The late 1970s and early 1980s were exciting years to work for the National Park Service in Alaska as huge new parks, monuments and preserves were established. Park Service officials selected skeleton staffs for the new areas. At the same time, new issues ranging from subsistence, mining access, and ATV use had to be sorted out. Residents throughout the state held strong, and often conflicting, opinions about the NPS in Alaska, and at every level, political leaders, media, interest groups, and citizens vigorously expressed their strong opinions, often as criticism.
Through all of this, Bob Peterson, Alaska associate regional director for operations in the early 1980s and later the deputy regional director, quietly and skillfully provided a treasured source of stability, sage advice, support, and comfort.
Throughout his career, Peterson had established a reputation for being a “Ranger’s Ranger,” serving at places like Mount Rainier, Yosemite, Denali/Katmai, Isle Royale, Grand Canyon, Zion, and Everglades. He was among the early rangers to work at Katmai in the summer and at Mount McKinley in winter, so he understood what it was like to be a skeleton staff at a remote area. He was an excellent pilot who was passionate about flying and knew well what it is like to take a plane load of dignitaries through challenging weather conditions. From the beginning, he had a significant amount of what one individual called “street cred” when it came to the NPS and to Alaska Region.
Trips from the field to the regional office in Anchorage typically involved plans to contact a long list of individuals in that office. Their plans also included an equally long list of items to purchase or a variety of tasks on behalf of family and friends. Every day around 4:00 p.m. these visitors from the field would begin showing up at Peterson’s office to discuss the various issues, concerns, complexities, and conundrums they were facing. Some of their questions, for example, included: When is a D-4 is bulldozer a piece of equipment or when is it an ATV? How should one load his shotgun when entering bear country? What skills are most critical in a multi-million acre park/preserve? Peterson always conducted these conversations in a manner that helped his team reach consensus without direction. His team always knew he would back their collective decisions. He also kept them focused and enthusiastic, even in the darkest days when ranger stations and airplanes were being burned and rangers threatened or assaulted. Many individuals contributed to the establishment of a vast new set of park areas in Alaska; however, few, if any, had as wide and profound an effect on the eventual success of these park units as Peterson.