After 45 years with the National Park Service —the last 10 as superintendent of Gulf Islands National Seashore — Dan Brown is retiring next month.
“I’m not one of those folks who plans to die at my desk or die on the job; I have other things in life, my wife and I both, that we want to pursue when we’re not putting in 40-50 hours a week at work,” said Brown.”
One of the items on Brown’s “honey-do” list is a trip abroad.
“My wife has been after me for some time to take her to Italy; so I imagine that’s going to be number one on the list,” Brown said. “[It’s] just time for start checking some of those other life-list boxes off — some of the things that we want to do.”
Brown joined the Park Service in 1975 while still in college in his native Colorado. Prior to Gulf Islands, he served at 11 different national parks: in Hawaii, Death Valley, and Olympic National Park in Washington State. He came to GINS in 2010, just after the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill.
“Normally, when the regional director calls to offer someone a superintendent’s job, they give them 6-8 weeks to move, sell their house and so forth,” said Brown. “I received a call on a Friday, and the regional director said, ‘I’ll meet you there on Tuesday.’ The oil was hovering just offshore and the oil washed ashore exactly seven days after I got here.”
It was, says Brown, a time that was interesting, challenging, and subsequently rewarding.
“I have a hard time finding a lot of positives about a natural disaster as big as Deepwater Horizon; but BP did step up and our beaches look great,” Brown said. “Today, they’re pretty darn clean. You’d be hard-pressed to find remnants of the oil spill today. And of course the money that’s been made available for restoration projects has been very helpful, too.”
Gulf Islands is the largest national seashore in the United States – 160 miles from end-to-end. Half lies in Florida, the other half in Mississippi. Brown says the two portions are very much different from each other.
“In Florida here, most of it is road-accessible, so we have more infrastructure and a lot more visitors,” said Brown. “Over in Mississippi, the barrier islands are between seven to 11 or 12 miles off the mainland, and so they’re only accessible by boat.”
Another high-profile event is the establishment of the ferry service — using BP proceeds — serving the park, Pensacola Beach, and the city of Pensacola.
“Hurricane Sally kind of caught the community off-guard; it was supposed to come ashore further to the west and it just kept creeping, inching further east and ended up getting us,” said Brown.
The service is now in limbo, after Sally heavily damaged the ferries, Turtle Runner and Pelican Perch, which are now undergoing repairs in Bayou La Batre, Alabama. They’re due back in service by spring. Work on the piers is also underway.
“Our ferry pier out at Fort Pickens looks like it got hit by one of those Skanska barges; we can prove that but there’s a huge section right out of the middle that was just broken out,” Brown said. “Escambia County and the Santa Rosa Island Authority are working on rebuilding their pier out at Quietwater Beach as well. The city’s dock was damaged, but they were able to get it back operable within just a week or so.”
Besides the ferries, GINS has also undergone numerous construction upgrades during Brown’s tenure in both Florida and Mississippi – including acquisition of state parks. In many cases, those facilities were up to 65 years old and were beyond repair.
“We have been using the fee money from entrance fees and camping fees,” said Brown. “We’re allowed to retain about 80% of that money. And Congress tells us it has to be used for infrastructure that supports visitor use of the parks. So we’ve replaced a large percentage of the bathrooms. So we have had some construction, you bet.”
When Brown departs on January 2, one portion of Gulf Islands he will not miss, is having to deal with storm-vulnerable County Road 399.
“The island is narrow, it’s low-lying, made up 100 percent of sand and subject to storm over wash,” said Brown. “And anytime you try to put asphalt or concrete or whatever, you put it right on sand and that sand washes right out from underneath. Highway 399 is a hurricane evacuation route because of Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach and the two bridges. So we have to keep that road in some state of readiness.”
Steve McCoy will see his title change from deputy to acting superintendent, as the search begins for a permanent replacement.
“We work very closely together, but generally divide duties; he kind of ramrods internal park operations [and] working with park staff,” Brown said. “My job is to look big-picture long-range and deal externally with partners and congressional delegations and so forth.
“They are advertising right now for an interim superintendent.”
Dan Brown is leaving just before Gulf Islands National Seashore celebrates its 50th anniversary next year. He and his wife Karen plan to continue living in the Pensacola area. Despite the park’s birthday, he says it’s simply time to go.
“It’s been a very long and eventful career, and I just think I’ve had enough fun — probably for several lifetimes,” said Brown.