THE NEWARK, N.J., Stan Austin remembers from his boyhood was a compact city of concrete. Streets full of tenement buildings sagged and slumped like beaten-down shoulders. Homes were so close to each other, you could look out your window and directly into your neighbor's living room. Bus, motor and factory fumes rode on the air, and blaring taxi horns formed the rhythm of each day.
To escape it all, 7-year-old Stan would head behind his home to the small garden that his mom, dad and uncle lovingly filled with roses and peonies. Crouching on the knees of his grass-stained jeans, Austin would poke at the plot of dirt. He would sit there for hours with his uncle, who lived in the same house, and watch earthworms wriggle in the dirt. "The backyard was my oasis," Austin says.
And for years, that square of land was as close as Austin had ever come to wilderness. That was until the summer his family took a vacation to Acadia National Park in Maine. Located on one of the state's offshore islands, the vast park contains mountains, lakes, forests and stretches of rocky shoreline within its borders.
There, Austin first saw miles upon miles of rolling green grass and marveled at the thin, graceful trees with ballerina-arm branches reaching skyward. He wandered through the park in amazement. The fresh air, sea and space overwhelmed him.
"It was my first experience with rocks and oceans and different landscapes," Austin recalls. "Feeling the ocean breeze on my face and the grass under my feet felt like freedom."
It was at Acadia National Park that Austin first encountered the biological complexities and enormous scale of the natural world — an understanding and respect that has fueled his 33-year career protecting and promoting our nation's natural spaces. All of it can be traced back to the first day of that family vacation in Maine.
"Looking at these great hills and mountains, I thought, Even if you don't believe in a God, you have to believe in a power greater than yourself because no human could make such a place," he says.
Austin is a missionary of sorts, helping others find the same sanctity and beauty in nature that he first felt as a boy. During his career, he has traveled from the majestic peaks of Colorado's Rocky Mountains to the vast deserts of Arizona's Glen Canyon National Recreation Area to the sparkling falls of California's Yosemite National Park.
Last year, he became superintendent of Cuyahoga Valley National Park: 33,000 acres that straddle the river and stretch from Cleveland to Akron.
The federally protected land has a complicated history and multiple identities. It touches 15 municipalities and has a passionate web of groups supporting it, even if some have competing visions of what the park should be. What's clear is Ohio's only national park could use a boost in funding and visibility. These are all issues Austin faces as he works to implement his own vision for protecting and promoting Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It won't be easy.
"We have a Yellowstone in our backyard, and people don't event realize it. I'm here to let Northeast Ohioans know how great they are."
Austin pauses for a beat. "I really believe this is my calling."
THE CUYAHOGA VALLEY National Park headquarters is located in one of five yellow houses at the intersection of Riverview and Vaughn roads. The homes once belonged to the Jaite Paper Mill, which built them in the early 1900s to house workers. A rusted 1928 paper press still sits alongside the Towpath Trail, an indelible reminder that industry was once part of the Cuyahoga Valley's identity.
Inside his bare offices (Austin says he's had no time to decorate in the past 10 months), the park's newest superintendent sits at a long wooden desk and wears an olive green zip-up jacket, shiny gold National Park Service badge and matching olive green pants. The man looks like an overgrown boy scout. And just like a young scout, Austin is brimming with enthusiasm, energy and ideas.
"I'm soooo happy to be here," Austin says. His friendly and magnetic mannerisms recall those of Bill Cosby during The Cosby Show years. "I feel lucky that I get to come here for work every day. There's so much I want to accomplish."
There's also a lot expected of him. The mix of trails, woods and streams that make up Cuyahoga Valley National Park is consistently one of the Top 10 most-visited national parks, with almost 2.5 million visitors last year alone. Yet many Greater Clevelanders still aren't aware the land is a national park.
"Everyone confuses us with the Metroparks," Austin says of the Cleveland Metroparks and the Metro Parks Serving Summit County, which both have land that ties into and intermingles with national park property.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a complex piece of real estate. Along with the 15 municipalities, it touches five congressional districts and two counties.
"That means you're dealing with 15 sets of elected officials who all have their own flavor, interests and plans for their community," explains former Cuyahoga Valley National Park superintendent John Debo. Parts of the park meander through the edges of urban neighborhoods; other parts center the suburbs. And though there are more than 200 miles of trails within the park, some of them are not connected. They just end, like a sentence without a point.
Contained within the park is a mishmash of Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps buildings, the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, a stretch of the Ohio & Erie Canal and active organic farms that are leased by Cuyahoga Valley National Park to farmers as a way of showcasing and preserving the land's agricultural history.
"The park has a different meaning for every person in the area," says Ivan Kassovic, a field operation supervisor. Which is a great idea, but it also makes the park hard to market. For most of the 20th century, the Cuyahoga Valley was just a collection of local plots and farms with no federal oversight. But in 1974, U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula slipped a small, one-line item in an appropriations bill that would designate the Cuyahoga Valley as a national recreation area. The bill was approved, and the Cuyahoga Valley suddenly came under the control of the federal parks service.
