Book Review M. Watson

National Parks Our Living National Treasures: A Time for Concern

Dr. Gil Lusk


Gatekeeper Press (Columbus, Ohio)

[Book Review by Michael D. Watson (National Park Service Employee 1974-2006; National Park Service Chief of Interpretation, Washington Office, Washington DC 1987-1992; Superintendent, Stephen T. Mather Training Center, Harpers Ferry WV1992-2006; Retired 2006)]

Retired National Park Service (NPS) employee Dr. Gil Lusk describes his new book, National Parks Our Living Treasures: A Time for Concern as “the wanderings of an old romantic struggling with the realities of bureaucracy (p. 261).” He uses the first two-thirds of the book to contrast his fascinating and unique career in the NPS against a backdrop of societal change and philosophies in America, as well as the world, from 1965 to 1997.

The last third of the book revisits a series of essays Lusk wrote in 1991 near the end of his career entitled “Considered Opinions.” They focus on weighty issues that the National Park Service faced, with some bold and hard-hitting proposals for dealing with them. The same issues still face the agency now and are updated a bit for today’s realities 28 years later. Each essay has a new summary to put it into current perspective. As Lusk puts it, this book is “one last try (p. 254).”

The author, like so many long-serving NPS-career employees, obviously loves the National Park System and its over 400 sites preserving much of our country’s best scenery, culture, geology, history, nature, and recreation opportunities. As a college-educated historian, Lusk also recognizes early on in his tenure that the NPS workforce of our nation’s parks are a dedicated cadre of people like himself, believers in the Mission of the National Park Service.

“Our Living National Treasures” becomes a guiding concept Lusk adopts early in his career. While working at Appomattox Courthouse National Historical Park in Virginia, a Japanese delegation visited the park, including the Head Gardiner of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. The Head Gardiner hosted a trip by Lusk and his wife to Japan a year later where they visited skilled Japanese artisans called “Living National Treasures.” Since then, Lusk has applied the concept to the U.S. National Park System, using it to describe park sites instead of people.

Lusk’s autobiographical and sometimes whimsical and folksy musings about his NPS career are detailed and fascinating. He describes his tenures at a Baker’s dozen different NPS Sites, all with relevant anecdotes about his successes and failures, all important to his development as an unconventional NPS manager who is full of big, long-range ideas for the NPS to consider.

Our Living National Treasures is a welcome look at the past through the eyes of a visionary who experienced a storied career in the National Park Service. Gil Lusk writes an important and inspiring treatise about why the National Park Service and National Park System are vital to the inheritance and future of the United States. He outlines the triumphs, disappointments, and pitfalls of past and current NPS programs and leaders, including himself, and offers future approaches and solutions to be debated and considered for the Second Century of the National Park Service.

Like his hero Director George Hartzog, Gil Lusk describes a bold agenda and hopes it will be discussed and by a wide audience of NPS leaders, Departmental managers, politicians, agency partners, the public, and anyone else who will listen to his message and vision.

Other thoughts, not included in main text:

In 1968, Lusk was assigned to the newly established Washington Office of Environmental Education as part of visionary Director George Hartzog’s push to bring the Service headstrong into the Environmental Movement. Read closely to glean what a cutting-edge assignment Lusk ended up in as well as what was meant by “The Flying Circus.”

He would move on in 1970 to become the NPS on-site contact for the Wolf Trap Farm National Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia, arriving while it was still under construction. Again, Director Hartzog was pushing the agency pell-mell into new directions, this time bringing culture and the arts into the NPS portfolio. Lusk would learn to deal with powerful benefactors, wily politicians, artistic personalities, recalcitrant unions, and uncertain supervisors. When much of the new facility burned before it opened, he was greatly tested to recover the momentum for it’s on-time opening. He was a key player in the “Seven-Month Miracle,” and found out why one should not wait too long to register his car right away after arriving to a new state.

In the middle of his career, Lusk would begin one of three successive Park Superintendencies that would profoundly shape his management philosophies. Initially, he became the first superintendent at Valley Forge National Historical Park, transitioning the previous Pennsylvania State Park into a National Park site in the National Park System.

Second, he would transfer to the Superintendent’s position at Big Bend National Park in Texas and manage a Southern Border Park next to Mexico. He dealt with border crossing into the US long before they became national issues, managing Mexican immigrants crossing a border that was not a wall, but instead an ever-shifting river

Third, he would again end up as a Superintendent of a Border Park, this time at Glacier National Park in Montana. Here he would promote big, bold ideas through a cooperative program, part of which still exist today.

Finally, Lusk was granted a three-month sabbatical and developed a series of position papers in 1991 entitled “Considered Opinions.” They are reprinted in his book with updated thoughts, examining a wide variety of big ideas such as: unconventional funding sources for the National Park System; a National Commission of Our National Living Treasures to parallel the scope and vision of the NPS Mission 66 Program (1956-1966); and reviving the comprehensive Training & Development Plan developed by Lusk and hundreds of NPS employees in 1996. Empha