Construction and Maintenance staff work on the ground (and sometimes under it) to keep parks running
Skilled construction and maintenance people essential members of State Parks team
J.D. Newman buckles his harness, ropes up and clips into a tripod anchor. He then makes the 12-foot descent into a dry well to dismantle a clogged sewage pump. After 20 minutes, he surfaces with something putrid. The culprit: facial wipes.
Welcome to an hour in the life of a State Parks construction and maintenance (C and M) specialist.
Washington state parks receive 35 million visits a year, in 125 locations encompassing more than 120,000 acres of diverse terrain.
Visitors arrive expecting parks to be clean, safe and pleasant, with promised amenities in order, and State Parks C and M staff pull off a mind-blowing volume of work to meet —or exceed—customer expectations.
Though they operate mostly in the background, C and M specialists are highly skilled trades men and women. Many do journey-level work in construction, electrical, plumbing, water, sewage treatment and other areas. They are fluent in best practices, power tools and motorized equipment. Many are in their second careers, having owned businesses or worked for large companies.
The public works department
J.D. Newman is a pipe fitter who often finds himself wading through poop in his work at State Parks. The range of work can include the day-to-day work associated with sewage treatment systems – or the rare and unusual; Newman’s State Parks job experience includes cordoning off the carcasses of beached whales.
“Sometimes my wife does not want to hear what I did at work,” he laughed. But the big Texan takes it in stride. “You’re always in it. After a while it doesn’t bother you.”
Southwest Region Maintenance Manager Lynn Nordloh encourages people to see C and Ms as the Public Works division of State Parks. He likened most parks and the camping parks in particular, to small cities.
“Our department handles infrastructure—water (including water quality monitoring) and sewer, buildings, structures, electrical, roads (striping, cleaning, minor repairs and bridge repairs),” said Nordloh.
Special parks, special needs
Newman noted that working on the coast, where he oversees five parks, has its issues. Sand and water lead to rust, rot and clogging. Winds can reach 100 miles per hour and, while Newman hasn’t experienced a tsunami, he has picked up Japanese tsunami debris, including two boats.
Each region of the state has its own temperament.
Parks in the western region deal with rain and flooding as well as tree rot and tree falls. When 200 trees blew over during a 2006 storm at Deception Pass, the park’s four-person C and M crew spent days removing downed trees and repairing roads. According to Deception Pass’ C and M Lead, Mark Lunz, the park took years to recover.
The eastern region experiences fires in summer and fall, snow and ice in winter and floods and landslides in spring. Tim Evans, C and M lead for Pearrygin Lake, Curlew Lake and Conconully state parks recalls a 2011 mudslide that filled the creek to Pearrygin Lake. When the creek came back, it had changed directions and was running across the road.
“We built a bridge/box culvert to divert the flow, but erosion began eating away at the banks,” Evans said.
The crew assessed the threat to park structures and let nature take its course. In other years, further manipulation was necessary to avoid flooding and water contamination.
Juggling and jockeying
Despite their individual trials, the regions share a challenge: the system-wide building facilities backlog of nearly $500 million and general deferred maintenance that goes beyond that.
Newman lists five pending projects for winter. But, he said, “I can come to work with a plan for the day, and there are surprises around every corner.”
In addition to their skills, C and M specialists must be flexible and adaptable.
Statewide Maintenance Chief Dave Jaquish and Nordloh both plan deferred maintenance projects based on what they can get done in the current biennium. Funding for these projects come from the agency’s Operations budget, which doesn’t carry over to the next biennium. (Capital projects—such as new construction—can carry over.)
“Environmental permitting can take six months to a year,” Jaquish said.
Nordloh notes that, in cases of historically or tribally significant lands or structures, permitting can also take six months.
“At the beginning of the biennium we go for permitting,” he said. “Then we start on the low-hanging fruit.”
He has also waited more than a year for special order equipment to arrive.
“We juggle and jockey,” he said.
In addition to the backlog, Parks’ equipment is aging.
“Some vehicles have 300,000 miles on them,” Nordloh said.
In three months, he put 10,000 miles on a new State Parks truck, traveling to parks under his jurisdiction.
“We go through vehicles,” he said.
Finally, staffing is an issue. Approximately 115 C and Mstaffers oversee all of State Parks. Several parks and regions have vacancies. Evans admits he cannot cover the distances between his base at Pearrygin and the smaller parks as often as he’d like. Forunately, he said, “Curlew and Conconully have well-qualified staff who take pride in their parks,” allowing him to concentrate on pressing issues at Pearrygin.
In the face of these challenges, C and M crews maintain a can-do attitude. For Newman, the best part of the job is meeting the public.
“I ride through the parks with my window down so campers can flag me with problems,” he said.
When he’s doing maintenance in the park, he said visitors get curious, and retired people who did maintenance work during their careers like to chat. The Deception Pass C and M crew is responsible for a big, popular park with many historical buildings and sewage pumps. They leave customer service to the rangers and park aides. Lunz takes satisfaction in his team’s anonymity.
“If we’re doing our job, the public shouldn’t even see us,” he said. “They see a clean, well-maintained, usable place.”
But Lunz admits that anonymity is a mixed blessing at budget time and said that when people don’t see a problem, they don’t realize there’s a need for money or staff.
Most C and M specialists describe themselves as outdoor people who could not thrive at a desk job. After 18 years at Deception Pass, Lunz, who works in the park with his crew, said he has no plans, “to move up the ladder and be a bookkeeper.”
Likewise, Newman is a lifelong tinkerer who loves to fix things and needs to stay active.
Of his 12 years with State Parks, Newman said: “This is the best job I’ve ever had. I do something different every day. My life is good because of it.”