Cope will retire at the end of this month after 17 years as the chief of maintenance at Mesa Verde National Park.
Before settling down in Southwest Colorado, Cope and his wife, Jill Blumenthal, worked at national parks all over the country — from the Everglades in Florida to Mount Rainier in Washington state.
He was an electrician in the late 1980s at Petrified Forest National Park and head of maintenance through the early 1990s at Zion National Park. There, he helped develop the transportation system for the park, which saw more than 4 million visitors last year and is one of the busiest in the park system.
After he retires, Cope plans to spend some time working on his house in Cortez, as well as pursuing his hobby as a painter.
“I’ll miss it, I’ll really miss it,” he said. “I’ll miss the activity and all the action.”
The Journal recently sat down with Cope to discuss his favorite moments of his career, as well as the future of the National Park Service. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get started in the park service?Frank Cope: I applied in Cedar Breaks National Monument and I got that job. I worked in Cedar Breaks in the summers from 1985 to 1987. I was a maintenance person, custodian and anything else that came my way. It set the stage for applying in other parks.
I started in Death Valley in February 1988. I worked in Scotty’s Castle and did historic preservation work on the castle. That was a really interesting job. I did preservation work, restoring wood components on Scotty’s Castle.
I applied for and got the job here in Mesa Verde and reported here in July 1999. We have been here ever since, almost 17 years.
After moving around so much, why did you decide to stay in Mesa Verde?Cope: To be honest, I’ve never lived in a place where I felt more at home. There’s lots of recreational opportunities here. It’s beautiful.
Cortez is a place that we’ve really enjoyed because it’s not quite as busy and demanding as a lot of other places we’ve lived.
How do you choose maintenance projects at the park from such a long list?Cope: You’re constantly weighing out what needs to be done and prioritizing. But the main thing is that you’re very aggressive and very opportunistic when funding arrives, so that you’re there and ready to go.
You take advantage of that and be ready for it. You make sure that you’re always looking around and have projects ready to go. So when money comes you can grab it and go out to contracting and get the work done.
What are the most significant projects you’ve been a part of at Mesa Verde?Cope: We made I feel a tremendous contribution to the park. We’ve done a number of things, the Visitor Center being one of them. I was involved in that all the way through, and we were able to get it. It’s a wonderful facility, and I’m really proud of that.
We’ve done tons and tons of utility upgrades including new water systems. We replaced the majority of the water line all the way up to the Chapin Mesa museum. I’m pretty proud of that.
We’ve rebuilt almost all of the roadways and done lots of trail work and building upgrades. I calculate about $85 million worth of facility upgrades including the Visitor Center.
How have you dealt with increasing popularity and visitation at the park?Cope: Mesa Verde is not as busy of a park as a lot of other parks. However, the visitors that we do get stay longer and they do more stuff than the average visitor in a park that’s really busy.
We haven’t experienced nearly the problems that a lot of other parks have yet, but it’s coming our way. It’s going to get busier and busier.
What does the future hold for Mesa Verde and the National Park Service? Cope: I believe that this country has a really good thing with the national parks. I believe that the national parks are going to be under a lot of stress in the future. More and more people means that the boundaries of these parks are going to be pushed to the absolute max.
I think that in the near future it’s going to be really necessary for the citizens of this country to support and uphold the principles of land preservation. As more people get into the world, the more demand there’s going to be to relinquish public land. I think it’s going to really be necessary for all citizens to love and respect and to keep it.
That’s going to be in the future the biggest challenge the American population is going to have — holding on to that dream and keeping the public land principles sacred and functional.
What are your favorite places in Mesa Verde National Park?Cope: The best one that I really enjoy is the view from Point Lookout. That’s by far one of the best. It’s just a splendid view. You can see forever up there in every direction.
I like to walk from building to building. I think some of the most favorite places are on the walk between our maintenance area and the park headquarters area through the forest. It’s really magical all the time.
Some of those views down in to Spruce Canyon are just really nice, especially during the moods of the day.
What are your favorite stories or memories from your time in the park service?Cope: When I was working in Death Valley I was able to go and do things around Death Valley that not everyone got to go through.
In Scotty’s Castle there was a pipe organ in the castle. There was a little walkway and gallery in there where you could hunch down and see all of these big massive pipes, and they would just resonate through you. That was pretty invigorating.
One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed about the park service is the people. The people who work for the park service by and large are very dedicated people.
I think it’s working with the people who’ve really made the journey wonderful.