As part of the federal oversight of the park, administrators took possession of some local farms adjacent to and located inside the park.
"There's still a lot of people who are unhappy about it," Austin admits. "But in the past year, people have started to see the benefits of us leasing out farmland. They're slowly seeing the benefits of preservation. And time, I think, has healed a lot of wounds."
In 2000, hoping for more national attention, local park supporters petitioned the government to promote the Cuyahoga Valley from a national recreational area to a national park, which would immediately prohibit all hunting and mining activities. They succeeded, making Cuyahoga Valley one of only 58 national parks.
But people still remained unhappy. When you start to pull apart the layers, it's easy to see why. Name just about any issue — water quality, off-road mountain biking, historic preservation — and you'll find a gathering of people who are very passionate about the issue. None of them, Austin says, are shy about voicing their opinions. Other issues that immediately concern park officials include wildlife management and land encroachment.
But if anyone possesses the natural panache and charm necessary to balance all of the competing interests for the common good, those who know Stan Austin say he is the sort of person who can do it.
"I really think he has superpowers," says Chris Hughes, chief of resource management at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, where Austin used to work. "Stan has the special ability to bring out the best in people and unite them all in his vision."
WHEN AUSTIN was 20 years old, he started his first park job at Sandy Hook in New Jersey, showing inner-city school groups around the state's salt marshes and explaining how the water was affected by the tides. Austin enjoyed the science part of the job, but what he loved more was watching people's reactions to his words.
"The black kids were so fascinated that I was their tour guide," says Austin, who still retains traces of his Jersey accent. "I saw their faces light up. It was the first time they saw all this open land — and it was a black person showing it to them. I felt a responsibility then."
To him, this responsibility is multifaceted. He feels the need to introduce children to a world that exists outside their TVs. He wants to promote the "sacredness" of nature. And he has a responsibility to African-Americans, who he says "don't generally go to the parks for some reason."
But first, he took a position that, to many, seemed odd for a man so happy in the outdoors. After graduating from Rutgers University with a degree in environmental sciences, he accepted a desk job at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C.
"[The agency] gets such a bad name, even from park people who think that regulations prevent growth," Austin says. "But the EPA's job is to do what's right to protect the health of the environment."
During his nearly two decades at the EPA, Austin worked mostly on oceans, watersheds and wetlands water programs, which took him to Japan and Nicaragua. But through the years, "I yearned to go back to the parks," Austin says. "It was in my blood."
He got his chance in 2003. That year, The Grand River Ditch, one of Colorado's oldest water-diversion canals, breached its banks. Thousands of gallons of water gushed from the ditch, ripping out more than 10,000 trees in Rocky Mountain National Park and sending vast amounts of pristine wetlands into the Colorado River. More than 50 different plant species were impacted. "It was devastating," Austin says. "How do you put a price tag on trees and wetlands and clean water?"
In 2005, the National Park Service asked Austin to take over the role of deputy superintendent at Rocky Mountain National Park. He became part of the team that recovered $9 million in damages — the amount park scientists agreed was required to restore the park's natural spaces — from the Water Storage and Supply Co., the owners of the Grand Ditch.
"I tend to worry about anyone who spends that much time in D.C.," jokes Vaughn Baker, the superintendent of Rocky Mountain National Park. "But his familiarity and connection with the agency was actually a great asset. He understood many of the issues we were dealing with."
But perhaps Austin's main talent was starting over and feeling completely comfortable in the place he had landed.
ON A RECENT MONDAY, a jovial Austin jumps in a black Ford Explorer, eager to show off his favorite spots in the Cuyahoga Valley. "The best part about being here," he says, "is there's so much to explore."
A few minutes later, Austin pulls into the parking lot at Brandywine Falls. When he first accepted the job here, this was one of the first places he visited. "I fell in love with the spot," Austin says. "It's our own Yosemite Falls."
Two hundred years ago, the falls were viewed not just as an object of beauty but also as a source of power. In the 1800s, locals built saw, grist and woolen mills at the top of the falls. The Village of Brandywine grew around them, but the community was later destroyed by the construction of Interstate 271.
Today, walking down the wooden path toward the falls, Austin smiles at the children squished into puffy ski jackets and nods at the red-cheeked parents watching them. Stopping at the overlook, Austin breathes deeply. Behind him the falls gurgle and roar with life. The water rushes over rocks, ending in a pool of bubbles.
"If we do our job right," Austin says, "in 100 years, our great-grandchildren can stand in the exact same place we're standing and see the exact same vision we're seeing right now."
Austin's ultimate goal is to make the Cuyahoga Valley more of a destination, with better marketing, central entry points and easy-to-navigate directions. All of this, he says, will in turn raise the park's profile locally. He knows this because he's done it before.
After three years as deputy superintendent at Rocky Mountain National Park, Austin was looking to move up in the ranks. The person in charge of hiring for the national parks asked Austin whether he'd prefer a move to Glacier National Park in Montana or to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Arizona. "I told him I had no interest in going to the desert," Austin says. The regional director ignored Austin and put him in Arizona anyway.
