Seven Questions for Lake Mead National Recreation’s Lizette Richardson

The chief on the West’s wide-open spaces, 100 years of the park service and how the drought makes each visit unique 

You were chief of maintenance and engineering for the Lake Mead National Recreation Area from 2004-2013, and after a short stay as chief of the Construction Program Management Division in the National Park Service’s national office in Denver, you returned here in 2015 to be superintendent. How did your previous stint at Lake Mead inform your decision-making today?

That position manages all of the park infrastructure and operations—not only the day-to-day but also the capital improvements. At any given time, you’re dealing with the entire lake, the land, all the visitors, because we want to make sure the facilities are clean. Maintenance touches every part of the park, so it’s nonstop 24/7, really high-profile. The typical day could be dealing with park housing, budgets and resource management. It got involved with everything.

What drew you to engineering in the first place?

When I went to college, I was going to be a math major. But I realized that teaching wasn’t going to be in my future, and a lot of people who went into math would go on to be doctors. Midstream, since I really liked math, I chose to go into engineering because I liked the science part of it. I liked figuring out formulas and solving things.

You were born in New York and spent your childhood in the Bronx. In your wildest dreams, did you think about the wide-open spaces of the West?

It seems the two wouldn’t be connected. I thought I would stay in a large city, but I moved out here for personal reasons in the early ’80s and once I did, I really liked the openness. You had a lot of room to do whatever you wanted. I loved the climate and the landscape.

At first I thought there’s a lot of space that you can still build things. In New York City, there’s nothing but buildings and skyscrapers. But then I thought, this is really nice, you can go outdoors and it’s a little different pace—not as hurry, hurry, hurry. You can sit back and enjoy things.

The park is ranked fifth of 410 national parks in annual visitors, with seven million. How do you know it’s a good day?

It’s a good day when there’s not a safety incident. We have a law-enforcement component, and sometimes people come out and they may get hurt or do some things that we wouldn’t find acceptable or appropriate for a recreation area. It’s a good day when we know it’s quiet from that side of the house.

Is the biggest problem drinking, and the recklessness associated with that?

A lot of the drowning is just from not wearing a life jacket. It’s not that they have too much to drink or are reckless—it’s just maybe they’re unaware the lake’s conditions can change. You can think it’s really nice and calm and clear, and you get out there and the wind kicks up. Or it’s deep; it’s not a pool. While you might think you’re an expert swimmer or a really experienced swimmer, you [still] need to put a life jacket on. But there’s definitely also an aspect of that: Too much alcohol and riding a fast boat is not a good combination, and we get accidents.

How are you celebrating 100 years of the National Park Service?

At the national level, the campaign is Find Your Park. At Lake Mead, we launched Find Your Park From Vegas (FindYourPark.Vegas) on March 3. We’re trying to [instill] a broader sense—getting outdoors, connecting with nature. Find whatever park and whatever activity you want to do. We’re working with the City of Las Vegas and Fremont Street Experience, and we’re developing a video which will be shown on the canopy during National Park Week, April 16-24, and also on the actual 100th birthday, August 25. In April, we will have volunteer cleanups, a Junior Ranger Day, a Find Your Park Day and a Junior Scientist Day. All of this is to connect and create that next generation of visitors.

Although it’s a challenge you’d rather not face, how has the drought added intrigue for visitors?

It’s a different lake each year. In some ways you don’t know what you’re going to encounter, which is exciting. We hear from boaters who have been [coming] here for a long time, because [the water level] is down another 10-15 feet, maybe something else got exposed, or they’re seeing it a little bit differently. It provides a [unique] experience that other parks don’t get from that standpoint. With the B-29 wreckage, for example, before you had to have the more experienced divers and now we can get more of the recreational divers. Even the hikers, visually, have a different experience.

The majority of the park is land-based. Across all parks, there are picnic areas, campgrounds, ranger stations and amphitheaters. When you overlay the lake, it’s more dynamic and complex. I love it; that’s why I came back!

Photo by Krystal Ramirez