The Reagan administration has got itself a tree hugger.

William Penn Mott Jr., 75, the new director of the National Park Service, accepts the designation with a cheerful grin.

"I believe in parks," he says. "I believe that parks are the most important element in government for the health and welfare and productivity of this country."

He glowers momentarily. "I'll tell you what the value is," he says. "Why the hell don't we just not plant any more flowers, let the damn grass dry up, don't pick up any litter and see what happens?"

In an administration marked from the start by jokes about "killer" trees, Mott is someone the environmentalists seem to love. "One of the brightest lights I've seen come to the park service in decades," says Clay E. Peters of the Wilderness Society.

J. Michael McCloskey, the Sierra Club's executive director until July 1, praises Mott's "real track record as a conservationist," adding, though, that as California park chief, "he had a penchant for development of the parks that went further than we were always happy with."

Mott, a registered Republican, has said the Big Sur could be bought for the price of a B1 bomber. His California license plates read, "4-PARKS." And, as Gov. Ronald Reagan's chief of parks and recreation from 1967 to 1975, he doubled the size of the state system and tightened up fee collections.

Mott recalls that Reagan "used to say to me, 'If I let you go any further, you're gonna make the whole state a park.' And I said, 'Well, what's wrong with that?' "

Mott worked in the NPS during the 1930s as a landscape architect fresh out of the University of California at Berkeley and has spent half a century as a park professional. He was park superintendent in Oakland for 17 years and, most recently, general manager of the East Bay Zoological Society there. His time with "the governor," as he still sometimes calls Reagan -- and his friendship with Attorney General Edwin Meese and his wife Ursula -- also qualifies him as something of an insider.

Reagan "has worked with Bill Mott enough to know he won't stab him in the back," says Martin Rosen, president of the Trust for Public Land. Rosen thinks "this administration has virtually forfeited its environmental credibility, but Mott gives Reagan a chance to get it restored, much as former administrator William D. Ruckelshaus was engaged to do . . . at EPA."

Mott calls his relationship with Reagan warm but professional, not social. In California, Mott reported to resources secretary Norman (Ike) Livermore who, with Mott, prodded the governor toward a more conservationist stance. Mott says he first met Reagan when he got the California parks job. "I told the governor, 'I'm a professional in this field. I'm not interested in politics.' . . . And he said, 'That's why I asked you to come up here. You run the department and I'll handle the politics.' "

That, Mott says, is the way it is now, too.

Mott, who earns $72,000 a year in his new job, has pure white hair and an engaging, energetic manner. He likes to tell employes, "Don't call me 'Mott, sir.' My name is Bill." At times he appears boyish and curious, at others authoritative. He can spin yarns about the real Trader Vic, then discourse on the relation between nature's wild gene pools and giant strawberries.

At NPS, Mott replaces Russell E. Dickenson, who is retiring. His appointment comes at a time of trouble for the vast system of 334 national parks, recreation areas, historic monuments and other sites that have been a source of relaxation and joy for generations. According to a recent report by the Conservation Foundation, the parks are threatened by heavy use and overdevelopment of surrounding areas. Plant and animal life within the parks is endangered.

After he took over late last month, Mott called together his regional chiefs and other professionals, environmentalists, concessionaires and other park "constituent" groups for a plenum meeting at Yellowstone. He announced that it is time to limit access to some parks during peak periods in order to save them, and declared in one formal speech, "We've got to err on the side of preservation."

Mott urged NPS employes to "think creatively" and not worry about getting in trouble for mistakes. Learning that progress on a Yosemite refurbishment plan is lagging, Mott returned to Washington and immediately ordered a $700,000 infusion of cash to speed things up. "This is ridiculous to be Mickey Mousing around on this," he says.

Rosen called the meeting "an historic event," the first time such a huge gathering of everybody concerned with the parks had been held. "It was so open and unpretentious and mission-oriented," Rosen says. Paul C. Pritchard of the National Parks and Conservation Association, who was also there, says, "If he can stand up under the demands, Bill Mott will be one of the great park directors."

Mott seems unconcerned about plans by the Office of Management and Budget to slash his $964.1 million budget by about a third, saying he will expand the 80-million-acre park system anyway. He plans to raise private funds if necessary, much as he did in California, acquiring new park land during years marked by cutbacks and taxpayer revolts.

"I can market this thing to where we can get the budgets," he says.

While Mott has been here only a few weeks and hasn't yet found "downtown" Washington, he has already been up on the Hill shaking hands and says he hit it off well with Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D-Ill.), the chairman of a key funding subcommittee for the park service.

"We're gonna get in a fight with OMB on our fee schedule," he says. But Mott, who also has a reputation as a penny-pincher, thinks OMB will soften "once they see the businesslike manner in which we're going about this."

Mott points to his desk. "People are writing letters saying, 'We want you to collect the fees. We support what you're doing. Double the fees if you want to.' "

Mott thinks that, generally, he'll succeed in promoting the parks because "I speak directly, I mean what I say and I don't send signals . . . I believe in what I'm doing."

Of course, he adds with a smile, "It'll take a little while to figure how they do things around here."

Mott is a hiker and backpacker. He preserves jams and jellies, nurtures bonsai trees, and can wax eloquent about the great out-of-doors, the fate of the vanishing grizzly and condor, and the interrelationships of different plant and animal life forms.

But, truth to tell, Mott is at his most excited, most eloquent in a long interview when he is talking about things like elves blowing bubbles and experiments he pulled off in the California state parks.