"He probably knew better than I did," Austin says now with a laugh.
Glen Canyon's headquarters were in Page, Ariz., an isolated community bordering Utah with a population of about 6,000. When Austin arrived there, the townspeople, mostly farmers, were in the midst of a long feud with the government. The farmers felt the park rangers were not respecting their rights, their land and their cattle. And the park rangers didn't understand why the farmers refused to follow the park's laws.
"My first town meeting was very awkward," Austin recalls. "Here I was, this guy from Jersey, who still had an accent and was black on top of that. And I'm asking everyone in the room, most of whom were Mormon and had lived there their whole lives, to be my partner. I believed they laughed."
But Austin kept prodding, and he eventually earned the respect of everyone in the community. "Stan was really good about listening," says Lyle Dimbatt, the mayor of Page. "Working for the federal government, he had the ability to stand on a podium, declare what he wanted to do, and say, 'If you don't like it, too bad.' But that wasn't his way. He believed in sitting down one on one with you and asking what you thought, even if he didn't agree with it. He was always bringing people together."
Ultimately, Austin found commonality between the two divided groups. "He brought the cattle ranchers and us together and turned each of our world views 180 degrees to a place where we could meet each other," says Rosemary Sucec, the cultural program manager at Glen Canyon. "That was his special talent."
The other big problem at Glen Canyon was low staff morale. Situated between Canyonlands National Park and Zion National Park, Glen Canyon has "always been the stepchild," Austin explains. So he took it upon himself to raise the staff and the park's profile. Through a partnership with the National Park Service headquarters, he brought in a team of marketing interns from Harvard and Georgetown universities to help publicize the park. In association with the city of Page, he also drew attention and press to Glen Canyon through a stream of innovative ideas, including a hot air balloon regatta and music festivals.
"Stan didn't believe there was such a thing as over-advertising or over-marketing," Dimbatt says. "He was always trying to find new, outside-the-fringe avenues to draw attention to us."
When Austin decided it was time to move on, after two years, the town threw him a block party that raged well into the night.
AUSTIN FIRST stepped foot in the Cuyahoga Valley in June 2010. At the time, he was weighing a promotion to deputy superintendent at Yosemite National Park, where he was serving as acting deputy superintendent. Then he came to Ohio for a visit.
"What overwhelmed me was how green and wet everything was," he says. "I saw a heron's nest and eagles flying by. It was just beautiful."
On the way home, Austin called his regional director and said he wanted the Cuyahoga Valley job. A few months later, he moved to Northeast Ohio.
"I kind of feel that Yosemite's already been done," Austin explains. "People know what it is. What else can you do there but continue to manage the park? In [the Cuyahoga Valley], we have the potential to develop the park into something that's bigger than all of us."
Austin has lists of things he wants to start with. Right now, he says the park is too insular. There is no large central visitor center. When travelers get off the highway, there are few signs announcing the presence of — or how to get to — Ohio's only national park. In Austin's eyes, the park is too modest and hides some of its true beauty. Take Brandywine Falls, for example. You can't see the water from the trails that currently run along Brandywine Road. Austin is currently working with the Metro Parks Serving Summit County to redirect bicycle and walking trails to circle around the falls. Austin also hopes to put in accessible ramps so handicapped patrons can experience the view too.
Also underdeveloped, in Austin's view, are the park's overnight accommodations. "People who travel here to experience the park are not just looking for a two-hour experience," he says.
Yet few lodging or camping options exist: the Inn at Brandywine Falls, which has just six overnight rooms; the 11-room Stanford House Hostel; and about 10 or so primitive campsites that have not been updated in years. Austin hopes to break ground on new campsites soon.
The problem, of course, is that these visions require financial backing, and the government budget provides little for park renovation.
"We have to think outside the box," Austin says. "There are possible opportunities to partner with corporate America. And we're working with our friends and volunteer groups to raise money creatively."
Austin wants local governments to realize that the national park can be an economic driver for their communities so they'll work together with Austin's team to better market it.
"Northeast Ohio has a great economic asset here," he says. "It's time people start recognizing it."
Austin is selling this idea, one mayoral visit at a time. "Stan saw the benefits to the whole Rocky Mountain National Park region by having gateway communities that spent millions of dollars telling people about the park," says Kyle Patterson, the public information officer for Rocky Mountain National Park.
In the eight months since he's been superintendent, Austin has visited the leaders of every community that surrounds the park, and he's gotten positive responses from everyone.
"Democrat, Republican, everyone loves the park," he says.
"The way Stan has already connected with a variety of park organizations is very impressive," says Deb Yandala, the CEO of the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park. "He's great about getting into the community and listening to what people have to say. I love watching him in action."
But Austin knows that honeymoons are short, and there is much work to be done. So at 5 p.m., he says goodbye and heads back into his office for another five or so hours, content to have found his place in the world once again.