A native of Melissa, Texas, Russ Dickenson graduated from Arizona State College in 1947. After four years of service with the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, Dickenson began his park service career in 1946 as a park ranger at Grand Canyon National Park (NP). Over the next twenty years he would have a variety of field assignments and move into senior management positions, to include chief ranger at Platt NP, superintendent at Chiricahua NM, chief ranger at Big Bend NP, assistant chief ranger at Glacier NP, chief ranger at Grand Teton NP, assistant superintendent at Zion NP, and superintendent at Flaming Gorge NP. As he rose through the ranks, his commitment to the parks and to conservation earned the respect and appreciation of many of his colleagues.
Between 1966 and 1969, Dickenson served as regional chief of the division of resources management and visitor protection in the Midwest Region and as chief of new area studies and master plans based in Washington D.C., becoming associate regional director in the National Capital Parks Region (NCP) in 1968. He later became regional director. After five years at NCP, Dickenson was named deputy director of the NPS in 1973. He received a Special Achievement Award for his effectiveness as an administrator during this period. In 1972 Dickenson received the Distinguished Service Award for his work in urban park management and in 1974 was awarded the prestigious Pugsley Medal for his “outstanding service in the management and conservation of America’s priceless National Park Resources.”
When Gary Everhardt was appointed director in 1975, Dickenson left Washington to be director of the Northwest Region in Seattle, Washington. In 1980, Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus named him as NPS director. As director Dickenson focused on improving the NPS’s stewardship of the parks already in the national park system and consolidating the gains that the NPS had made, rather than seeking to add new parks. This approach fit well with the philosophy and priorities of the Ronald Reagan administration, particularly with the views of James Watts who became Secretary of the Interior in 1981. Indeed Dickenson was the only Interior Department bureau chief retained by the Reagan administration in 1981. In response to those who maintained that his strategy was short-sighted, Dickenson responded that the system was a dynamic one and that “as the American people want the system to grow, it will grow.” Outside of Alaska, fewer than a dozen areas were added to the system under Dickenson. At the same time he vigorously defended the system against growing threats to include budget cuts and commercial abuse.
Dickenson’s nearly five-year tenure helped restore stability to the NPS after the frequent turnover of leadership during the 1970s. His conservative approach to adding new units to the national park system gave the service a chance to regenerate after the expansion of the previous decade.
After retiring from the NPS in 1985, Dickenson co-authored a book with former director Horace Albright titled National Park Service: the Story Behind the Scenery. He served on the National Park Advisory Board (1985-1989), was president of the Washington National Parks Fund (1985-1998), and served on the boards of directors of a number of other organizations to include Eastern National Parks and Monuments Association (1990-2004).