A redwood farewell

By Emily Jo Cureton, The Triplicate September 03, 2012 05:47 pm

Chaney worked in the parks for almost 40 years

Del Norte Triplicate/Emily Jo Cureton Steve Chaney near Nickel Creek on Friday: “It’s not a traditional park with four corners and three entrance stations.”
Del Norte Triplicate/Emily Jo Cureton Steve Chaney near Nickel Creek on Friday: “It’s not a traditional park with four corners and three entrance stations.”
On his last day of work, Steve Chaney took a walk down from some of Del Norte’s highest bluffs to where a freshwater stream meets the sea.

The retiring superintendent of Redwood National Parks stopped short of the sandy beach shrouded in fog and looked out over the last riffles of Nickel Creek. He has a kindly, mustachioed face and drawls his words, like the “howdies” extended to other hikers sharing this section of the Coastal Trail on Friday morning. 

“It’s not a traditional park with four corners and three entrance stations,” he mused of Redwood National and State Parks, where he’s steered one half of the helm since 2006.

Chaney has worked in a half-dozen national parks, from the Ozark mountains of his home state Arkansas, to the arid expanses of eastern Colorado, where he and his wife plan to retire. Del Norte was his first stop on the coast and the last stop in his 39-year career with the National Park Service.

Compared to the clear-cut boundaries of most national parks in the Western United States, here the maps get messy, though the mission is the same: preserve and protect resources for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of this and future generations.

“The mission is the constant about working in the Park Service. Whether you are at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis or in Yellowstone, the mission is the same, always the same. But how you achieve that mission changes. That is certainly a challenge at Redwood,” Chaney said, Nickel Creek gurgling over his slow speech.

Its banks are in a national park, while the source is in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and it all flows into an ocean that connects much of the Western Hemisphere. 

“When Congress draws a boundary around an area and says, ‘Okay National Park Service you have a responsibility now within this boundary to protect these resources,’ they don’t usually say, ‘Within this boundary and only on the land that you own ...’ they usually say, ‘Here’s the boundary, you guys figure it out.’”

Lately, figuring it out has meant ramping up an 18-year collaboration with the state parks system, other federal agencies, non-profit organizations and whoever else has a stake in the health of the forests and watersheds of Del Norte and Humboldt counties. 

Working with so many partners, each with its own mission statement, gets complicated quick.

Chaney saw evidence of recent success in the joint management of Mill Creek campgrounds and interpretive programs, state-owned areas that faced closure due to budget cuts.

The threat of park closures cemented a lot of inter-governmental as well as public-private partnerships across the state. It also made that $57 million recently found in the sofa cushions of the state parks’ system all the more difficult to wrap one’s head around. Chaney tried to see the bright side of this: Maybe a portion of the recovered funds will go toward fixing things up in the Mill Creek campground.

“Redwood is really still a very young park,” he said, recounting its controversial birth from timberland to public trust in broad strokes.

Del Norte Triplicate file/Bryant Anderson To the rescue: Steve Chaney, right, talks with State Superintendent Jeff Bomke in June 2009 about ways to keep redwoods state parks open with federal cooperation.
Del Norte Triplicate file/Bryant Anderson To the rescue: Steve Chaney, right, talks with State Superintendent Jeff Bomke in June 2009 about ways to keep redwoods state parks open with federal cooperation.
Many residents of Del Norte remember the land’s past life, and their own past lives.

“Twenty or 30 years is kind of like the blink of the eye in terms of the time span it takes to restore a redwood forest,” Chaney said, “Thirty years in a person’s lifetime who used to make a good living off of logging, is not a blink of an eye, it’s a lifetime. If you and your kids’ standard of living is not better now than it was before the park was established, it’s kind of hard to have warm fuzzy feelings about the creation of the park, but their kids, and their kids, I’m very hopeful, will see that change and have a better feeling about the establishment.”

“To continue to make a little more progress in cementing and improving relationships with the local communities is going to be a challenge for every manager of the park that comes in here,” he said.

Some of the park system’s toughest critics have said Chaney’s done a good job with this difficult task.

“He will be sorely missed. He is one of those people who is very informative and always told you what was going on, even if you didn’t want to hear it,” County Supervisor Gerry Hemmingsen said at last week’s county government meeting.

Chaney began his career as a ranger, and on Wednesday he plans to leave as a ranger by working the visitor center desk at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park on a day when Newton B. Drury Parkway will be closed to motorized vehicles and open to slower, quieter, foot-powered traffic. 

“We feel obligated to explain that decision to folks,” he said. State Parks Superintendent Jeff Bomke will also be there.

Chaney said he’ll probably miss interacting with visitors, even mad ones, because it “brings you down to earth, shrinks egos and makes you humble,” especially when people ask things he can’t answer. 

Most often of all, though, they ask, “Where’s the tallest tree?” he said. 

“People are attracted to the tallest, the biggest, the widest, the largest, the deepest, those sorts of things ... The thing is, you’re not going to be able to tell the tallest tree from the 50th-tallest tree, to the eighth-tallest tree, to the third-tallest tree, because all you can see is the bottom 200 feet.”

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