El Pasoan Dennis Vásquez’s job extends from the highest peak in Texas to the depths of Carlsbad Caverns.
For two and a half years, Vásquez has been superintendent of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and recently he was made acting superintendent of Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
Less than a two-hour drive from El Paso, in a desert of grama grass, yuccas and not much else, Guadalupe Peak rises from salt flats to 8,750 feet above sea level. Less than an hour further east is Carlsbad Caverns, which extend more than 1,000 feet underground.
Vásquez, 55, was born and raised in the Lower Valley, where he attended Bel Air High School. His mom was a schoolteacher and his dad worked in construction.
Vásquez started his career with the U.S. National Park Service on Aug. 1, 1977, working at White Sands National Monument while attending the University of Texas at El Paso, where he earned a degree in biological sciences.
His 30-year career with the Park Service has taken him all over the country, but Vásquez says he couldn’t be happier to be home again in the Chihuahuan Desert and close to family in El Paso.
Vásquez estimates that he has visited more than 200 of the 401 national parks, and the list of parks he has worked at across the country is long.
But he has always kept a framed photo of the famous 1966 Texas Western, now UTEP, Miners championship team on his wall at work to remind himself of El Paso and his childhood.
He has fond memories in high school of P.E. class with teacher Willie Cager, who played on the championship team.
Last month, on the day the government shut down, Vásquez got a call from the regional director. He asked if he would manage Carlsbad Caverns because long-time superintendent John Benjamin would be retiring.
Vásquez said yes and expects to hold the temporary position at Carlsbad Caverns for four months, while the National Park Service searches for a permanent superintendent.
As superintendent he is responsible for just about everything, including natural and cultural resources management, park maintenance and the visitor experience.
Vásquez lives in ranger housing during the week in the Guadalupe Mountains and splits his time between that park and Carlsbad Caverns.
He sat down with El Paso Inc. in his cozy office at Guadalupe Mountains National Park and talked about the government shutdown, plans to improve the parks, the best time to visit and getting kids outdoors.
Q: Were national parks a big part of your childhood?
My mom always made sure we saved enough money so every summer we could do a little vacation, and many times those vacations were to national park areas. I’m pretty sure the first national park I ever visited was Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and I still have pretty vivid recollections of that.
Q: So you’ve come full circle. How old were you?
I was probably about 10. I remember coming with my cousins and taking the natural entrance tour, and I remember how truly awe-inspiring it was and that sense of wonder when you see something like Carlsbad Caverns for the first time.
I was in the caverns just last week, and it’s still awe-inspiring and still gives you that child-like feeling of wonder. It’s nice that there are places to go where you can still get that sense of wonder, even after so many years.
Q: Where has your career with the Park Service taken you?
I started at White Sands, then I went to Yosemite, then I went to Joshua Tree in Southern California, then Sunset Crater Volcano, which is near Flagstaff, then I went to Big Bend National Park as the chief naturalist and then I went to the Grand Canyon.
I went back to White Sands where I was superintendent, then I headed east and went to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, for a couple of years, then I was in D.C. for a little bit and Topeka, Kansas, at a national historic site there and then I went back to D.C.
At that point, I was anxious to come back home. So this opportunity came up at Guadalupe Mountains, and I was happy to transfer back home to the Chihuahuan Desert and close to family that still lives in El Paso.
Q: Did you always want to be a park ranger as a kid?
It’s hot in El Paso in the summer, so when I was a kid, we used to go up to Ruidoso and Cloudcroft to camp. Then when I was in high school, I was in a service organization, and we would go on trips to the Gila National Forest during spring break where we would plant trees. I remember telling my classmates – this is in the 70s – I want to be a forest ranger and they all laughed, because nobody in El Paso is a forest ranger, and nobody knows anybody who is a forest ranger.
Q: Yeah, there aren’t really many trees in El Paso – certainly not big ones.
When I went to UTEP, I ended up in a biology program that was very field oriented. I started working at White Sands during the summer – I was a freshman – and I remember thinking before I even got my first pay check that this is what I could do the rest of my life, and that’s what I’ve done.
Q: I can certainly see the draw of working outdoors in some of the most beautiful places in the United States.
Yeah, but what draws people to the job, what keeps people, is the mission. We are like land stewards. We are like missionaries, and the mission is that we are here to keep these places special for perpetuity. That’s a pretty big mission, and that’s something that attracts people.
Q: You sound genuinely excited about being back home.
I’ve traveled around the country – I’ve worked in amazing places – so I feel especially fortunate that after 30 some years I’ve come home, and the kid that left when I was 18 has come back now with a world of experience behind him, and I can now serve at these parks here at home.
Q: National parks were a major part of your childhood but are you worried that that is not the case for as many young people now?
I grew up outside, but now I think kids are connected to the world in different ways, through devices.
Q: Right. Why go to a park when I’ve got an iPhone?
Yeah. But I’ll tell you what, if young people are just exposed for a little bit, they have the same response that I had as a kid and others have had. There’s just kind of a primitive gene in all of us that connects us to nature and wild places.
Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains are two very different parks, but if you get kids into Carlsbad Caverns, that is just going to blow them away. Then if you can get kids out of the car and onto a trail and into the backcountry, which is what Guadalupe Mountains is, then they can have an equally inspirational visit.
Q: If you could only visit the Guadalupe Mountains or Carlsbad Caverns one month out of the year, when would you go?