When he was Oakland park superintendent in the late '40s, Mott was visiting New York and saw a zoo mural depicting the story of Billygoat Gruff. "I thought, 'Well, that's neat.' " Suddenly he got the idea of building little "movie sets," complete with animated figures, around such stories for children to play in. Children's Fairyland was born.

To learn what interested children, Mott would hang around the children's room of the public library. "One time I met the librarian at a social function. He said, 'You know, I had the plainclothesman watching you while you were in the library all the time. I wondered what you were doing there.' "

Oakland wouldn't finance Children's Fairyland, so Mott raised money privately. When he decided to do a Robinson Crusoe set, he approached the late Victor J. Bergeron, known as "Trader Vic," who was operating his original restaurant, Hinky Dinks, in the city.

Mott knew that Trader Vic made trips to the South Seas to collect artifacts for the restaurant, and knew Bergeron's wife Helen socially. He got Mrs. Bergeron to bring Trader Vic to Children's Fairyland and then, as Mott recalls:

"There's an Old Woman Who Lives in a Shoe and you have to bend over and go in so that adults come in at children's level. It's psychologically for that purpose. So I got there a little bit late. Trader Vic and his wife were in there. We have a big mushroom with a little elf blowing bubbles off the mushroom, and he was standing there. He says, 'I don't know what the hell I'm doin' here.' "

Mott asked him if he would collect artifacts for the Robinson Crusoe set on his next trip. "He looked me right straight in the eye and said, 'Young man, you don't know a goddam thing about Robinson Crusoe. Robinson Crusoe never saw the South Seas. He was in the Caribbean and I don't know a goddam thing about the Caribbean.' Well, you see, he Trader Vic was now criticizing me, so he's on my side."

Mott smiles. Trader Vic eventually agreed to collect the artifacts, and when they met after the trip, Mott talked him into paying for the set's construction -- $25,000.

Mott was full of ideas.

"When I opened it, I thought it would be fun to have midgets run the Fairyland, and I hired -- I found out the difference between midgets and dwarfs very quickly. Midgets are perfectly proportioned little people, dwarfs are deformed . . . this man and his wife and we dressed them up as Mother Goose and they were just neat. And when I first introduced them to the City Council when we were opening Children's Fairyland, the City Council made these wise cracks , you know: 'Aw, give 'em half a check,' and all that sort of stuff. You know, 'little checks.' But doing the job was more than they could handle. They couldn't work that hard or that long. When we first opened we used them and it was absolutely fantastic. This couple was just absolutely beautiful."

It was later that Walt Disney, getting ready to build the first Disneyland, visited and looked over Children's Fairyland for ideas. Mott says he advised the theme park entrepreneur, only to have Disney hire away one of his best people.

Mott says he wants to turn the system's urban parks into "outdoor classrooms" where city people can learn about nature, to acquire a "tall grass prairie" park in the West, to increase NPS research on acid rain, vanishing gene pools and other matters. "We don't have in the system a wild river from its source to its ending," he says. "I think it would be nice, 50 years from now, for people to be able to see what a wild river looked like."

He likes to get down to the nitty-gritty.

After Mott allowed dogs into the California parks, park personnel had to clean up after them. "We found out it was costing us 17 cents per dog night of camping. So we decided to charge. Now the state is charging a dollar a dog night of camping and the only letters that I got when I put that into effect was, 'It's about time that you recognized a dog is part of the family.' "

Mott struck on the idea of unisex toilets as a way to save money. He was accused of corrupting morals, but says, "Not only did it save construction costs but maintenance costs. The maintenance of women's toilets is very, very high. Men's toilets, not the same. When you get men and women using the same toilet, no problem. I don't know why."

Then Mott got the idea that it was wasteful to have a garbage can at every camp site. "When you hired kids for the summer, they spent all their time washing garbage cans. I wanted 'em to do something creative like interpretive work." So central garbage areas were set up and it worked. The campsites were cleaner, and as an added social benefit, Mott says, campers for some reason began chatting with one another at the trash sites.

As the new NPS chief, Mott already has put out a memo on the need for the system's 11,000 full-time employes to understand that some park visitors may need special attention. For Cambodian mountain people, he says, "to go catch that squirrel, kill it and eat it, there wasn't anything wrong with that. That's the way they did."

It needs to be sensitively explained to them, says Mott, that we don't do that in the national parks.

Mott wants park employes to start thinking about how the "whole changing basis" of our society has led to more single parents, and how the parks may best serve them.

"Maybe they would appreciate having a place where they could leave the children in a nursery," he says. "Then they would be free to go out and hike the trails, because they've been all year taking care of these kids and working at the same time."

He spots another trend in the increasing average age of our population. There are more old people, he says. They stay in senior citizen homes. The homes organize bus tours of the parks.

Mott tells about seeing a group of city school children visiting a park, and a little boy who got off his bus, looked around and exclaimed in wonder, "There's dirt on this road!"

Beyond that, he says, political power in the Congress and state legislatures is shifting toward blocs controlled by city-elected legislators. There is danger, says Mott, if their constituents don't understand the importance of conservation.


He is back to gene pools, a favorite topic. The giant strawberries that we see in our supermarkets, he says, require pollen that can only be found in nature in a single three-acre patch of wild strawberries along the California coast. From the waxy coating on the seed of a small desert plant, we extract an enzyme that allows fats and oils to be stored without refrigeration.

"That's why we have to save these wilderness areas," he says. "It's not for the backpacker, it's for these gene pools. I believe, personally, when we discover the cure for cancer it's going to come from some natural resource . . . So working in this area is not only providing inspiration and recreation, it's going to be the salvation of the human race."