In Virginia's River City, He Rules the Wilderness

December 25, 2012

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - With his retirement this month, Ralph White has received a steady stream of testimonials for the 32 years he devoted to the 600-plus-acre James River Park System. He's being celebrated as a conservationist, an anti-litter activist and a natural born naturalist who has made it an oasis for visitors when it once was a foreboding, crime-ridden place to avoid.

His biggest skill, however, seems to be managing people, not trails.

When bikers gathered along the banks of the James to party in the early '80s, leaving broken bottles in their wake and spooking families, he appealed to leaders of competing gangs to tone it down. Then he brought in a different demographic of school groups, families and "the Audubon folks" to discourage the bacchanals.

"It ain't fun here anymore," one of the bikers told White. "How can I sit here and have a beer sitting next to some pregnant lady and her squalling kid?"

White would often have to impart some cultural lessons to newcomers, such as when Cambodian fishermen hauled generators to the banks of the river, shocking fish with an electrical charge that brought them to the surface. He went to the head of the local Cambodian association.

"Is there anything you can do to stop this?" White recalls telling the association's president. "It's a very serious thing."

"He said, 'Three days. Give me three days,'" White said.

As promised, three days later the Cambodian fishermen had left their generators at home and took up fishing poles along the James, smiling broadly at an approving White.

"The point is," White said, "they just didn't know."

He's posted interpretive signs in Russian and Spanish to reinforce the rules of the park, and he's not averse to using sex-appeal in service to the wilderness. Once, he sent a shapely young environmentalist to the water's edge to clear trash and glass.

"Word got out this voluptuous girl was wading in the water," he said. "She had lots of volunteers, all of them guys. I hate to sell sex as a way to clean up the park, but she had a marvelous impact."

While White can fuss over litter and scold inconsiderate dog owners, the James River Park System is not a sterile, theme park version of wilderness amid an urban setting. People flock here to enjoy a day outdoors right in the middle of a city of approximately 200,000 and a metropolitan area of 1.2 million.

Rutted bike trails crisscross the heavily wooded, hilly shores of the James River. In the summer, thousands descend on the river to swim and sunbathe on the smoothed boulders that freckle its surface. The rapids - which range up to Class V - attract canoeists, kayakers and paddle-boarders to a 7-mile stretch through the city. Often, the only hint of the city from the park is the skyline peeking through the trees or the quiet hum of traffic on the Nickel Bridge.

Under White's stewardship, the park has expanded and visitors number nearly 1 million annually, earning Richmond the title of best river town in America by Outside magazine.

Pretty much everyone credits White.

"I think of Ralph as the sentinel of the James River Park System," said Matt Perry, who runs Riverside Outfitters with Scott Turner. "You see him everywhere."

White can usually be seen snatching up a piece of litter, gathering up bottles and cans to recycle or sweeping out rest rooms. He can't be missed with his Santa-like beard and, during the summer months, his calf-high dark socks and shorts.

"You can always tell it was Ralph from a distance, looking like your dad on the worst vacation ever and wearing short shorts like Magnum P.I.," Perry said. "I can't tell you how many times I've seen Ralph White early in the morning and late at night."

"I must admit, I have put a lot of my soul and all of my effort into this park," White said. "I love it dearly, as I love the river."

Brooklyn-born, White followed a girl to Richmond in the late 1970s after a stint in the Peace Corps and work as a National Park Service ranger. He was initially hired to do trail work, but also offered up lessons as a naturalist, which would launch a career-long series of disagreements with his bosses.

"You are working out of classification," a supervisor once told him. "You cannot be a teacher if you are a trail worker."

He's held on, though, and now at age 68 he's retiring. His wife, Cricket, advised him to retire before he's fired.

During a conversation in Pony Pasture, one of the most popular sections of the park system, White wore a Greek fisherman's cap and seemed immune to the damp chilly air from the river as geese honked and bobbed in the smooth surface of the river. Part of his approach to engaging people in the natural world around them stems from his experience in the Peace Corps in Thailand. One day, he gathered a menagerie of small, native animals for a lesson for Thai children. But all the kids could talk about were animals native to Africa.

"The stuff of their folklore, the stuff that their grandparents know, they had a total disconnect," White said. "I came back to the United States and it's the same damn thing."

It's a lesson he's kept in mind while reintroducing a new generation to the wilderness along the James.

"I actually believe that when people know their own human and natural history they begin to take pride in it," he said.

Mary A. Elfner of the Virginia Audubon Council has worked with White and led tours with him of a heron rookery on the river. His devotion to the park and the river is unwavering, she said.

"Persistence, persistence, persistence," Elfner said. "He's stayed with it, he's passionate. He's amazing. He really, I'm sure, has helped create a new generation of conservationists in Richmond."

Elfner, and others, wonder if White's influence will wane once he's retired. "It worries me considerably," she said.

Mayor Dwight Jones issued a statement on White's retirement: "His service to the city of Richmond will be forever intertwined with the incredible history of the James River."

White plans to write, audit college classes and travel. He too worries about the park system's future, but he believes city residents won't give up what he built.

"This is what defines us as Richmonders," he said. "Owls. Eagles. Osprey. This is like a national park."

This past summer, he and his wife made a rare sighting: an endangered 7-foot sturgeon lolling in the city's section of the river.

"That was a symbol for me. That was a sign for me to leave," he said.


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