. And he sweated the small stuff. When, for instance, news broke that South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond’s wife had given birth, Hartzog rang them up and delivered hearty congratulations.

Jaunty and joshing though he often was around legislators and his own conference room table, the joke-loving Hartzog was also a brusque taskmaster with a short fuse when dealing with underlings. Utley, for one, says his boss could be “a tyrant” when staff failed to do precisely what he wanted. “Everyone respected him and everyone feared him,” he says. More than a few employees stayed glued to their desks each evening, until Hartzog left the Department of the Interior building on C Street. And he sometimes summoned senior staff in over holidays, when they weren’t obligated to work. Showing up wasn’t optional. “George was no respecter of hours,” says retired Park Service deputy director Denis Galvin. “He’d call people at three o’clock in the morning. He would work himself all hours of the day and night.”

That held true even on family vacations and fishing expeditions, the latter of which were his sole and beloved pastime. Whether on the road or on the water, intimates say, he was off the clock but never off the job. As ever, synapses fired furiously; ideas multiplied.

Consequently, especially back in D.C., Hartzog was a man in near-constant motion—phoning, meeting, writing, doing. If not always in the most focused fashion. Prickly Colorado congressman Wayne Aspinall, chairman of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, assessed Hartzog’s effectiveness in McPhee’s New Yorker piece. His fondness for the director notwithstanding, he criticized him for having “too many irons in the fire. George is a little too fast for his own good. He skips over details. He is a builder without considering the cost of the building. So I say to him, ‘No, George. Back up and start over.’ He has the personality to be able to back up.”

Despite his well-earned image as a frequently dictatorial force of nature, Hartzog remained acutely aware that he couldn’t build alone. Delegation, therefore, was key. And because he believed micro-managing hampered imagination, Hartzog abolished volumes of antiquated and onerous regulations, including ones he’d drafted, that crushed individual creativity. Says Morrow, “He always maintained that the more rules you give managers to work with, the less you will get the benefit of their wisdom and judgment.”

Hartzog’s esteem for competent supporting players went beyond his inner circle. Growing up during the Great Depression, in a family to whom poverty clung “like a sweat-soaked shirt,” he performed all manner of menial tasks to make ends meet. He mowed grass and pumped gas, he bussed tables and washed dishes. And he valued those who did likewise, never forgetting his humble roots. More than once, at a Park Service dinner affair, colleagues noticed that Hartzog was absent, only to find him in the kitchen thanking the cooks and waiters.

Even so, the demanding autocrat—the guy who could, as Galvin says, “sort of turn on a dime”—lurked not far beneath the surface. “He reacts emotionally to people,” an associate once explained. “He’s way up on them or way down.” Decades later, talking with Morrow, Hartzog mused that his system-subverting and my-way-or-the-highway management style would backfire in today’s committee-driven political culture. “I never would have lasted,” he said, “because I sometimes simply made decisions and insisted that they be carried out.”

One of those decisions, minor in the grand scheme of things, proved to be his undoing. In the fall of 1971, Hartzog canceled a special-use permit that had been issued for a cottage and its attached dock at Biscayne National Monument in Florida. The permit, it turned out, belonged to the brother-in-law of Richard Nixon’s friend and confidant Bebe Rebozo. And the dock, as bad luck would have it, was a favorite landing spot when Rebozo and Nixon went boating. A year or so later, with rumors swirling of Hartzog’s imminent demise, an already adversarial Nixon fired Hartzog from his dream job—the one he had wanted “more than anything in the world.” Subsequent to his official last day, December 31, 1972, he spent the rest of his long career practicing environmental law and advocating for the parks he loved. Hartzog died in June 2008.

During Hartzog’s exceptionally productive turn at the helm, park visitation more than doubled to 213 million. And thanks to an explosive average expansion rate of nine new areas per year (between 72 and 78 total, according to different accounts, and equaling roughly 2.7 million acres), those visitors had many more places to explore. Hartzog’s efforts also went a long way toward persuading Congress to pass the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, a landmark piece of legislation that set aside 80 million pristine acres for future use as wildlife refuges and additional national parks. The son of a strong mother and an ardent champion of equal rights, Hartzog installed women and racial minorities in positions of influence—including the first Black park superintendent, the first American Indian superintendent and the first black chief of a major U.S. police force. On the community outreach level, he authorized programs that promoted parks volunteerism (there presently are nearly 200,000 parks volunteers countrywide) and provided safe havens for urban youths.

Only a couple of years into his directorship, Hartzog was instrumental in pushing for passage of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Established to safeguard more than just individual structures, it set up the Park Service-overseen National Register of Historic Places and stressed that “the historical and cultural foundations of the nation should be preserved as a living part of our community life and development in order to give a sense of orientation to the American people.”

Those words, lifted from one of the act’s more poetic passages, essentially echo Hartzog’s own philosophy about the national parks. He felt that they, too, are a living part of our community life and an awe-inspiring reminder that we are merely specks on a vast blue planet. “When you’re standing there silently in the presence of the giant sequoias, you can’t help but recognize that you’re a part of something that is way beyond whatever it is that you envisioned this world might be,” an 84-year-old Hartzog told documentarians Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, whose PBS series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, aired shortly after Hartzog’s death. And though his sternum-shaking voice had diminished, Hartzog’s preacherly passion shone through. This was, after all, his favorite gospel.

“You can’t stand there, all alone,” he went on, “without understanding that there’s a power in the world that is far greater than anything that you’ve ever experienced, and that you’re connected to that power just as that sequoia is connected to that power. It permeates all of us. And when you understand that, it improves your relationship with your fellow man. Because you realize that he has the same capacity, he has the same access, he is your brother.”

Mike Thomas is a Chicago-based journalist and author. His last article for National Parks magazine focused on George Melendez Wright.

Illustration by Dale Stephanos.

This article appears in the Summer 2011 issue.

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