The best time to visit Guadalupe Mountains is in the fall – mid October to mid November – so we are right about in that period now. That’s a peak season for us, and the reason I would recommend that time is it is less windy and because of the fall colors. In McKittrick Canyon, for example, they can be pretty spectacular.
Now Carlsbad Caverns, if you are going into the cave, it’s always going to be cool and dark, so you can really visit anytime. But a good time to visit is during the period of the year when there are bat flights. That is quite a phenomenon. It varies from evening to evening, but if you catch a good bat flight, it is quite impressive.
Q: Do you have any parts of the parks that are your favorite, special places?
I’ve hiked every trail in this park...
Q: How many trails are there?
There are 87 miles of trails. So there are a lot of special places in the mountains that are open to visitors, but are difficult to get to, so not a lot of people get to them.
But if you ask for one place, I would say McKittrick Ridge. It’s a hike that is either a 12-mile hike from here or a two-hour drive around the mountain range from here, but it’s a spectacular hike. It feels like New Zealand. You know, something out of “Lord of the Rings.” It’s just got all these sharp, steep-faced mountains that just don’t seem real.
Coming here, I aimed to hike Guadalupe Peak every month. The first year I managed to hike it nine times. I did all the trails here in 15 months.
At Carlsbad Caverns, I have fond memories of the Hall of the White Giant, which is one of those off-trail hikes that you can have a ranger guide you to. That was an exciting, Indiana Jones-type of adventure. You know, climbing ropes and squeezing through narrow passages.
Q: I wonder how many people really just see this park, Guadalupe Mountains, driving by.
Yeah. This park was purposefully underdeveloped. We don’t have a lodge, there’s no hotel, gas station, diner or convenience store – there’s nothing here – and that was done purposefully.
This park was established in the ‘70s at the peak of the environmental movement, so it was set up to have very little development. When you pass by, you’re going to get some nice views, but you’re really getting a very limited experience that way.
An easy way to go a little deeper and to get a sense of the historical significance of this place is to drive off the main road a little bit to Frijole Ranch and take the trail up to Smith Springs – that’s 2.3 miles.
There are a number of springs there used prehistorically, and historically by Mescalero Apaches and Buffalo Soldiers that had encampments here. The Butterfield Overland Mail Coach also ran through here.
Q: How many visitors do you get at the parks during a typical year?
Somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 visitors visit Guadalupe Mountains every year. Carlsbad you get two to three times that.
Q: How many employees are there at each park?
We have about 40 here, that includes seasonal workers, and about a hundred at the caverns.
Q: What are some of the challenges at the parks from a superintendent’s perspective?
From my perspective, I’m going to talk about boring stuff like infrastructure. Like at Carlsbad Caverns, and hopefully this will be invisible to people, but right now we’re just starting on a major project to put a new electrical system and new lighting in the cave. The old system has been in there 50 years or so.
They renovated the visitor’s center a couple years ago and now a new exhibit will be going in this winter and a new real nice high-definition film will be going in in early spring.
We finished a general management plan for Guadalupe Mountains about a year ago. It’s a 15- to 20-year plan and sets the mission for the park. It’s going to take about $9 million in infrastructure improvements to implement the plan.
People in El Paso really have very easy access to two great, two very different, national parks. But if you just get on Montana and head east you run right into them.
Q: What might you highlight in the plan?
We would like to provide easier access for visitors to some parts of the park. So like at the west side of the park there’s a gypsum dune field there that has received very little visitation...
Q: A gypsum dune field?
Like White Sands. So White Sands is the largest in the world, the second largest is northern Mexico and then the third largest is right here on the other side of the mountains by Dell City. This isn’t as expansive as White Sands, but it’s pretty spectacular.
We’ve only had hundreds of people visit there every year because we haven’t made it accessible. So we are working to improve the road, which is actually under water right now because of the rains, build restrooms and trail heads.
Another area: Camping is kind of limited here so we want to improve and expand the campsites. The only places to camp now are among the RVs here in a developed camp ground, or you climb 3,000 feet up, carrying your tent and everything else, to designated sites in the backcountry with no water or anything. So we thought we needed something in the middle.
Q: How did the government shutdown impact the parks?
Both parks closed. We kept three or four people on at each park just to check gates and keep water systems and electrical systems going, but basically everyone went home and waited it out.
The trouble is it takes a lot to shut down the parks, it’s not like just sending people home. It takes time to shut down and start up, so there is some lost productivity there.
Q: With federal dollars tight, how are the parks fairing?
We are a really tiny sliver of the budget. If there was a federal budget pie, ours would be almost invisible, so we’ve taken smaller cuts.
For years and years, the Park Service was one of the most favored of government agencies; it’s easy to like national parks. Even during the government shutdown, the national parks often were in headlines or story leads, and that’s a good thing. We like to be an important part of the American landscape.
Q: Literally part of the landscape.
Yeah, and just in the psyche of the country. I share this with staff: We are like the stewards, the storytellers, of the American legacy whether it’s Buffalo Soldiers, or the Butterfield Trail, or whether it’s the arch in St. Louis and the westward migration, or the Statue of Liberty, or the Golden Gate Bridge or Mount Rushmore, or the Everglades, or Yosemite, or Yellowstone.
You know, these are all places managed by the national parks, and when people around the world think of America, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, Independence Hall, the National Park Service tells that story every day.
We take that responsibility real seriously. It’s kind of a missionary zeal that we have about the work that we do. That makes it easy to come to work and show up with a sense of enthusiasm about the work that we do.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.