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Larry Whalon, Lava Beds superintendent, is retiring

LAVA BEDS NATIONAL MONUMENT — Larry Whalon, the superintendent at Lava Beds National Monument and Tule Lake National Monument for nearly six years, will retire in early February.

“There’s no regrets. This is a gem of a place,” Whalon, 58, said of his years at Lava Beds and Tule Lake. “I’ve enjoyed it, I’ve enjoyed living at the park.”

His retirement will take effect Feb. 5. An interim superintendent is expected to be named before he departs.

Whalon said he’s been planning his retirement for more than a year with his wife of 35 years, Teal. The couple plan to relocate to La Pine, where, “I plan on spending days with Teal camping and fishing.

“A lot of thought has gone into this decision, leaving Lava Beds/Tule Lake is very difficult, especially leaving so many excellent employees. However, the day that I arrived I knew that this day would come. The Tule Basin community has also had a profound positive effect on my professional growth, but most of all on my personal perspective on how to live and a sense of pride about home.”

Whalon said he believes the capstone of his 33-year National Park Service career has been events of the past year while dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the Whitney fire, which burned about 31,000 acres of the park. Although the pandemic forced many parks to close, Lava Beds has remained open. And, although the Whitney fire forced a brief park closure, firefighting efforts and management decisions prevented the blaze from damaging the visitor center/park residence areas. He believes damage caused by the fire will prove to be temporary, noting, “We can’t look at it as a huge loss, it’s renewal.”

Management at Tule Lake, which became its own park but is still managed by Lava Beds, has sometimes been challenging, partly because of disagreements involving the Modoc Nation (the former Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma), Tule Lake Committee and Tulelake Basin people. Still, Whalon is optimistic ongoing improvements and upgrades will be made, including reopening the camp prison and opening of a visitor center along Highway 139. He predicts the visitor center will double annual visitation to upward of 350,000 people, noting, “The economics of that will be good for the entire community.”

He said efforts by outside groups to change Lava Beds’ status as a national monument to a national park are still being discussed. Sponsors are continuing to work with the Modoc Nation, and Rep. Doug LaMalfa, whose far Northern California congressional district includes the Tulelake Basin. The Modocs and LaMalfa oppose the change, although Whalon believes “people are generally supportive. ... It’s just a matter of timing.”

Whalon’s 33-year NPS career began in the summer of 1988 on a fire at Yellowstone National Park. It continued in the early 1990s while working in the Western Arctic National Parklands and National Preserve in Alaska. “That experience left me with a greater understanding of ecosystem management and a Native American perspective on land and resource conservation,” he said.

From 1996 until 2001 he initiated and managed a program at Pinnacles National Park to reintroduce California condors back into California. In 2001 he worked at the Mojave National Preserve as the chief of resources until 2009, when he became Mojave’s deputy superintendent.

Whalon was hired as superintendent of the Lava Beds and Tule Lake national monuments in April 2015.

“We made it through shutdowns, fires and viruses and,” he added with a laugh, “it is the only park unit that ever let me plow snow.”

Whalon attended Linfield College and the University of Wyoming, earning degrees in biology and botany before beginning as an NPS seasonal. “I did all kinds of ranger things like fighting fires, search and rescue, giving visitors tours, painting, and recently plowing snow.”

Whalon has one major regret about something that hasn’t happened during his tenure: the development of a trail from Mammoth Crater to Hidden Valley and, farther on, the Caldwell Butte area.

“I’ve walked it several times,” Whalon said of hike. “It’s something I wanted to help make happen.” He envisions a trail that would also be horse-friendly. “That’s the one regret I have.”

Something he doesn’t regret is deciding to live in the park, appropriately at the historic superintendent’s house that’s just steps from park headquarters, the visitor center and hiking trails.

“Living up here, the quiet is deafening,” Whalon said, noting the seasonal sounds of cranes and songbirds. “I have deer that sleep on my porch. There’s a badger that lives in my woodpile.”

He believes Lava Beds, Tule Lake and other National Park Service sites serve a significant purpose.

“They say that the national parks are America’s best idea,” Whalon said. “I add that they reflect us as a nation, and through their preservation we pass on to future generations our highest ideals of who we are and who we want to be.”

Larry Whalon