An Interview with Superintendent Mike Reynolds on Challenges for Death Valley National Park

By Birgitta Jansen | Most people who have ever met Mike Reynolds in person, know that his favorite activity in Death Valley is hiking. Anyone who has ever gone out hiking with Mike has come to realize that his tall and loosely structured body lopes along at speeds rarely matched by others. Terrain so rugged that many decline to even try only present a challenge to Mike and is tackled with enthusiasm and delight. Needless to say, Mike is a superintendent who knows his park well.

Growing up in a small community near Louisville, Kentucky, he came to love camping and hiking as a Boy Scout. He summed it up with, “I’ve been involved with outdoor activities for most of my life.” But even though he loved the Kentucky forests and mountains, when he was introduced to south-western landscapes he was hooked.

During his senior year in high school, his family undertook a trip to Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. He fell in love with the wide open spaces. Yellowstone National Park (NP) had a special meaning for him because his father worked there for two summers (1958 and 1959), cleaning fish at Fishing Bridge. Not surprising that when Mike was looking for a summer job while attending Indiana University, he found a job working in Yellowstone for a concessionaire. In the summer following, he traveled to Big Bend NP to work as a waiter. But it didn’t take long for Mike to start considering alternatives such as a career with the park service. However after university – where he studied Math and Physics – his life took a detour. Mike explained, “After I graduated I went to work as an Industrial Engineer for the Ford Motor Company in Detroit. Within a few years I realized that I wasn’t as passionate about building engines as I was about national parks. I spent a lot of time thinking about parks. In 1994, I resigned from the Ford Motor Company and enrolled in an M.S. program majoring in Outdoor Recreation at Arizona State University.”

The summer of 1995 found Mike in Big Bend NP again. This time he was hired as a seasonal park ranger. “I worked the Persimmon Gap entrance
station as well as each of the four visitor centers, did roving patrols and hikes. I got to talk with visitors from all over Texas, the U.S., and from around the world. It was a dream come true and still the most amazing summer of my career. Just the realization that I could actually have a job talking about some of the awesome places I love and getting visitors excited about these landscapes.” Mike continued as a seasonal for one year at Big Bend until hired as an IT and Telecommunications specialist, first at Big Bend and later at Great Smoky Mountains NP. He loved the 900 miles of trails and commented that “I really got into hiking. It was so cool. And it was great to work in a park in the backyard of where I grew up.” But he missed the desert.

In the summer of 2000, Mike started work in Death Valley NP in IT and Telecommunications. He remained in Death Valley until 2004, and during that time he also met his partner Sarah Bone, an Interpretive Park Ranger at Manzanar National Historic Site. His next NPS job took him, once again, to Yellowstone where he was hired on as Chief of Technology Services and tasked with supervising 25 employees. Four and a half years later, in January 2009, Mike and Sarah embarked on a most memorable venture when Mike became the superintendent at the National Park of American Samoa. American Samoa consists of seven islands, and 13% of that is National Park.

This park is unique in many ways, one of them being that the park land is not owned by the United States Government but leased from ten different villages. Some of these villages are progressive, and some maintained their traditions and subsistence life styles. Since, like everywhere else, the population of each community is growing, it was a challenging task to explain to villagers during lengthy Sunday village council meetings, why they could not over-fish the coral reefs surrounding the island, or dump their garbage in the ocean. In other villages, Mike was called on to explain why villagers could not cut down the rain forest for much needed wood and expansion of agricultural land. Mike learned to balance a great variety of interests and needs within the context of a very different culture.

Life changed dramatically on September 29, 2009. Mike described what happened in the early morning of that fateful day: “An 8.4 magnitude earthquake hit the archipelago followed eighteen minutes later by a tsunami, which hit the island and wiped out everything in its path, including all of the park service buildings and equipment. It wiped out every single thing. During the first few weeks after the tsunami, park staff worked out of a car until we got an apartment nearby where we could set up temporary park headquarters. After a few months we were able to move into some empty space in a car dealership where we remained for two years while dealing with the recovery.”

Mike being Mike – always considering the positive side of situations, commented that this crisis also presented a great opportunity. He explained,
“The park headquarters and other facilities had been in need of repairs and rehabilitation, but when we needed to rebuild after the tsunami we had a
great opportunity to update all of it. We were able to reinvent better park service facilities, and because of the disaster, the funding became available to do so. It took two years to get everything built and up and running.” Then Mike could give his attention again to the protection of coral reefs and rain forests, and better ways of dealing with trash. In 2012, Mike accepted the superintendent’s position back on the mainland in Lava Beds and Tulelake National Monuments in northern California, where they remained for the next three years.

In May 2015, Mike and Sarah made the move to Death Valley National Park, which turned out to be just in time for another natural disaster: the Grapevine Canyon flash flood on October 18, 2015. Mike was one person who understood what this event meant. He already knew that dealing with the crisis is relatively easy compared to the long-term recovery. Death Valley is currently still continuing to deal with the sequellae from that event. But there have been other serious challenges impacting the park that Mike is facing.

Mike went on to mention a few of the priority issues that the park is dealing with such as the marijuana grow-sites, the steadily growing invasive burro population, and illegal off-road drivers. But the most serious of the current challenges is the significant increase in park visitation since, as Mike pointed out, “The increased visitation impacts all aspects of park functioning.”

