“We need to get kids of all colors and all types outdoors to help them grow into environmental stewards”

JT Reynolds (far left) with kids and outdoor instructors in Gold Butte National Monument near Las Vegas, Nevada.

When JT Reynolds is interviewed about his renowned career in conservation, he politely and rather humbly steers his comments to the topic of getting children outdoors. Because Reynolds strongly believes that the future of conservation will be carried forth by engaging more people from diverse backgrounds in nature. 

Reynolds is particularly passionate about environmental education programs that appeal to children from urban centers, children that might not otherwise know the satisfaction of setting up a tent, the wonders of looking up a dark night sky, and the delight of watching bats rise and dip as they hunt insect prey.

Death Valley Rocks outdoor training program.

“We need to get kids of all colors and all types outdoors to help them grow into environmental stewards,” Reynolds says. “But we first need to let them experience the outdoors.  Because, really, we can’t save what we don’t understand.“

Reynolds amassed chapters of colorful stories during his four decades with the National Park Service – piloting powerboats through the mangroves of the Everglades; conducting air patrols over Gates of the Arctic; navigating the whitewater rapids of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon;  hiking the wild backcountry of Yosemite, and teaching new rangers the fundamentals of park management from a spectacular vista on the Colorado Plateau. 

His impressive career, in law enforcement and public safety positions,  as a forward-thinking planner and manager of natural resources in all types of leadership roles, ultimately culminated in being appointed superintendent of Death Valley National Park, the largest national park outside Alaska.  

By its sheer size of more than 3.4 million acres, Death Valley is a high-profile NPS assignment.  By its sheer extremes – high temperatures and little water, elevations below sea level to peaks over 11,000 feet in elevation, more than 400 species of animals, millions of visitors, and all sorts of public safety hazards –  Death Valley superintendents tend to become legendary. 

Reynolds added another notch to his legacy in Death Valley – a program that started by taking gang members from Los Angeles high schools for a camping weekend in Death Valley.  The program morphed into a months-long outdoor training program for students of Bailey Middle School in Las Vegas that ended with a graduation camp-out in Death Valley.  The program – named Death Valley Rocks after an exuberant participant declared that Death Valley “rocks” – attracted funders and sponsors who provided graduates with outdoor gear they could keep beyond the campout.

During his career, Reynolds has seen an increase in people of color working for the National Park Service, but he believes there are still not enough people representing the racial and cultural diversity of this country.  In the mid-2000s, as the National Park Service looked ahead to its centennial in 2016, Reynolds commented in the Los Angeles Times on “cultural insensitivity” as he advocated for recruiting more diversity in the ranger ranks.

Sparking the interest of children, he says, is the first step.  Reynolds recounts how he spent his childhood outdoors and how his family of educators encouraged him to be curious and learn.  He calls experience and education a winning combination.   Reynolds also recounts an instructor at Texas A&M University in wildlife mammalogy – an educator who was so fascinated by bats, his license plate said MYOTIS – who turned Reynold’s lack of interest in bats into respect.  “We can all make a significant difference,” he says.

Reynolds and his wife, Dot, a former elementary school teacher, have “retired” but continue to volunteer with several educational organizations including the After-School All-Stars and the Quiet Storm Foundation.