Since John Reynolds was born, he's lived and breathed national parks. He served in the National Park Service (NPS) for 39 years, including time in 1996/97 as the Interim General Manager of the Presidio, and was executive vice president of the National Park Foundation from 2005 to 2007. He's currently a member of the North Cascades Institute, American Alps, and Chesapeake Conservancy Advisory Councils; chair of the Captain John Smith National Historic Trail Advisory Council; and he's on the steering committee of the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership. In July 2009, he was appointed as the Secretary of the Interior's designee to the Presidio Trust Board of Directors.
You've spent your career working to save and share national parks. What drew you to join the National Park Service as a young man?
I grew up in national parks – my father was a park ranger in Yellowstone, and I lived in three park units as a kid. We played, worked, and lived outdoors – both summer and winter. The parks were a great place to grow up. I learned to fish, went on great picnics, and saw wildlife daily. I would go out with my dad when he was surveying the park boundaries. It was a special experience to be in the wild with my dad. At another park, American Indian kids were my friends. It was a fabulous set of experiences, no matter which park I was living in. Growing up, I developed a natural affinity to the purposes of parks.
In school, I studied landscape architecture and later got a job in the National Park Service, so I worked summers in the parks – Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, and Guadalupe Park in Texas. When I graduated from grad school, I became a full-time employee in the planning office in Philadelphia, and things just went on from there. I grew up in the west, but it was in the east that I really started learning about historical places. It made me look at parks in a different way.
What was your role in supporting the Presidio's transition from an Army post to a national park site two decades ago? What was that experience like?
In 1996, I was deputy director of the National Park Service and I was being transferred out of that job to become the regional director of the NPS in San Francisco. In between these two roles, I had six months from November 1996 to May 1997 where I acted as interim general manager of the Presidio. It was an interesting time – the Army had just left and this was when the National Park Service was two years into taking over the Presidio.
It was a true pleasure managing the Presidio. I lived at 11 Funston Avenue, and my wife and I wandered everywhere in the park, really getting to know what it was all about. I fell in love with the Presidio.
As general manager, I made some major decisions about the direction the park would take. The Presidio was my home and a place I cared about deeply. There was a huge interest in what was happening, how things would work, and what this would mean to parks in general.
Not long after I became regional director, eighty percent of the Presidio was transferred over to the Presidio Trust, which would work in partnership with the National Park Service.
The Presidio has a unique story within the national park system; what does this place say about the role of partnerships in caring for our national parks?
The original concept of managing parks was that congress would create a park and the National Park Service would manage it for the American people. But when the Presidio Trust was created, congress was thinking about how to reduce this new park's impact on the federal budget – they wanted the Presidio to ultimately be self-sufficient.
So the idea of having someone besides the National Park Service manage the park was pretty controversial. Though the Trust wasn't necessarily doing anything that was new, it was still seen as a new and worthy experiment, an important evolutionary management step from the past.
The National Park Service supported the creation of the Presidio Trust because it made all kinds of economic sense. Therefore, the Trust is the most complete embodiment of the concept of using a nationally significant resource to not only preserve that resource, but also to create public programs. So, as such, the Trust is now a successful evolutionary model, making it acceptable to use alternatives other than federal funding to protect national parks in appropriate circumstances, which is a very important step.
Personally, I always thought the Presidio would be a successful experiment, but I also thought it would be a difficult transition and that it would take time to build strong relationships between the two agencies.
We are light years ahead of where we once were, and a huge part of this is about our partnerships. In trusting each other, partnering with each other, we're now way, way ahead from where we were. A big part of this has been the leadership exhibited by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, particularly Frank Dean and Chris Lehnertz, as well as the leadership of the Presidio Trust team.
Growing mutual trust and bringing together two agencies dedicated to the same national park goals has been my primary goal as a member of the board.
What does the National Park Service's 100th birthday mean to you?
I think the important part of the 100th anniversary is seeing it as a stepping off place for the national park idea of the future. Obviously, the centennial is a celebration of the past, but far more important is to use the centennial as a marker to create a more robust future. An important part of the anniversary is keeping alive the historical commitment to excellence, understanding that great change is going to take place in society, and incorporating change with enthusiasm.
What place in the Presidio is the most special to you?
My favorite place in the Presidio is 11 Funston Avenue, the house where I lived while interim general manager at the Presidio. The Presidio will always be a part of me.
I can't help but brag a bit – on August 1, 2016, my son became deputy director of the National Park Service, just like I was. These parks are a big part of our family and a part of our lives.
If I could give a reader one suggestion, it would be to come to the Presidio, take the time – whether it's an hour or a day – and immerse him or herself in the park. Because as soon as that happens, it'll become a part of them, too. After all, it does belong to each and every one of us.