Bruce Noble will carry the memories of many special places with him when he departs the National Park Service at the end of the month, after more than three decades of service.
He’s been in charge of operations within national parks for nineteen of those years and departs his career having helmed the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park for the past five.
“When you’re the superintendent of a national park, it’s sort of like you’re in charge of a small town, or sometimes a big town,” Noble said Friday, shortly before his retirement party.
As superintendent, Noble was responsible for sweeping issues, such as employee housing, water and sewer systems, upkeep of education programs, overseeing law enforcement operations, protecting resources and budgeting.
“It’s a pretty all-encompassing role and then you get into partnership organizations like the Friends of the Black Canyon, which I was able to get started as a 501(c)3 organization,” Noble said.
The Friends group formed in 2017 as a citizen action group to help the park with fundraising, volunteer support and advocacy. It attained nonprofit status in 2018 and Noble said the group is critical.
The fundraising component is important. Black Canyon and Curecanti have seen visitor numbers climb steadily, while budgets don’t keep pace.
Black Canyon is the second lowest funded of all national parks, Noble said.
“We’re not working with a lot of resources and we’re dealing with exploding visitation, lack of infrastructure and a lack of budget. It makes for a difficult combination of issues,” he said.
Despite challenges, Noble was able to chalk up several successes during his tenure at Black Canyon and Curecanti.
In 2016, the NPS and The Conservation Fund purchased the Sanburg Ranch at market value, adding nearly 2,500 acres to the park. The acquisition was formally celebrated last year.
“I think it was a win for the property owner and definitely a win for that park, in terms of having ownership of that property and being able to ensure it is not subject to private development,” Noble said.
Noble won’t still be superintendent when other progress is realized, but he’s pleased the park and national recreation area are poised for success.
A wilderness and backcountry management plan is being completed; when he arrived, the planning process was “a bit on the rocks,” he said.
“Even though it’s not going to get finished on my watch, within 12 to 18 months, it should be finished and that will give us a blueprint for managing our wilderness and I think that will be a really important contribution to Black Canyon and Curecanti.”
Noble is also hopeful that, at long last, legislation establishing Curecanti National Recreation Area’s formal boundary will come to fruition.
Curecanti is one of only two NRAs that was not established by legislation or executive order. Instead, it operates under a 54-year-old agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation. A clause in the legislation that established the Black Canyon as a national park in 1999 said the NPS would study the potential for legislation for Curecanti.
“Here we sit 19 years later and we don’t have legislation, but we’re one step closer, due to the fact that the Curecanti legislation has gotten out of the House of Representatives,” Noble said. “It will be anybody’s guess as to where it goes in the Senate, but it would be a good thing for the park if it was passed by the Senate.”
The Curecanti National Recreation Area Boundary Establishment Act is one of four components of a bigger piece of legislation, the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, or CORE Act. It would formally establish Curecanti’s boundary.
“I would say the Curecanti legislation is probably the least complicated or controversial part of that whole package,” Noble said.
A conceptual plan for infrastructure needs at the Black Canyon has also begun. It would examine road improvements, creating recreational opportunities that are more moderately difficult in nature and the longstanding problem of getting water to the South Rim. Noble said although the conceptual plan won’t provide funding for infrastructure, it will provide an important roadmap for seeking it.
He is leaving just as the NPS gears up to rehab the Elk Creek Visitor Center at Curecanti, which was built in 1968 and is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The park is seeking public input, which will be accepted through Dec. 31.
The renovation would fit well with the “miraculously improved marina complex” at Elk Creek, Noble said.
Within Curecanti, Cimarron now is home to a display of historic, restored rail cars the City of Montrose owns, a further draw to the third-most visited part of the NRA, Noble said.
In 2017, Black Canyon gained a sister park, Tara National Park in Serbia. The two parks are under a five-year agreement to assist one another with preservation efforts and Noble was able to visit Tara.
Noble caps off a career that began in Washington, D.C., where he was a historian who reviewed applications for placement of the National Register of Historic Places — work he began after a two-year stint for the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office.
In D.C., it fell to him to review Colorado’s nominations for placement on the register.
“It was really kind of a fun experience, just because you had a lot of interaction with the state historic preservation offices and they kind of considered you an important person, because you were the one deciding whether the nominations they submitted got listed,” Noble said.
In 1994, through the government’s Operation Opportunity, Noble went to Harpers Ferry National Historic Park in West Virginia, where he was chief of interpretation and cultural resources for six years.
“I was still kind of immersed in history and I loved it. Harpers Ferry was a fabulous place, great scenery, great history,” Noble said.
It didn’t hurt the park that Sen. Robert Byrd was a powerful member of Congress and directed a lot of federal money to West Virginia, including to Harpers Ferry.
Noble’s first jump from interpretive work to a superintendent role was at Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park in Skagway, Alaska.
“I think the feeling was that having somebody with some background in history as a person in charge of that place made some sense. It seems like it made sense to me. That was another really fabulous place to be,” Noble said.
“Once I had that experience under my belt, then that kind of opened the door to other superintendent positions that weren’t necessarily in historical parks. Although, every national park area certainly has some history, archaeology and so on. It kind of stays with you wherever you go. Even your most pristine national park has been affected by human history. That’s always part of the story.”
Noble became superintendent of Colorado National Monument in 2004, his first posting that was not in a national historic park. He then went to Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Oklahoma.
But he and his wife, Pat, were itching to return to Colorado, so when the listing came up for Black Canyon and Curecanti, he applied.
“It’s going to be hard to leave. It’s going to feel like I’m jumping off a moving train,” Noble said.
“ … This has been what’s gotten me out of bed every day for 33 years and not doing it anymore is definitely going to be a change.”
But Pat is long retired from federal service, and Noble said it was time to spend time with her. They will live in Grand Junction.
After a trip to celebrate their 30th anniversary, Noble hopes to do some teaching and writing — as well as enjoy the kinds of places he spent decades overseeing.
“Certainly, we’ll have more time to visit national parks,” he said.
The NPS has closed applications for his permanent replacement and a new superintendent could be aboard by late spring or early summer 2020. Deanna Greco, comes to Black Canyon and Curecanti early next month as acting superintendent.
“Whoever it is (coming permanently), they’re coming to a really spectacular park and they’re going to have the opportunity to work with people who care deeply about those two parks,” Noble said.
“Anyone who lands this job should feel very fortunate.”
Timeline of service
1986: National Register of Historic Places, as a program historian, D.C.
1994: Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, as chief of interpretation and cultural resources.
2000: Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park
2004: Colorado National Monument
2007: Chickasaw National Recreation Area
2014: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Curecanti National Recreation Area.
• Education: University of Wyoming.