When Acting Park Service Superintendent Angela Crenshaw visits a Maryland state park, she goes over a few rules with staff members. The first three: Be nice. Be safe. Keep body to self.
Though they may sound simplistic, the rules reflect Crenshaw’s efforts to transform a toxic work culture that many say had long permeated the Maryland Park Service.
A year ago this week, the longtime manager of Maryland’s largest state park, Gunpowder Falls, was arrested on charges that he had raped an employee; weeks later, he was charged with raping a second worker. Although a Baltimore County jury ultimately found him not guilty of rape while convicting him of a single misdemeanor sexual offense, his trial exposed a shocking lack of oversight in the park service.
Browning, 72, not only was having sex with two much younger employees, he had doled out park housing as a means of reward and control and treated the sprawling park as his personal playground — all while escaping the scrutiny of his supervisors.
A 2022 Baltimore Banner investigation revealed that many workers had filed complaints about harassment, bullying and impropriety at Gunpowder Falls, but the top leaders of the agency appeared to ignore their concerns. Moreover, employees who complained about Browning found themselves assigned to unpleasant tasks and shifts or passed over for permanent positions. Browning had such unchecked power at Gunpowder, which he had managed since 1991, that many people referred to it as his “kingdom.”
Following publication of The Banner’s report, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the park service, launched an internal investigation and fired three officials: the long-serving superintendent of the park service, the regional leader who supervised Browning, and the park’s assistant manager. Officials suspended Browning but were unable to fire him due to special protections he had as a law enforcement officer; he retired Nov. 30. and began collecting a $94,500 annual pension.
When Gov. Wes Moore took office in January, he ushered in more changes, quickly appointing Josh Kurtz, the former head of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Maryland, to lead DNR. In April, Kurtz chose Crenshaw, a highly respected ranger and park manager, to serve as acting superintendent, making her the first Black person to lead the park service.
Since then, Kurtz and Crenshaw have embarked on a project of bureaucratic alchemy, seeking to dismantle what was widely viewed as an old boys’ club, sweeping away power structures that stemmed from the park service’s roots in law enforcement and working to make the parks welcoming for all visitors, including people of color, Spanish speakers and LGBTQ people.
“I want to make sure everyone feels comfortable in Maryland state parks,” Crenshaw told The Banner during a joint interview with Kurtz last week. “I’ve been made to feel uncomfortable in public lands, just because of the way I was born, and so I don’t want anyone else to feel that way.”
Under Crenshaw’s leadership, the park service celebrated Pride month for the first time this year, with rainbow flags flying at park offices. Crenshaw also organized a celebration of Juneteenth this year, leading more than 60 members of the Outdoor Afro organization on a hiking and kayaking tour of Tuckahoe State Park, near the birthplace of Frederick Douglass.
Kurtz and Crenshaw quickly assembled a team of 19 parks officials to lead the department through the transition. They hosted town halls at parks throughout the state, spending hours listening to workers air their grievances, many of which stemmed from not being heard by those previously in power.
They avoided making major structural changes during the the parks’ peak season, but intend this autumn to reveal a plan to restructure park leadership and perhaps even break some of the largest parks into smaller, more easily managed parcels.
“Everything is on the table right now,” Kurtz said. “The goal is to implement this fall so we have winter and spring to get used to the new structure. … and be ready then for the busy season again in the summer.”
As part of the Great Maryland Outdoors Act, the park service is authorized to hire 75 new employees, Kurtz said. That hiring — as well as extending permanent titles to those in acting positions— will begin once the new structure has been unveiled, he said. The park service has a $71.4 million operating budget and 256 full-time employees, with an additional 600 seasonal workers in the summer months, according to an department spokesperson.
Reconfiguring the park service is a massive task, but Kurtz and Crenshaw feel it’s imperative to seize the desire for change and prepare the park system for the future. They seem to have the support of many people on the ground. Many workers like the direction of the park service under the new leadership, according to rangers who spoke with The Banner but asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak with the media.
State Sen. Sarah Elfreth, a longtime parks advocate and an architect of the Great Maryland Outdoors Act, said she is heartened by the steps Kurtz and Crenshaw have taken. “It all sounds exactly right,” said Elfreth, who represents parts of Anne Arundel County. “These are things the state should have undertaken decades ago.”
