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Features May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2

On The Job: A Poet In The Park
Donald W. Murphy '75
by Tom Nugent


Donald W. Murphy is a bureaucrat who manages 23,000 federal employees and a $2.4 billion-a-year budget. He's also a poet who enjoys writing sonnets in praise of redwoods, swamplands and canyons.

Drop by his office at the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., and you could find the No. 2 executive at the National Park Service (NPS) devising a plan to improve security at the nation's nearly 400 parks and public monuments . . . or reviewing maintenance costs for upkeep at the Lincoln Memorial . . . or preparing testimony on future NPS needs for the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Donald W. Murphy '75However, Murphy, '75, also insists on stepping away from his tasks now and then, in order to spend a day or two meditating on the spiritual side of his vocation as the top manager for the nation's parks. “At least two or three times a year, I like to get out of Washington and go hike a mountain trail in Wyoming, or maybe spend a day at one of our seaside parks in the Carolinas, or along those amazing Pacific cliffs of Oregon,” he says. “ Spending some time in a redwood forest or a protected marshland allows me to meditate on how I can do my job better—while also recharging my batteries.”

On one of those out-of-office trips a few years ago, Murphy was touring Redwood National Park near Eureka, Calif., with former NPS director Roger Kennedy and Kennedy's wife, Frances.

“We were strolling through grove after grove of redwoods,” he recalls, “and the setting was nothing less than awesome. Can you imagine being surrounded by dozens of 1,000-year-old trees, some of them 300 feet tall? All at once, Mrs. Kennedy stopped, raised her hands and closed her eyes as if she was going through some sort of religious experience.

“Of course, her reaction was easy to understand because everybody feels the power of those majestic trees. And that includes me. Each time I go over to Capitol Hill to fight for more resources for the 385 park sites in our system, I feel like I'm fighting for those redwoods!”

From Genetics to Politics

Once intent on becoming a professional biochemist, Don Murphy arrived on the UCSD campus back in the fall of 1973. He had already spent two years at USC and another as a volunteer worker among the poor in the Central American country of Belize.

A thoughtful, endlessly curious kid whose bookish parents had introduced him to the “splendors of Yosemite” before he reached first grade, Murphy was already captivated by the natural world when he hit San Diego. Soon after resuming his undergrad studies, he signed up for a course in virology. Within a matter of weeks, he says, he had fallen in love with genetics.

“I remember working in the lab one day,” he recalls, “and I guess I experienced what you would call a ‘Eureka moment.' I really liked the challenge of that virology class, and I was utterly enthralled with the notion that viruses could infiltrate the nucleus of a cell and take over its genetic workings.”

Hooked on genetics, he spent three years studying for a doctorate in biochemistry at UC-Irvine before finally realizing that he actually preferred the great outdoors to the laboratory bench.

“I left grad school and I became a park ranger,” Murphy says. “I wound up driving a Jeep through the canyons of the Sierra Nevada. My parents nearly flipped; they thought I'd flipped. But it was the right choice. Deep down, I knew that I wanted to stay connected to the outdoors, to the natural world.”

Described by his boss, NPS Director Fran Mainella, as “a proven manager whose leadership skills are a great asset for this entire organization,” Murphy climbed rapidly up the ladder at California State Parks, and then spent six years directing the statewide system—where he commanded a $200 million budget and 2,700 state employees. From there he took on another challenge: leading the effort to build a brand-new Department of Parks and Recreation for the City of Sacramento. After creating several high-profile programs in Sacramento during the late 1990s, he was recruited in the summer of 2001 by the new Bush administration for his current post at the NPS.

Conservative Conservator

Don Murphy describes that post as “essentially, the COO” —Chief Operating Officer—of the nation's 84 million-acre system of parks, historical monuments and recreation areas.

Translation: While Mainella makes the key policy decisions, Murphy is charged with carrying them out as the 87-year-old agency's top day-in-and-day-out administrator. His primary assignment is to assess the condition and repair costs of the huge array of physical assets owned by the NPS, including 10,000 miles of roads, 17,000 miles of trails, 2,200 national campgrounds, and more than 17,000 buildings located on federal parklands.

Murphy also manages the tens of thousands of NPS staffers and independent contractors whose responsibilities range from trash collection to road maintenance. And like his boss, Mainella, Murphy spends a fair amount of time on Capitol Hill, trying to nail down the dollars needed to keep the system's parklands neatly groomed and safe for the 277 million visitors each year. Relations with Congress are a challenge, and his role as a manager does not shield him from political controversy.

A low-key Republican, Murphy takes great pains to keep politics out of his day-to-day decisions at NPS. Nonetheless, he says he feels “quite comfortable” defending President George W. Bush's record on funding the aging and increasingly rundown parks, which may require as much as $5 billion in new monies during the next decade to repair and refurbish thousands of on-site roadways and buildings.

Ask Murphy to talk about the White House's commitment to protecting U.S. parklands, and he'll tell you the same thing he told a congressional committee on the Hill last summer: “This president has recently committed more than $2.9 billion in administration funds for long-overdue maintenance, and he's also been urging Congress to authorize another $2 billion, in order to help pay for maintenance costs that lie up ahead.”

But the influential National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit public interest group, doesn't share Murphy's admiration for the current administration's support of the NPS. According to the association, the White House has frequently “ignored the annual needs of the national parks, which continue to operate with only two-thirds of the funds they actually require.”

However, the politically savvy Murphy carefully avoids the rancorous debate. A skilled bureaucrat, he has learned
to choose his words carefully when it comes to the politics of conservation.

“I started my career in government as a park ranger in California,” he says with a quiet smile, “and I spent a lot of years doing all the little things it takes to make sure that Americans have a good experience when they visit one of their public parks.”

Tom Nugent is a freelance writer. He wrote the book Death at Buffalo Creek published by W. W. Norton.


National Park Service

Redwood National Parks

City of Sacramento Department of Parks

National Parks Conservation Association

"Live on another thousand years. Lift your boughs to heaven."