George Hartzog, Parks Chief, Dies at 88
July 17, 2008
George B. Hartzog Jr., whose political skills as director of the National Park Service in the 1960s and early ’70s led to the addition of nearly 50 million acres to the park system, more than doubling its size, died on June 27 in Arlington, Va. He was 88 and lived in McLean, Va.
The cause was kidney disease, his wife, Helen, said.
In his nine years as parks director, Mr. Hartzog was attuned to President Lyndon B. Johnson‘s Great Society aspirations and the environmental advocacy of Stewart L. Udall, then secretary of the interior. But Mr. Hartzog ruffled feathers during President Richard M. Nixon‘s administration, and was fired when a Nixon friend was slighted by a parks official.
During his tenure Mr. Hartzog oversaw the acquisition of 72 sites, amounting to 2.7 million acres. The list went beyond national parks to include recreation areas, seashores, river ways and historical monuments.
“He was an empire builder,” Robert M. Utley, a former Park Service historian, said in an interview on Tuesday. Besides Stephen T. Mather and Horace M. Albright, the agency’s founders, Mr. Utley added, “I judge George Hartzog the greatest director in the history of the service.”
Mr. Hartzog directed, among other projects, the creation of the Gateway National Recreation Area, with its 26,607 acres of dunes, marsh islands and beaches by the bays of New York’s metropolitan area, and Golden Gate National Recreation Area on San Francisco Bay. They were the first urban national parklands outside Washington.
Using his carefully cultivated influence in Congress, Mr. Hartzog was a prime mover in drafting the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which significantly broadened the federal government’s mission of preserving major historical landmarks. It established a National Register of Historic Places, with a network of state historical preservation officers charged with nominating local sites worthy of federal listing.
Mr. Hartzog’s most significant impact was felt eight years after his time as Park Service director. In the late 1960s and early ’70s he had worked with Senator Alan Bible, Democrat of Nevada, the chairman of the Senate Interior Committee’s parks and recreation subcommittee, on legislation that led to the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. It added about 47 million acres of national parkland.
Mr. Hartzog’s years under the Nixon administration were marked by policy disputes with the president. In 1969, after the administration significantly cut the Park Service budget, Mr. Hartzog closed all park sites, including the Grand Canyon and the Washington Monument, for two days a week. Congress restored the financing.
In the summer of 1972, unbeknown to Mr. Hartzog, the superintendent of Biscayne National Park canceled a permit allowing Mr. Nixon’s friend Bebe Rebozo to dock his boat in the park. Mr. Rebozo complained to the president, who fired Mr. Hartzog.
“The interior secretary, Rogers Morton, went over to the White House and tried to talk him out of it,” Mr. Utley said. “Nixon refused.”
George Benjamin Hartzog Jr. was born on March 17, 1920, in Smoaks, S.C., the son of George Benjamin and Mazell Hartzog. The elder George, a cotton farmer, became ill during the Depression, and the young George had to drop out of Wofford College to work at a gas station, at a hotel and, at night, at a law office. On his own, he studied law and passed the state bar in 1942 without a degree. After Army service during World War II, Mr. Hartzog was hired by the National Park Service legal office.
In 1947, he married Helen Carson. In addition to his wife, he is survived by a sister, Vera Ribansky; two sons, George 3rd and Edward; a daughter, Nancy Hartzog; four grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.
By 1959, Mr. Hartzog had been appointed superintendent of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis. He soon rattled superiors in Washington by pushing the long-delayed construction of the 630-foot-high Gateway Arch. The idea for a monumental symbol of American expansion into the West originated in the 1930s but was shelved during World War II. In 1947, a design competition was won by the architect Eero Saarinen. Nine years passed before Congress appropriated construction money.
Work was way behind schedule by the time Mr. Hartzog arrived. “He broke every rule in the contracting book to meet the Park Service’s promise to the mayor of St. Louis, Raymond Tucker,” Mr. Utley said. “He was reprimanded all the way up the chain of command, but he fulfilled the promise.”
The archway was completed in October 1965. By then, Secretary Udall had summoned Mr. Hartzog to Washington to become associate director of the Park Service. In 1964, he was named director.
As parks director Mr. Hartzog pushed for the advancement of members of minorities. He appointed the first African-American park superintendent, the first female superintendent, the first American Indian superintendent and the first African-American chief of the Park Service police.
He made a priority of bringing the national system into urban areas, and started programs like Bring Parks to the People and Summer in the Parks.
In an oral history with Mr. Utley in 2005, Mr. Hartzog said he had learned lessons from city-owned parks. He regularly sent National Park Service maintenance workers to Coney Island, for example. “Now, why would I pay government transportation and per diem to send people to Coney Island?” Mr. Hartzog asked.
Because “they knew more about picking up trash than anybody on the face of the earth,” he said, adding, “It was the cleanest beach in America.”