From the backcountry to the front office, Al Hendricks was at home in the nation’s treasures

For 42 years, Al Hendricks has lived and worked where most Americans can only go.

And in those 42 years he made sure that they could always visit us.

Hendricks, who died in Montana last month, worked at ten different national parks and monuments, including two of Utah’s mighty five and one – Great Basin – just outside the state.

“Al didn’t want his legacy to be a new visitor center or structure,” said Dave Worthington, director of science and resource management at Grand Canyon National Park. He worked with Hendricks on Capitol Reef. “His legacy was what was not built and paved at the park during his tenure.”

In 1970, after graduating from the University of Wyoming, Hendricks joined the park service at Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Two years later, he moved to Utah to become the first backcountry ranger in Canyonlands National Park’s Maze District, the rugged stretch west of the Green River that is only accessible by four-wheel drive.

According to the story, the park’s chief ranger, Chuck Budge, gave him a map, a canteen, and keys to a pickup truck with instructions to “get to know the neighborhood.”

(National Park Service) Al Hendricks has worked in ten different national parks and monuments, including two of the five in Utah.

This was followed by stays in the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway in Wisconsin and Minnesota and in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area in Pennsylvania. Then there was Yellowstone, where he spent the winters commuting to work on cross-country skis across Old Faithful’s geyser basin.

After that came two more caves. First he was at Jewel Cave in South Dakota before returning west to accept his first job as Superintendent at Lehman Caves National Monument in Nevada, just across the Utah state line.

It was a happy time as plans were in the works to create a new Great Basin National Park with the caves. Hendricks worked with Nevada Senator Harry Reid and his associates to identify the areas to include in the park, becoming its first superintendent in 1986.

In this uncredited photo, Al Hendricks speaks at the Great Basin National Park dedication ceremony in 1986.

While working at Great Basin, Hendricks took a part-time job teaching geology at a high school in nearby Eskdale, Utah, home of a religious sect, the House of Aaron, a community living group.

There he met a 10-year-old student named Daniel Sturlin and they formed a lifelong relationship. Although legal adoption never took place, Sturlin is listed in his obituary as the son of Hendricks. Hendricks was never married, but “he kind of turned into a father and a grandpa to my kids,” said Sturlin, who now lives outside of Boise.

House Aaron has a long history with music, and in a town of just a few hundred people, there is a community orchestra. “It was a place that believed music was a very important part of its religious history,” Sturlin said.

Hendricks also happened to play bassoon and was recruited into the orchestra.

Hendricks also organized outdoor outings for young people in the community, including skiing trips, Sturlin said. “Al loved to travel and visit places with people.”

Next came the position of superintendent in Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, where the long and severe winters brought more than 500 inches of snow. “It was his least favorite assignment,” Sturlin said.

In 1998 he accepted his last job as Superintendent of Capitol Reef.

“He is very passionate about Capitol Reef National Park,” said Nan Anderson, who lives outside of Capitol Reef in Torrey and worked with Hendricks when she was executive director of the Utah Tourism Industry Association.

Anderson called Hendricks an “unsung hero” of the park for running the Capitol Reef Field Station near the old Sleeping Rainbow Ranch on Pleasant Creek. Now operated by Utah Valley University, the station offers students and scholars the opportunity to live and work in the park. “Al really took the whole initiative under his wing.”

Hendricks attempted to preserve the original nature of Capitol Reef and, among other things, successfully campaigned for the Burr Trail not to be paved within the park.

Worthington said Hendricks is passionate about protecting the park’s resources given pressure from surrounding landowners. “I learned from Al how to stand up for doing the right thing to make sure our neighbors — private individuals, county commissioners and the Bureau of Land Management — are also following the law.”

“Al was probably the most knowledgeable person in the parks service on rights of way,” said Cordell Roy, a former parks warden who was the parks service coordinator in Utah from 2003-2011. Roy said he and Hendricks became experts on RS 2477, the federal rule that governed roads in states for more than a century. The rule has been negotiated for decades in a battle between county governments claiming the roads and state land managers wanting to preserve ecosystems. Roy said even the parks’ own lawyers couldn’t match Hendricks’ knowledge of the case law.

Hendricks was the best manager Roy has ever seen among park managers because he could handle the details of procurement, legal matters and other administrative tasks. “He was highly intelligent, educated and well-read.”

Hendricks also suffered a setback locally when he transferred ownership of three 500-year-old Native American shields to the Navajo Nation. The shields found in the Capitol Reef area before it became a park were on display at the park’s visitor center.

“It’s really difficult being the manager of a park in such a rural area,” Anderson said.

Hendricks retired from Capitol Reef and Parks Service in 2012 and fulfilled his dream of retiring in Montana on a ranch property near Ennis. He died of cancer in Ennis on July 16 at the age of 73.

Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

Justin Scaccy

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