MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK – In 1984, Cliff Spencer was interviewing with Chief Ranger Rick Gale at Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area, near Los Angeles.
Spencer was there at the request of a professor, to apply to a cooperative education program between California State University Northridge and the National Park Service. The internship-like program provided class credit.
He didn’t realize it would be the first step on a career path that has spanned nine parks over 32 years – and that he was meeting his future father-in-law.
Spencer was born in 1959 at Fort Ord, a former Army post in Monterey, California, where his father Clifford Spencer was serving, and grew up in Los Angeles. He had no intention while going through college to join the Park Service.
“My emphasis was in urban recreation, and I had interviewed with the city of Los Angeles to be what they call a recreation director – running a park in a community, running little league or senior citizens programs or that sort of thing,” he said.
The Park Service program required him to push back graduation by a year, but opened doors to opportunities including wildland firefighting, law enforcement, search and rescue and emergency medical training.
After working seasonally at the recreational area and Grand Canyon National Park, Spencer got a permanent position in the dispatch office at Lake Mead, where he found himself at the right place at the right time, he said.
“There were injuries to some of the law enforcement rangers out in the field, so since I had a law enforcement commission they kinda loaned me out into the field, and I never really went back.”
Spencer worked various jobs for the Park Service before becoming acting superintendent at Coronado National Monument, on the Arizona-Mexico border. He has served as superintendent for three parks, including his most recent stint at nearby Mesa Verde National Park.
While all the parks where Spencer has worked hold great memories for him, there are two that stand out, he said. “Shenandoah and Point Reyes are the two parks where I really have fond memories of, I really have to say those are my two favorites.”
In 1990, while working at in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, Spencer ran into someone with a familiar name, Beth Gale. She worked in the park’s fire-management office, and is the daughter of the person who gave him his first job in the NPS. Two years later, he was working at Point Reyes National Seashore, near San Francisco, California, when he and Beth were married and later had their daughter, Lily.
But the crown jewel of his career came this summer, when he was contacted by the Park Service’s office of international affairs.
“I get a call early June to find out if I’m interested in going to Peru to talk with and discuss challenges and opportunities with running cultural and natural sites with some park directors down there,” Spencer said. He was chosen to participate because of his experience as superintendent of Mesa Verde, as well as his experiences at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona and White Sands National Monument in New Mexico.
But the news just kept getting better, he said. “They told me not only am I going to Peru but I’ll be flying with the second lady, Dr. (Jill) Biden, aboard an Air Force jet from Andrews Air Force Base to Peru and oh, on the way were going to stop at Costa Rica and meet the president of Costa Rica and tour some areas there.”
He toured Machu Picchu and relayed to local park directors how sites of cultural significance such as it are managed by the NPS. He also learned about the unique circumstances faced by the directors there.
One of the biggest difficulties at Machu Picchu is the lack of an off season stemming from the climate, he said. “They lamented the fact that they didn’t have two or three months where they had low visitation where they can just get extensive amounts of work done.”
The NPS has issues of its own, Spencer said. Foremost amongst these is the need to reach out to “non-traditional” visitors, which includes generations and ethnicities that don’t have as strong of a connection to the parks, he said. There are many reasons for that, including the absence of opportunities for urban dwellers or policies that create barriers stemming from cultural differences.
As an African American man serving in one of the highest positions within the Park Service, Spencer says he is expected to promote diversity. “Kinda the unwritten job description that goes along with it.”
He is quick to point out that parks in urban areas such as St. Louis, Atlanta, San Francisco and New York, are in better locations to promote diversity. “I can talk about my experience with folks, but I’d have to travel to Phoenix or Denver to really have an impact.”
Spencer is not sure how much longer his career in the Park Service will last. “As long as things are fun, as long as I’m still enjoying it and I feel that I’m contributing in a positive way then I’ll stick around,”
But with retirement looming, he tries not to get caught up in his legacy and instead focuses on carrying out his responsibilities, he said.
“I remember many times my mom saying ‘it doesn’t matter what you do in life, do your best at it,’ and that’s what I’ve tried to do.”
Climbing the ladder from seasonal worker to superintendent has provided diverse experiences.
While the title of superintendent brings acclaim and a sense of accomplishment, the gratification isn’t as immediate as some other positions, Spencer said.
“You’re looking out five years or 10 years into the future and trying to guide the direction of the park, or development or policy or that sort of thing.”
In comparison, Spencer was a medic at Shenandoah, where things were slightly different.
“That’s where I could start IVs and that sort of thing. and there were a couple medical cases there where you can see an instant impact of your interventions,” he said.
Spencer still seeks out that field experience from time to time.
“I’m in the office and responding to things or writing something or answering email – it’s nice to stop and just get up, put on my hat, walk out into the field and visitors don’t know who you are. They see another ranger so they’ll ask questions: ‘Where’s the restrooms? Where’s this?’ And it’s nice to just have that interactions with folks,” he said.
But he’s not always so sure his visitors get the same enjoyment.
“They probably think ‘boy this guy is really talkative’ because they’ll ask one question and you’re giving them a three minute answer on everything because you’re just so happy to be out of the office.”
Luke Perkins is a student at Fort Lewis College and an intern at The Durango Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.