What is one of your most memorable experiences during your National Park Service career?

When I was the district ranger at Guadalupe Mountain National Park in Texas, I was approached by a group called “Paraplegics On Independent Nature Trip” who wanted to climb Guadalupe Peak, the highest mountain in Texas, in their wheelchairs. I did my best to sway them from attempting this climb, because it's not a handicapped accessible trail. It's a hike with a 5,000 foot gain in the middle of the desert in the summer with sheer drop-offs, so this a tough hike for anybody.

But, of course, they were totally undaunted; five of these men attempted the climb and three made it to the summit in five days. They dragged their chairs if it was too steep for them to actually roll [them], and they literally tied a rope with their teeth as they pushed themselves up this trail. Every day I hiked out to them, although they would not allow anybody to physically help them. They were totally doing this on their own, and they reached the summit.

I also checked in daily with the base camp guys who were also all in wheelchairs. One day one of the men jumped out of his wheelchair, got on a picnic table and he said to me, “get in my chair.” So I got in the guy's wheelchair, and the rest of them said, “we're going to give you a tour of your campground and show you the problems in terms of accessibility.” I got a tour from the perspective of having to push a wheelchair through it, and it redefined the way I think about parks and accessibility for the rest of my career. It's always been an interest of mine, so that was a big, defining moment for me in my management.

How has working as a ranger influenced your leadership style?

Coming up to my 35th year in the National Park Service gives me a couple advantages. For one, I have “street cred.” The field knows where I came from, so I think they assume that I will bring my experience to decision-making and consider the impact when making those decisions. I'm here in Washington to do my very best and serve the public and our employees who are working every day to provide wonderful experiences for the public and protect these incredible places. For every decision I make, I take into consideration the impact on them.

The second is that having fought forest fires and been face to face with grizzly bears, I have a sense of calm around the political crises that we deal with in Washington, D.C. I know at least with these crises I'm going to go home at the end of the day; whereas when you're working in the field, sometimes you're not so sure. I think bringing that sense of calm to a situation where people are out with their hair on fire over some issue and saying, “Wait a minute, let's keep this in perspective.”

What are your top priorities for the National Park Service?

The workforce is one of my top priorities, because I want the National Park Service to be one of the best places to work in government. People are attracted to the Park Service for its mission, but some places are difficult to work in—they’re remote—and they can be challenging for families. Stewardship is also a top priority, because places are entrusted to us by the American public. The Park Service is in the perpetuity business, so we have to think about the long term.

I also place a priority on education, because I believe the Park Service is an educational institution. Dayton Duncan, Ken Burns' partner in filmmaking, said he learned more about geology from a park ranger than he ever learned in school. Every day, we're meeting and greeting hundreds of thousands, answering questions from, “What is this place and what's its story?” to, “Who are the people that fought at Gettysburg?”

Last but not least is relevancy, because with an increasingly distracted and urban population, I worry that the parks are not relevant to their lives. Most of our history is based on “we'll build and they'll come,” but we're seeing trends saying that may not be the proper approach. I think we need to reach out and connect with new immigrants, which we're doing with our new citizens welcome program.

What do you consider to be the biggest revelation since becoming director?

I'm too old for surprises anymore, but I think one of the revelations is that the Park Service has a much broader reach in society than I think anybody really knows. Some like to joke there's only two national parks and they begin with “Y,” Yellowstone and Yosemite, whereas there's really 394 national parks. When you tell somebody the Statue of Liberty is a national park, as well as the Arch of St. Louis and Fort McHenry, they're kind of surprised.

The Park Service has always demonstrated a certain amount of invisibility. It really feeds perfectly into this issue of relevancy. I think the national park system and the national park idea is important to creating civil society. From the natural-resources side, we stand up and protect the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite.  If you combine the hope and optimism of natural restoration and preservation with the telling of these very powerful stories about the American experience, then we really are an unrealized important component of creating a civil society in this country. That's the big revelation, my mantra and my guide: To use the power of the national parks—and all of the community revitalization programs that we have responsibility for—to help our country achieve this ideal goal.

Recent leadership interviews with the Federal Coach:

Gary Locke on reforming a system: Talking with the Secretary of Commerce

Moving up the federal ranks: Talking with author Michael Watkins

Learning from West Point: Talking with the deputy director of ICE