A Conversation with Friends:
Detailing Superintendent, Brendan Bray
Earlier this week, I met with Brendan Bray, the new Detailing Superintendent of the Southeast Utah Group. As we walked the pedestrian path over the Colorado River adjacent Arches National Park, we talked about his experience and perspective on the parks, the Arches Timed Entry system, challenges and opportunities for the parks, and more. Judging by the number of folks who stopped us to ask questions, I think Brendan, being new to working for the NPS, learned that people love the flat hat and green and grey uniform! Here’s the transcript from our conversation (we removed the questions we were asked about how deep the river is 😊)
- Steve Evers, Executive Director
Steve: You're doing a “detail” as the Superintendent of the Southeast Utah Group. Can you explain what that term means for folks unfamiliar with federal government lingo?
Brendan: Sure. Well, first of all, Steve, thanks for having me do this interview. It's a beautiful day here in Moab, so I'm happy to be outside walking here with you. In essence, the “detail” is really just a temporary assignment into another organization or to another position. So, those details typically last about four months, but sometimes they can be shorter and sometimes they could be longer depending on the requirements of the position and the individual involved. But the easiest way to explain it, as I said, is it's really just a temporary assignment.
Steve: How long ago did you start this detailing position?
Brendan: My first day here was July 17th. So, in a couple of days I'll hit that two-month mark and then I've got about two months left to go.
Steve: So, officially halfway through. Prior to coming to Moab, you were working at the Harpers Ferry Center in West Virginia. Can you tell us a little bit about your work there and maybe even what you enjoyed about it?
Brendan: So the Harpers Ferry Center for Media Services is a National Service Center for the Park Service that works on behalf of National Parks for all of their media-related needs. When we talk about media and parks, you think about visitor-facing features: exhibits in the visitor center, your signage as you're entering and traveling around the park, waysides, which we refer to as the signage that's outside explaining to you a viewpoint or something that can be interpreted about the landscape. All of that, all of those media products require design expertise. Planning, project management [which] in most cases parks don't have the capacity to do on their own. Some do of course, but most do not. And so, the Harpers Ferry Center is literally project managers that work for parks. We work on behalf of parks, all year round.
[We have] roughly 150 to 200 active projects at any time during the year. Most of our projects are multi-year so we really do need a dedicated group of people with design and fabrication expertise, but also people that can kind of run multi-year projects as well.
I almost forgot to mention that I'm the director there, so my job is to oversee all of that operation as a chief administrator for lack of a better term.
Man and woman: Excuse me, what kind of fish are in the river?
We replied with some very interesting facts about native vs nonnative fish species…
Onward we walk:
Steve: How is the job of Superintendent meeting your expectations?
Brendan: Well, my expectations coming in were that it was going to be a complex, fast-paced, extremely busy experience and it has met those expectations - and then some. You know, people often use the “you're drinking from the fire hose in your first few weeks”, and I certainly was. But I knew what I was getting into and throughout my career I've sort of thrived in those environments where there's a lot to keep track of, a lot of different priorities at any given time. And so, those were my expectations and it's met those expectations. I've enjoyed it along the way because it's such a dynamic place. It's such an interesting team that I'm working with - really qualified and passionate people. So, all of that being said, I think it's met my expectations and then some.
Steve: What, if anything, has been unexpected?
Brendan: I think what's been unexpected for me is just the sheer size of these parks and the ground that we cover, just the incredible differences between the districts of Canyonlands. Arches, which is very close to where we are right now... its not a large park, but it's so dynamic because of the visitation, the activity, and the crowds that go there. There are a lot of issues that of course come along with that. So, while I knew this was going to be a complex experience, just the sheer size of the issues and the size of the places. And then, you know, a couple of hours to Natural Bridges [and] Hovenweep National Monuments - those places are so remote and so different from where we are here today. Just the scale and the diversity of issues have been sort of a little bit unexpected.
Steve: Yeah, the West is. It's pretty wide open in some cases, right?
Brendan: There's not a highway that takes you everywhere.
Steve: Right. Tell, the mind-blowing thing is that from Moab it takes, just to get to the edge of the Maze, a three-hour drive. When as the crow flies, we're talking only a few dozen miles.
So, having the perspective of a bit of a park outsider, what do you think are the biggest challenges and opportunities for Arches and Canyonlands and the whole SE Utah group?
Brendan: I think the biggest challenge for Arches is pretty front and center right now. And that's the continued increase in visitation. With such a precious and sensitive resource such as Arches National Park, the degree of visitation that's exploded over the last decade or so is a concern for the Park Service. We need to continue to monitor that and to manage that appropriately while at the same time ensuring that visitors still have access to this incredible resource. So, I think that's an incredible challenge as well as an opportunity. An opportunity, because, with timed entry we're learning a great deal about visitor circulation patterns and learning the busiest times at the park. That challenge is how we learn from and adjust to that. How can we adjust what our staff are doing to adapt to these changes? The data behind this system is also really important because of what we can learn from it and apply to future management decisions. It's a great opportunity for improving the way we manage the park long term.
