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For New Superintendent, Guadalupe Mountains Are A “Homecoming”

Guadalupe Mountains National Park Supt. Eric Brunnemann, outside the park's office in Dell City.

Bounded by private holdings at the high end of Texas, Guadalupe Mountains National Park may seem like an isolated outpost of federal land.

But Eric Brunnemann, the park's new superintendent, doesn't see it that way. A 25-year park-service veteran, he took the job in June 2015, following a longtime passion for the Trans-Pecos.

Brunnemann's connection to the Trans-Pecos began as a boy, when his family traveled from their home in San Antonio to the Fort Davis National Historic Site. Brunnemann didn't understand the park rules. He and a friend thought they'd use a metal detector to find artifacts.

“We weren't there five minutes when the chief ranger came over and busted us,” Brunnemann said. “I was horrified. But I remember during that entire setting-the-record-straight conversation with the ranger that I thought, 'I like what he's doing. This is really cool.'”

Brunnemann's fascination deepened in his college years, at UT-Austin. One day, he found himself in front of boxes stored in one of the university's cavernous warehouses.

“At the time, I thought, 'what's in those boxes? What are they?'” he said. “It turned out to be Trans-Pecos artifacts, from Lake Amistad, when they were doing the work down there. And I got into botanical work, I got into lechuguilla, agave plants, what were these vegetal fibers that were left over.”

Brunnemann's wrote his master's thesis on Trans-Pecos archeology. And several years later, he took his first park service job – as historian and museum curator at Fort Davis.

After several seasons in the Davis Mountains, Brunnemann left for Albuquerque – to continue his academic work at the University of New Mexico. At the same time, he worked with the park service there in opening a new site – Petroglyph National Monument

The experience expanded his understanding of what it takes to be a park ranger.

“It wasn't surprising at all to see your superintendent and see your chief ranger and your first-line staff cleaning toilets, cleaning bathrooms, rebuilding,” Brunnemann said. “So we did it all, and that's what you walk away with, feeling like you really are a jack of all trades. And that makes a great ranger.”

In school, Brunnemann was on track for a PhD. But he left academia, to commit himself to the parks.

“I really loved the National Park Service,” he said, “and just wanted to totally enmesh myself in it. It's the people that come visit you that I find so enamoring.”

Brunnemann's next job was as a cultural resource manager in Utah parks.

In this role, he was called on to issue letters to native tribes on behalf of the park – but he took a more hands-on approach.

He instead established personal relationships with the Native American elders. The strategy worked. Soon tribes and park officials were working together.

Brunnemann moved on to a series of superintendent positions, at World War II parks in Guam and Saipan, at Pinnacles National Park in California, and at Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

At Badlands, he worked with Oglala Sioux leaders to create a “tribal national park.” If it's approved by the tribe and by Congress, the park would be the first of its kind.

But Brunnemann's thoughts turned again to West Texas. After five years at Badlands, he took the job at Guadalupes. It was like is a homecoming.

“I come here and I can tell you every plant I'm looking at, every ecological environment,” he said. “It's been time – but I can still pretty much give you a good overview of prehistory, a good overview of history. It's the pair of work gloves you put on that feels like they still fit. That's what you want to work with. This is where I was meant to be.”

And collaboration remains the hallmark of his career.

“I love to work outside the park boundary,” Brunnemann said. “That's where I swim. Yes, we have a very specific mission, but we also have neighbors. For that reason, I'm going to reach out to all variety of organizations, 501(c)3s, ranchers, cattleman's association, because we all have our roles on our land – and that's what I intend to do here.”

And like he's done elsewhere, Brunnemann hopes he can strengthen Guadalupe Mountains National Park.