FORT LARAMIE – Mark Davison says he sort of stumbled into his career.
Growing up in a small South Dakota town, Davison attended Dakota State University in Madison in the mid-1980s on an athletic scholarship to run track and cross country. During registration, he said, he decided “computers were an up-and-coming thing,” so he declared a major in computer science and business administration.
“I was 19,” Davison said. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”
While in college, he’d work summers as seasonal help at Mt. Rushmore National Memorial and other units of the National Park Service. That was the start of what would become Davison’s now-30-year career with the National Park Service.
“I just sort of fell into it,” he said.
After graduation, he got a job with CitiBank. But that wasn’t to his liking.
He later was hired into a management-training program with the athletic shoe company Foot Locker. But, after about six months, Davison said that wasn’t what he wanted to do, either.
“I finally realized; I keep coming back to the park service,” Davison said. “Maybe I should go that route.”
For a few years, Davison would work summers in the National Parks. Winters, he’d work at one ski resort or another. It took him several years, but he finally landed a permanent position with the NPS.
That led eventually to his appointment as Superintendent of the Fort Laramie National Historic Site, a job he officially started at the end of August.
“Unless you go into park management, most of the people in the Park Service just stumble across this career,” Davison said recently in his new office in the FLNHS visitor center. “It just took me a while to figure out, this is my real job.”
For most of his 30 years, Davison worked in the “visitor protection” division of the NPS. He hesitates to label the job as “law enforcement,” he said, because “law enforcement was only one part of my responsibilities. I was more interested in wildland fire (prevention), I became an EMT and Search and Rescue,” Davison said.
“It was the way to get in (the NPS) and to move up,” he said. “Back then, we said we had three jobs: Protect the people from the people, we protected the people from the resource, and we protected the resource from the people.”
And that’s what he was doing as Chief Ranger at the Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction, Colo., when he was appointed in June to take over operations in Fort Laramie from retiring superintendent, Tom Baker. Before that, Davison worked at the Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota and Capulin Volcano in New Mexico, among other locations.
He also spent several years as the Chief Ranger at the nearby Scotts Bluff National Monument in Nebraska. So, returning to eastern Wyoming is something of a homecoming for Davison.
And several motivations prompted the move, he said.
“I have one daughter living in Scottsbluff, another daughter attending the University of Wyoming and my wife’s family is in Gillette,” Davison said. “And, being a South Dakota native, I’m one day closer to things.
“And, I’d been 30 years in law enforcement, and I wanted a change,” he said. “I wanted to stay with the park service and the next logical jump is to a superintendent position.”
Davison enjoys the smaller NPS attractions – or Units, as they’re known in the vernacular – which make up the vast majority of the federal public parks system in this country. Of the 418 units in the National Parks system, only 42 are classified as full-fledged “National Parks.” That leaves a whole lot of things for people to do and see around the country and Davison likes being a part of that.
“I tell people, we’re all units of the National Park Service; We go by two names – our first name (like Fort Laramie), then we have our last name – National Park, National Monument, National Lakeshore.
“Don’t pay attention to the last name, it’s all about the first name. We’re all managed the same.”
A big attraction to the smaller units for Davison is the ability to get to know and interact with the people – both staff and visitors. Step into the visitor center at any major National Park, he said, and you’ll probably see 50 or 100 people, all lined up to ask questions of one or two Park Rangers.
Not so at Fort Laramie, where the opportunities for one-on-one interaction with visitors abound, Davison said.
From a visitor standpoint, too, Davison is fond of the smaller, lesser-known attractions, which he sees as more relaxed and laid back. While the big National Parks – Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Acadia and more – are “glorified,” he said, they’re also under pressure from too many visitors and too much to do.
“The visitation is almost more than they can handle,” Davison said. “They’re just being inundated with so many people, the resources are being affected. And when you go to Yellowstone, it’s so overwhelming. You just can’t see it all.
“But, if you come here, spend a couple of hours, you can learn so much about the western expansion of our country, the different people who’ve been through Fort Laramie,” he said. “You can’t do everything at once. You only have so much capacity to learn, your attention span just can’t take it in. But you come to the relaxing places (like Fort Laramie) and you can.”
Visitors to the national monuments, seashores or memorials usually come with a specific interest in mind, Davison said. While the big National Parks are the places people go to play, those smaller units are places people can go to learn.
“The people who come here, actually want to come here,” he said. “They make an effort to come here.
“You’re not just stumbling across Fort Laramie,” Davison said. “It’s off the beaten path a little bit, but not that far.”