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William J. Whalen III, 66; Former Director of National Park Service

October 06, 2006|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

William J. Whalen III, a former director of the National Park Service who oversaw the doubling in size of the park system and the creation of Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, has died. He was 66.

Whalen, who led the agency from 1977 to 1980, died of a heart attack Sept. 28 at Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae, Calif., said a friend, Ruth Kilday.

The federal government initially rejected the idea that the Santa Monica Mountains were of national value, said Kilday, who worked for Whalen in the early 1970s when he was the first superintendent of Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

"A study came out that said the Santa Monicas are important but they should be a state responsibility," Kilday said. "Working with congressmen, Bill was able to push it through and get the legislation signed," creating the largest urban national park.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 12, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 91 words Type of Material: Correction
Whalen obituary: The obituary of former National Park Service Director William J. Whalen III in the Friday California section characterized the park system as being overly focused on icons such as Grand Canyon and Yellowstone national parks in 1977. It also said that Whalen joked about a childhood so urban that he grew up thinking trees grew from cracks in the pavement, and that he learned to appreciate the outdoors while teaching near the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania. These statements should have credited the San Francisco Chronicle as a source.

Established by Congress in 1978, the recreation area stretches from Point Mugu to the Hollywood Freeway, encompassing about 155,000 acres in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. The National Park Service owns and manages 22,000 acres within those boundaries.

Nationally, Whalen was best known for implementing the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which led to the establishment of 10 national parks and expansion of several others in 1980. The 44 million acres effectively doubled the size of the national park system.

Whalen, then 36, was the youngest director in the agency's history when President Carter appointed him in 1977.

Colleagues considered Whalen a visionary who brought an emphasis on urban parks to an agency that had been overly focused on icons such as Grand Canyon and Yellowstone national parks.

He also oversaw the creation of more than 30 parks, including the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Georgia.

"Meeting Coretta Scott King was one of the high points of his life," Kilday said, referring to King's widow.

In 1980, Whalen was fired, partly because of friction with private concessionaires.

They had complained about his attempts to upgrade food and lodging to cope with a growing tide of 268 million annual visitors to more than 320 national parks and monuments.

"Bill had promising gifts, some of which desert him at awkward times. He once lectured the park concessioners, a contentious group, as if they were schoolboys," wrote Bill Everhart in "Take Down Flag & Feed Horses," a 1998 book about working at Yellowstone National Park.

Whalen's remarks led to a rebuke by Morris K. Udall, an Arizona congressman who chaired the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs in the House of Representatives. He demanded the director be dismissed, and Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus let him go.

"My firing is a clear signal that you don't mess around with those powerful concessionaires," Whalen said at the time. "Park directors that stand up and do the job won't last too long."

He returned to Golden Gate to oversee the recreation area for two years and launched the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, which has raised more than $100 million for the park.

William Jerome Whalen was born July 18, 1940, in Pittsburgh. His childhood was so urban that he once joked that he grew up thinking trees grew from cracks in the pavement. He learned to appreciate the outdoors while teaching history in Pennsylvania near Allegheny National Forest.

After graduating in 1960 from Clarion State Teachers College in Pennsylvania, he earned a master's in psychology from Indiana State University four years later and joined the Job Corps.

As a youth counselor at national parks, he became friends with park employees and joined the agency in 1965.

By 1971, he was deputy superintendent of Yosemite National Park and had pioneered a tram service to reduce traffic congestion.

When he was named superintendent of Golden Gate a year later, Whalen pushed to open Alcatraz Island to the public in 1973. Even though the prison was in disrepair, he recognized it could bring the park attention.

"The place has such a foreboding and a mysterious atmosphere, the first thing you have to do is ... let the public see the place; and then we'll figure out what ... to do with it later on," Whalen said, according to the 2006 book "New Guardians for the Golden Gate" by Amy Meyer.

Kilday remembered her former boss as "energetic, fun-loving, incredibly bright, someone who always thought out of the box."

Whalen is survived by his wife of 47 years, Mary, of Roseville, Calif.; sons William IV, Dennis, Timothy and Michael; and five grandchildren.

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