Two women: Excuse me can you answer a question? Where are the Courthouse Petroglyphs?
We kindly gave directions. “Remember to look only and visit with reverence.”
Brendan continues: At Canyonlands, we don't have the pressures of visitation that Arches has, but we still have a number of challenges in meeting the needs of these remote places like the needles or the maze that have limitations of basic utilities, water, energy. Can we integrate things like solar energy into these remote locations rather than truck in diesel fuel or truck in water? Those are day-to-day operational challenges that Canyonlands deals with all the time and or [have] significant cost to the park. We're constantly looking for opportunities to improve those remote locations and we're working right now on a number of projects to potentially do things like access water that was not previously available to the park or to be able to improve our solar PV systems in a place like the Needles, which right now runs everything off of a diesel generator.
In my mind, you know, if we're able to address that kind of issue with Canyonlands, it not only helps the people that are on the ground there everyday, it also helps the Park Service tell a good story, “Hey, we're becoming more efficient. We're moving in a greener direction.”
So I think that that's both a challenge and an opportunity as well. And for Hovenweep and Natural Bridges, you know, some of the same issues that I just talked about with Canyonlands apply there as well. These are small remote sites with extreme cultural value. Can we do a better job of interpreting what those sites mean not only from their beauty and their natural value, but also the value that they have as sacred sites to tribal communities in the area and what that really means to the average visitor who may be driving through.
Steve: I know that's a huge initiative right now for the Park Service, telling the stories of everyone in our nation more appropriately and more accurately, and sometimes just plain out doing it versus skating over it, like has done been done in some areas in the past.
You mentioned the Arches timed entry system and the data you're receiving from that. You came into this role and inherited this Arches timed entry pilot program. It's gotten a lot of attention over its last year and a half, two years of existence. What have you learned about how it's going?
Brendan: What I've learned is that it's going very well. It's accomplishing what we originally intended for it to accomplish, and that is to improve the predictability of the crowds at Arches. We know now if you're going to be dealing with a long line or crowded parking lots. Without the time to entry system those were some of the routine complaints and issues that we were seeing. And, for the most part, that has kind of gone away, especially in this second year of the pilot. Some of the long lines are not happening nearly as frequently. We've gotten some comments from visitors, some direct feedback to the Rangers in the visitor center about people that had been here before the time entry system and those that have come during the time entry and how it was such an improvement in terms of their overall experience because they could find a place to park. They knew they would not be waiting in line for an hour just to get in through the gate. They could access trails without people, sort of, you know, everywhere.
So, we're hearing that directly from people that are living it. To me, that's the most important thing. Our data can show us what it is and the data can help us to change how we manage the park, but we can't take our eye off the actual experience of the visitor and how they are feeling about that experience when they leave.
And so far, so good in terms of visitors coming to us and saying, hey, we think this is working, our experience is better than it was say two years ago before the timed entry system. So generally, it's been positive, but of course, we need to continue to work with the community, continue to work with our partners to make sure that we're doing this the right way and that's going to be a constant focus of my attention.
Steve: How is the wider NPS viewing the Arches Timed Entry system?
Brendan: [There is] definitely interest from parks, especially in this region - Rocky Mountain, Glacier - all of them are trying this approach in different ways to meet their needs. And, there's certainly interest in finding those consistent standards that we can apply to parks in the future that want to consider this management approach.
So, I think all I'll say here is that the lessons that we're learning here at Arches will be applicable to future applications, no matter what those lessons are. So, my hope is that the data that we're collecting and the kind of relationships that we're forming and the feedback that we're receiving can be in fact shared with those out there that are considering trying [timed entry] for their own park in other parts of the country. And I see no reason why that won't be the case in the future.
Steve: As you said, you're about halfway through your detail so in another two months you'll be heading home. What are you going to tell your family and friends about this place when you see them?
Brendan: I think I'll tell them a lot of things because I've seen a lot and done a lot and there is so much variety. You know, we're here along the Colorado River, but yet, you go a few miles up the road and you're in Arches, hiking up to Delicate Arch. It's overlooking the valley. I mean, there's just so much variety. And the things that we're able to do in this place. I think what I would say about this location in Moab in particular is it has a magical sense to it. There's a sense this place is very old, the history of humankind in this location. While I can't put my finger on exactly what it is… there's just kind of a surreal sort of magical vibe to this location that I've never really experienced anywhere else, and I've been to quite a few places.
This is truly a unique and special place in the National Park system and in North America and in the world. It's popular for a reason. So, anyone that I talked to that's never been here - I'm already doing it now and I will continue to do it - that they should continue to try to get out here and experience it for themselves because it is a special place and worth protecting.
Steve: Oh, have you drunk out of Matrimony Springs yet? No? Well, after this we will. It’s very close.
OK, last question: Any parting words for our supporters, volunteers and members?
Brendan: Just a straight thank you for all of the support and all of the efforts that you are taking to support the parks. [Steve] and I have talked about a few of those projects already and we'll be continuing to talk about that in the future, but without the support of your team, your board, and your supporters we would not be able to do what we're doing and so I just want to thank you all.
Steve: Well, thank you, Sir.