He commented that as compared to when he first worked in Death Valley, “It is a different park now. The visitation has more than doubled. Especially for the past six years the trend has been a steady increase. We’re now up to 1.7 million visitors annually. This increase in visitation changed everything.” As Mike continued speaking, tension was now audible in his voice. “A few days ago I was at Badwater. The parking lot was full and there were more than seventy-five vehicles parked along the sides of the road. As visitors park in different places, they also walk in different places. We now see many use-trails forming as a consequence of that.” The soils at Badwater, especially around the springs, are fragile. But visitors are unaware of the damage the accumulation of many footsteps create and the resulting destruction of the ecosystem, which may or may not heal.

A related issue is that, “The traffic has increased tremendously. We’ve had two serious head-on collisions just in these past three weeks. There was
one fatality in one crash. Six people were seriously injured in the other. The trailheads are also overrun. The visitor center is impossibly busy. There are long line-ups – people waiting to pay their fees and get park information.” But the problems do not stop at pavement. Mike continued, “When the campgrounds are full and people are pushed out, they explore other options. Camping is now permitted one mile away from the main roads. The closest to Furnace Creek is Echo Canyon. After that one mile, there are now thirty-six informal campsites within a one and a half mile distance. How do we teach people about dispersed camping? All of this means that our policies are pushed. It is currently not specified how far people need to be camped apart or away from a dirt road. All these things are related to increased visitation. It is a constant thought process.”

Mike pointed out that compared to other national parks, “Death Valley is unique. In other parks they have the possibility of containing the influx of people but we have over seventy possible entrances. People come in from everywhere. We have a state highway running through the park which means we cannot have entrance stations on it, collect fees in ticket booths and provide information to visitors. There is just no easy way to educate visitors. If this trend continues, visitation could double to 3.5 million. Even areas in the backcountry are now stressed beyond their capacity such as the Racetrack, Saline Valley, and Titus Canyon. All these areas are now seeing more visitors. We need to get ahead of that. So what do you do? Expand parking lots? Increase fees? Fortunately there are lessons to be learned from other parks such as Zion, Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree, and Acadia NP. They have also experienced major surges in visitation and have explored many options for managing this. We don’t know yet what we are going to do because we are overwhelmed dealing with the day-to-day.”

South entrance on highway 190. Photo by Craig Deutsche

Then Mike brings up another side to the issue. “Without a doubt, the increase in visitation is a challenge and a top priority for the park since there are negative impacts. But at the same time it is a blessing. As more people who know the park and care about it, they will support it and advocate for it.”

When asked about the impact of climate change on the park, Mike agreed that it is undeniably a major concern. He exclaimed, “Climate change is eating our lunch.” For example, in 2015 the park experienced a storm system that exhibited unusual features. Mike continued, “The flash flood seriously impacted Scotty’s Castle, an important and much loved cultural resource. There have also been a number of microbursts. One in 2017 tore the roof off seven buildings in Cow Creek and damaged a number of vehicles. There was another microburst recently that hit Badwater and blew out windshields in twenty visitor vehicles.” Another microburst in 2017 hit two locations in Racetrack Valley where several park volunteers, out on a job, were camped. They lost hundreds of dollars in camping equipment carried off by wind. And those events are just the ones we know about.

Then there is the heat. In 2017 and 2018, all-time world heat records were set. For twenty-one days in July 2017, temperatures reached 120 degrees F or higher. For twenty-nine days in July 2018, temperatures once again reached 120 degrees F or higher. The average temperature for the month of July 2018 was 108.1 degrees F. What is most significant here is that this measurement includes night time temperatures. Mike concluded that “Unpredictable weather patterns are increasing in volatility and frequency. More weather events have an associated cost, and more resources have to be directed towards keeping the park running.” But once again, another side to this can be found. Mike pointed out that “Death Valley is actually a good venue to talk about climate change. People can take the flood tours in Grapevine Canyon, where Scotty’s Castle is located, and see what the flood did. Climate change here is visible.”

One obvious challenge is the current political instability. What immediately came to Mike’s mind when considering the impact of this on the park were the government shut-downs. “We were on the brink of a shut down in 2017. Then we had the 2018/2019 thirty-seven day shutdown. It was horrific. We had many staff not working and other staff working without pay. After the shut-down was over, we had to remove half a ton of human feces from the park’s most frequented areas. I hope this never happens again. Then we were on the brink of a shut-down again this past December. The budget was signed just three hours before the deadline.” Clearly these are times that keep all park staff on edge as preparations for a shut-down have to be made until there is a signature approving the next budget.

Not only does Mike seem to thrive on challenges, but then there’s also the hiking. Mike has already hiked over 5,500 miles in Death Valley NP – approximately 4,000 of those since he became Death Valley’s Superintendent. His favorite season in the park is the summer time, when he journeys to the spectacular high Panamint, Grapevine, and Cottonwood Mountain ranges. In the dead of winter he loves the opportunities for lower elevation hiking on or near the valley floor when the vistas of snow covered mountains are amazing. Then in the spring there are the wild flowers. He added one more thing: “Hiking in Death Valley is my favorite activity on earth!!!”

Meanwhile Mike Reynolds boldly faces the challenges of being the superintendent of the largest National Park in the contiguous U.S., and intends to continue doing so for a long time to come.

Birgitta Jansen has volunteered in Death Valley National Park since 2008. Among other activities, she has coordinated a number of service projects conducted by outside groups, and she has monitored a large number of old cabins in the backcountry. Birgitta is currently completing a book about the flash flood of October 2015.