Wild at Heart

Creasey caught his wild bug on a three-month road trip through the West over 30 years ago

by Will Lindner

michael-creasey_marsh_billings_rockerfeller_npsMichael Creasey is superintendent/ executive director of the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Woodstock, Vermont’s only national park and the country’s only national park engaged in forest management. He’s also executive director of the Conservation Study Institute.

A pattern has emerged in Michael Creasey’s career for the U.S. National Park Service, which reached its 30-year milestone in June. He goes into a community — an “area,” really, because his missions take him to networks of communities connected by some geographical feature: the Lower Rio Grande along the Texas-Mexico border; the Blackstone River between Worcester, Mass., and Providence, R.I.; 11 counties in the mountains of West Virginia — and helps people explore how their histories and cultures fit into the broad fabric of the American experience.

With his assistance, they refine their messages and capitalize upon them through ecological tourism, and through museums and festivals, leading to reinvestment and economic development. And then he moves on.

These are not brief flings in America’s diverse landscapes and communities. Creasey becomes deeply invested. His assignment on the Rio Grande, involving close, creative work between the National Park Service (NPS), the Texas State Parks system, and the Mexican government, lasted four years. He worked 10 years at the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, collaborating with chambers of commerce, community groups, environmental organizations, and political leaders to restore one of the country’s first industrialized waterways and make it a centerpiece for recreation and investment. Then came seven years as superintendent of the Lowell (Massachusetts) National Historical Park, in a city blighted by empty, decrepit textile mills.

“We had 5.5 million square feet of vacant mill space when the National Park Service came there,” says Creasey. “At this point, 92 percent of those mills have been occupied and restored. There’s been more than a billion dollars of reinvestment in the mills of Lowell.”

Creasey’s position in Lowell lasted until 2012. Then he came to Vermont, where he is now the superintendent of the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Woodstock, which opened in 1998 and is Vermont’s only national park (the Green Mountain National Forest is owned by the USDA National Forest Service).

True to his nature, Creasey has immersed himself in the unique history of this park, and the serendipitous origins upon those 555 acres of two of America’s greatest conservationists — George Perkins Marsh (1801-1882), author of the seminal environmental treatise “Man and Nature” (1864), and Frederick Billings (1823-1890) — and, by marriage, one of the country’s most prominent and ecologically attuned philanthropists, Laurance Rockefeller (1910-2004). Rockefeller’s wife, Mary, was Frederick Billings’ granddaughter.

For Creasey, who places so much value in the stories and characters of the places he’s worked, it must be especially rich to add a connection to the patrician Rockefellers to his past work with Bob McCoy, of the notorious Hatfields and McCoys, who was mayor of Matewan, W. Va., when Creasey helped establish the National Coal Heritage Area.

“The kinds of people I’ve met, and the amazing experiences I’ve had, I don’t think I could have ever had if it weren’t for the opportunities I’ve been given through the National Park Service,” he says.

Yet his portfolio at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller NHP is broader than park superintendent. Not that more is needed; the park welcomes some 40,000 visitors a year and offers hiking, skiing, and equestrian trails, a bookstore, an art gallery, tours of the grounds and mansion led by park rangers, and a full schedule of special events in coordination with the Billings Farm & Museum across the street. And it’s the only national park engaged in a forestry operation, selectively harvesting timber that’s used for construction purposes on the property itself and contributed to local crafts organizations, plus firewood for needy families.

“That idea of a working landscape is part of how we look at wildlife and landscape management for future generations in Vermont,” says Creasey. And it’s part of the park’s heritage. Frederick Billings instituted forestry and agricultural practices to help the land heal after the ravishes of clear-cutting, erosion, and pollution in the 19th century. It is, says Rolf Diamant, Creasey’s predecessor as superintendent at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller NHP, “the oldest continuously managed forest in the United States.”

The NPS has also made Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller the locus of its Conservation Study Institute, a program that probes the boundaries of park management throughout the U.S. The institute engages park administrators, planners, and personnel in discussions about the relationships between parks and the natural and settled communities around them; about stewardship; even about what national parks — and national areas, because newer conceptions and designations have proliferated — are and can be. It is, perhaps, the Park Service’s version of a think tank. And Michael Creasey is its director.

