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‘Bring them on’

New Lava Beds-Tule Lake superintendent ready for challenges
Chris Mengel

LAVA BEDS NATIONAL MONUMENT – Chris Mengel, the new superintendent for Lava Beds and Tule Lake national monuments, is facing several challenges at both parks.

His attitude? Bring them on.

Mengel, 55, took over as superintendent in October after serving as chief ranger at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and the Curecanti National Recreation Area in Colorado. He replaces Larry Whalon, who retired earlier this year.

“There are a lot of important stories to tell here,” Mengel said of the cultural and human histories of both parks. At Lava Beds those stories include the geology and human history of lava tube caves and the historic Modoc War. At Tule Lake, the focus is the World War II incarceration of Japanese-Americans.

A major happening at Tule Lake will be opening a temporary visitor center next spring or summer at the former ditch rider house at the former Tule Lake Segregation Center near Newell. It’s expected that opening will significantly increase visitation because the park’s only current information center is at the Tulelake-Butte Valley Fairgrounds office in Tulelake. Other 2022 events include ceremonies marking the rehabilitation of the center’s former prison and the 80th anniversary of the Tule Lake being established in May 1942.

Mengel notes Tule Lake was the most significant of the 10 internment camps that incarcerated Japanese-Americans, two-thirds of them American citizens, during WWII and said the rehabilitated prison is regarded as the most significant building at all the camps.

Lava Beds is also remembering key dates, including the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Modoc Indian War in 2022 and in 2026 celebrating the 100th anniversary of Lava Beds being designated a national monument.

“I look forward to working with the many partners and stakeholders connected to these special places to preserve the resources and share the history,” Mengel said.

Mengel’s history with National Park Service began in 1988 when he was a seasonal ranger at Mount Rainier National Park. Before working at Black Canyon of the Gunnison, he was as a law enforcement ranger at Grand Canyon National Park, chief ranger at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area and served as acting superintendent at Petrified Forest National Park and acting district ranger on the Bass Lake District of the Sierra National Forest.

An eighth-generation Californian, Mengel grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and graduated from California State University-East Bay, where he received a bachelor’s degree in biology with an emphasis on ecology and natural history. During his growing-up years his family visited many regional, state and national parks, although not Lava Beds.

“We did a fair amount of exploring and camping. That planted the seed,” he said of what stimulated his Park Service career.

He and his family — wife, Jennifer, and son, Sean — have been familiarizing themselves with both parks, including exploring some of the 800-plus caves at Lava Beds. “Its name doesn’t give people an idea of what’s truly here,” he said of Lava Beds and its diverse offerings, noting the park includes the largest known concentration of lava tube caves in the continental U.S.

Mengel also likes that nearly all the lava tubes are undeveloped, which “gives people quite a bit of freedom to explore the caves, to experience different areas. It is a diverse park.”

He said efforts to reopen areas of Lava Beds closed by recent fires is “taking up a fair amount of resources,” including a focus on protecting many culturally significant sites. He’s quick to credit park maintenance staff, including longtime employees Don Bowen and Chris Orr, for their foresight over the years-ago to implement measures that helped prevent the park headquarters complex, which includes the visitor center, residences, offices and maintenance shops, from being damaged or destroyed by the fires.

Upcoming projects at Lava Beds include repaving the park’s south entrance road and replacing the asphalt on trails from parking areas to several of the caves and cultural sites.

At Tule Lake, which includes Camp Tulelake, originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps before WWII and later held prisoners of war from Italy and Germany, projects include improving signage and locating rangers on-site at the future visitor center.

Mengel said he’s working with park staff to develop visitor service plans and interpretative programs at both Tule Lake and Lava Beds, a task made challenging by the continued closure of burned areas at Lava Beds along with staffing shortages and COVID-19 restrictions at both parks.

“We’re still working on what we can offer,” Mengel said of providing visitor activities such as campfire programs and ranger-led hikes at Lava Beds and Tule Lake. “Our goal is to protect the resources, provide the best possible visitor experiences, serve the public and keep these special places special.”

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.