By Pat Jenkins
Randy King was ready to be superintendent of Mount Rainier National Park.
From his boyhood in an outdoors-oriented family and his college job working in parks, to his on-the-job training as acting superintendent, everything pointed to the day in October 2011 when the park’s top leadership post became his.
“I’m so lucky and grateful to be in this position. It’s a privilege to serve the public,” said King, 58, who has spent 35 years in the National Park Service and is finishing his first full year as superintendent at Mount Rainier.
He was the stand-in superintendent for the combined 20 months that his predecessor, Dave Uberuaga, spent on other Park Service assignments around the country and after he left in 2011 to become superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. “So,” King said with a smile, “I couldn’t plead ignorance” about what the job entails.
“I’m not doing anything differently than before,” he said in an interview late last summer. “Every day, I try to do my best. I know that sounds trite, but this job is nothing more complicated than that. You have to make what you believe are the best possible choices when faced with decisions.”
The deaths this year of five park employees have been sources of stress and emotion for King and his staff. Rangers Margaret Anderson, who was killed Jan. 1 by a gunman in the park, and Nick Hall, who fell to his death June 21 while helping rescue mountain climbers, died in the line of duty. Three other workers died of natural causes.
“It has been a year of tragedy,” King said. “But we’re moving forward. The park is open 365 days a year, so we must continue doing our work. It just takes time to process and deal with the losses we’ve felt.”
Five deaths of climbers and other visitors to the park in accidents this year also have put a damper on 2012. But there was a positive outcome last month in a situation that could have had a worse ending. Two snowboarders stranded on the mountain for two nights by stormy weather finally made it out alive with the help of a search and rescue effort by park personnel.
Chris Lehnertz, Pacific West regional director for the Park Service, cited “charisma, leadership” and familiarity with Mount Rainier and the surrounding area as strengths that led to King’s selection to oversee the 235,625-acre park.
King became the park’s deputy superintendent in 2003. Before then, his three-plus decades with the Park Service included assignments in six national parks and the agency’s Intermountain Regional Office. He also participated in a six-month work exchange with Australia’s Department of Conservation and Land Management. He and his family lived in Australia while he was the district operations officer for that country’s Shark Bay World Heritage Area and adjacent parks.
He and his wife, Sally, a kindergarten teacher in the Eatonville School District, have three children who attended schools there. The youngest one started college last fall.
“We love Eatonville. It’s a great place to live,” King said.
He noted that the town and Mount Rainier’s other gateway communities “are very supportive” of the park and its role in the area’s economy.
King is constantly impressed by the physical beauty of Mount Rainier, where he hiked the legendary Wonderland Trail in September. Every park where he’s worked is special to King, but he has an added fondness for Yellowstone because that’s where he was stationed when he and Sally married.
King first became interested in parks as a vocation when he was a kid and was developing “a love for the outdoors” from family experiences. He later worked at state parks while attending college in Michigan and earning a degree in park and recreation resources from Michigan State University. The rest is career history he’s glad happened.
“If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing,” he said.