“There are issues that are current and relevant and need to be addressed, such as youth engagement, urban parks, and professional development,” says Diamant. (When Diamant was park superintendent, the directorship of the institute was a separate job, held by his wife, Nora Mitchell. Both are now adjunct professors at the University of Vermont.)

“When Michael became director of the institute and superintendent of the park, it was a perfect fit. He’s brought new energy, and is growing the program and expanding its services to the whole country. All this coming from this place in Vermont. It’s something I think Vermont should be aware of and proud of.”

Creasey’s openness to the natural world and the way people live upon it was imbued by his parents, Dick and Bobbie Creasey. “My father was a school superintendent and my mother was a schoolteacher,” he says.

More to the point, his father was fascinated by history, and shepherded the family to Civil War sites and other historical places from their rural home in Bucks County, Pa., when Creasey and his sisters were growing up. His mother was a gardener and avid birder.

“She was more the naturalist,” Creasey remembers. “Those early days were influential for my keen interest in both the historical perspective and the natural history side.”

Creasey was drawn to woodworking and carpentry, and upon finishing high school he studied industrial design, with a focus on wood, at California University in Pittsburgh. The sooty Steel City in the 1970s didn’t appeal to the youth from bucolic eastern Pennsylvania, and when a cousin in Salt Lake City invited him for a three-month road trip through the wildest areas of the West, Creasey didn’t hesitate. They visited Yosemite National Park, the California redwoods, and the Oregon coast, and undertook a grueling backcountry hike in Yellowstone, in memorably miserable weather.

By the time they were done, Creasey, at age 19, had had an awakening.

“I was infatuated by these large western landscapes,” he says. “I felt like I was destined to live in the West and to explore.”

He transferred to Utah State University in Logan to study parks and recreation management. Upon graduation he took his first job with the National Park Service, as a ranger at Timpanogos Cave National Monument in Utah. Then came a series of young ranger–type positions: on horseback at Valley Forge, on patrol again in Utah, then as a river ranger on the Upper Delaware in Pennsylvania and New York.

Things began changing with an assignment to work in Philadelphia in 1987, when the city was celebrating the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. The urban setting was a departure for him, he says.

Creasey also entered another realm of Park Service activity: planning. And this coincided, he says, with a dynamic period in the agency’s history. Members of Congress wanted the NPS to lure tourists to their home districts to stimulate local economies. The agency was eager to respond, but coal-blighted Appalachian landscapes and industrialized river corridors (as examples) didn’t meet the NPS’ standards. The agency, however, began broadening its mission, and Creasey was right in the mix.

“The 1970s and ’80s was really an innovative time,” he explains, “when the National Heritage areas and the rivers, trails, and conservation assistance programs came into play — places that might not have the exemplary qualities of a national park, but collectively, their stories, their contribution, might emerge to be nationally significant.”

A revolutionary aspect of these new locations was that, often, the government didn’t own them. Yet the NPS put resources into these areas and Creasey’s challenge was then to leverage funds from other sources.

“Michael and I would go into a town and work with local leaders and business people,” says Marty Green, who was executive director of the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce when Creasey worked for the Blackstone National Heritage Corridor. “He’s a great listener and has great intuition. In our region we have historic areas related to the American Revolution, old mills, brownfield sites. He was able to help business leaders identify priority sites and bring planning resources and sometimes revenue to the table.”

While his career track has carried him some distance from the remote landscapes that first enthralled him, Creasey retains his fondness for nature and recreation. It’s for paddlers like himself that he works to restore rivers, and for skiers like himself that he sees to the care and maintenance of the trails at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park.

He savors the travel opportunities that a career in conservation has afforded him, but home is in Woodstock where he and his partner, Joan Ross, live on the park grounds. He has passed the values and interests he acquired from his parents to his 23-year-old son, Christopher, who’s majoring in landscape architecture at Utah State University.

“It seems like he’s following in his dad’s footsteps,” Creasey notices. “He’s also an avid hiker and climber. Just a wonderful young man.”

There may be no more Yellowstones to be discovered, sanctified, and protected by the National Park Service. But culture, a sense of place, and the interrelationship of American communities to the American whole, have become a part of the agency’s mission. And that work is taking place, with Michael Creasey as facilitator in chief, right here in Woodstock, Vermont.