John Sansing, the retired superintendent of Point Reyes National Seashore who skippered the park for nearly a quarter-century, overseeing such extensive and at times contentious projects as the construction of Bear Valley Visitor Center and the re-introduction of tule elk on Pierce Point, died at his Lucas Valley home on February 28. He was 86.
A stoic civil servant who rarely beat around the bush, Sansing took over the reins at Point Reyes when the park was still in its infancy, and managed, through his diplomacy and learned tact, to steer it through a period of steady growth. His tenure there remains one of the longest single-stationed superintendent posts in National Park Service history.
“He was a statesman,” Leeroy Brock, who served as chief ranger at the Seashore for years under Sansing, said. “John could negotiate controversial issues by having meetings and working behind the scenes, and by getting consensus before things got out of hand.”
Sansing was perhaps best known for his ability to bridge divides between the region’s headstrong environmental and ranching communities. He held rancher meetings at least four times per year, Brock said, and typically in homes rather than in “a drab government building.”
“He was real straight-shooting dude,” Joey Mendoza, who leases a dairy in the park, said. “John was never afraid to look you in the eye and tell it like it was. And his word was always solid.”
At times, Sansing’s sensitivity to the public could come off to coworkers as capitulation. Some, noted former Light publisher Dave Mitchell in a 1992 column, “complained that Sansing’s attention to keeping local residents happy hinders his staff from doing what—from a professional standpoint—should be done.”
“Why has Sansing been able to hang on so long despite the flak periodically fired at him by the public and even his own staff?” Mitchell asked Sansing in an interview. “‘I guess they let [the flak] get to them,” Sansing replied as he tucked a pinch of snuff into his cheek. ‘I don’t.’”
John L. Sansing was born near Globe, Arizona on December 23, 1925 to Vester, a fuel distributor and lumberyard owner, and Thelma, a stay-at-home mom. The family was not well off, and Sansing worked a number of blue-collar jobs—mining copper, timekeeping, managing an auto agency—early in his youth.
Though copper mining jobs saturated Globe at the time, Sansing viewed the industry’s stability as fleeting. “When you grow up in a mining town the crucial question is how long the mine is going to last,” he once told a reporter. “It makes you look for something that has a little more future.”
Illness derailed a brief military stint at the height of World War II—he never saw combat—and Sansing went on to earn a degree in business administration from the University of Arizona, Tucson. Shortly after graduating, he landed an entry-level position as a cost clerk at the park service’s Southwestern National Monument Headquarters, in Globe.
Sansing was soon promoted and, along with his wife, Betty, whom he’d married while in college, was relocated to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. Two years later he was transferred to Lake Mead National Recreation Area, in Nevada. In 1963 Sansing was offered a position as assistant programs officer for the Western Regional Office, in San Francisco.
The family—including three out of an eventual four children—moved to Marinwood, and Sansing began rapidly climbing the administrative ladder: programs officer, assistant to the regional director, deputy assistant regional director for operations. In April of 1970 he was appointed superintendent of the Seashore.
Sansing quickly learned that Point Reyes was, as he put it, an “active community” with a wealth of public and private stakeholders. In his early years he had a number of disputes with local conservationists. But as time went on, Sansing developed a knack for keeping the peace. “I saw him go from being a hard-line, autocratic, old-school ‘my-park-is-my-kingdom’ administrator to one very responsive to the community and environmental concerns,” Paul Kayfetz, a Bolinas attorney who disagreed with Sansing on many issues, once said.
“He had a rapport with pretty much everyone,” Betty said.
Sansing was not one for clutter, and took earnest aim at removing many of the Seashore’s outdated structures. He oversaw major clean-ups at Wildcat Beach and the Palomarin trailhead, and authorized the demolition of several concrete military bunkers. “He was a custodian,” Brock said. “He concentrated funds on certain projects and then made sure they were done right.”
Sansing collaborated with the Coastal Parks Association—now the Point Reyes National Seashore Association—to raise private funds for large-scale projects like the visitor center and the Clem Miller Education Center. He was an ardent supporter of the park’s equestrian program, helping to keep it afloat despite the widespread elimination of similar programs at other parks.
Sansing’s stamina at Point Reyes was marked. “I sort of feel like John had no ambition other than to be the superintendent of Point Reyes National Seashore,” Joan Stewart, a rancher and friend, said. “He was happy here.”
It was that contentment and commitment that helped Sansing become an effective leader. “A lot of the problems that the ranchers have with park superintendents is that we stay and they go,” Stewart said. “He really wanted to get to know this area. And he did. He actually physically got out and saw it.”
Sansing also made attempts to foster relations with the local press. After the accidental death of a child at the lighthouse in the mid-70’s he and Mitchell collaborated on an editorial campaign that pushed the Western Regional Office to reopen the site to the public. “He gave us a lot of good quotes,” Mitchell said. “At other times I disagreed with him, sure, but they were always kind of flash-in-the-pan things.”
After retiring in 1995, Sansing and Betty traveled extensively throughout the state, a small trailer hitched to the back of their car. Sansing played a lot of tennis, and spent considerable time photographing wine country with his friend, Tom Swan.
John Sansing is survived by his wife, Betty; his children John Sansing, Carol Meyers, Karen Talbot and James Sansing; his grandchildren Prescott, Hollis and Tallulah Sansing, Elena and Carly Meyers; and his sister Thelma Clark. En lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Phelan - McDermid Syndrome Foundation, P.O. Box 1016, Venice, Florida 34284 or online at 22q13.org in his granddaughter’s name, Tallulah Sansing.