The leaders bring markedly different backgrounds and experiences to the task. Kurtz, 38, is new to the department and state government. He has an undergraduate degree in wildlife conservation from the University of Delaware and a master’s degree in public policy from George Mason University. He spent eight years working in government relations for The Nature Conservancy before becoming executive director of Maryland’s office of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in 2021.
Crenshaw, 41, spent her earliest years in West Virginia, sitting under apple trees and catching tadpoles. Her family later moved to Baltimore County, near Gunpowder Falls. Crenshaw took a job with the DNR after graduating from Washington College, removing abandoned boats and debris from public waterways with the boating services unit. She also holds a master’s degree in energy and environmental policy from the University of Delaware.
When a ranger position opened up at Elk Neck State Park, Crenshaw applied and was hired, becoming one of the few Black rangers in the park service. She later spent two brief stints at Gunpowder Falls, where former workers said she managed to excel without getting caught up in the toxic culture under Browning.
“She was a good listener. I always trusted her,” said Nita Beanland, a former park service employee who worked with Crenshaw at Gunpowder. “The park service is in really good hands with her.”
Crenshaw became one of the park service’s best-known rangers through her work at the Harriet Tubman Underground State Park and Visitor Center, which opened on the Eastern Shore in 2017. As the park’s assistant manager, she educated visitors about Tubman’s work leading enslaved people to freedom and became the park service’s lead ranger on “interpreting difficult histories.”
“I’ve always turned toward issues,” said Crenshaw. “My parents always taught me to fight for what’s right and do what’s right. Do what you believe.”
For Crenshaw, the challenge is not just to root out the cronyism that many say flourished under the previous regime, but to reckon with a legacy of racism at the park service.
She pointed to Sandy Point State Park as an example. The popular swimming beach near Annapolis was segregated when it opened in 1952. Crenshaw pulled photos from the AFRO American Newspaper’s archive showing Black children playing among trash and debris in the section of the beach where they were allowed. Another photo depicts Joseph F. Kaylor — the man then in charge of state parks— telling a quartet of Black people why they were barred from the whites-only beach.
“That is our former superintendent, my predecessor, not only drawing a color line, but enforcing it,” said Crenshaw. “Having that history behind me, I know what is at stake.”
Maryland’s state parks were desegregated in 1956 after the NAACP sued the state in a case known as Lonesome v. Maxwell. But, of course, desegregation alone did not lead to racial equity in the park system. Indeed, racism is woven into the very founding of the nation’s public lands. President Theodore Roosevelt and naturalist John Muir, the fathers of the national park system, espoused racist views of Black and Native American people. They wanted to preserve wild lands to ensure wealthy white men would have unspoiled vistas in which to hunt.
State park service photos from the 1980s show Browning, who was hired in 1971, among a team of all white, and predominantly male park managers. At the time, park managers were sworn law enforcement officers with badges and guns. The program was slowly phased out and Browning, at the time of his arrest last year, was the lone park manager who still had law enforcement powers.
Yet the “boys will be boys” attitudes and rigid hierarchy from the old law enforcement days lived on, many said. Former Gunpowder employees who spoke with The Banner last year described a workplace rife with sexual harassment, where Browning bestowed nicknames like “Peaches” and “Lolita” on female workers, and a clubby group of people handpicked by Browning gathered for a managed deer hunt each year. Many workers — at Gunpowder and other parks — recounted taking their concerns to park service leaders only to find word getting back to their direct supervisors, who then retaliated against them.
“Unhealthy dynamics in the Park Service … caused some nonsupervisory employees to feel disrespected, intimidated and unable to communicate their concerns,” Kurtz told the state’s Joint Committee on Fair Practices and State Personnel Oversight last week.
Kurtz and Crenshaw told The Banner they are working to ensure staff members, including maintenance workers, feel comfortable taking concerns to higher-ups. They’ve also added three staff members to the Office of Fair Practices, which investigates workplace complaints.
The leaders declined to say just how many employees had been terminated, demoted or forced to resign, citing personnel privacy. Park service employees said privately that at least four additional high-ranking staff members had departed. Several lower-ranking workers have also been let go.
One former maintenance worker at Pocomoke River State Park told The Banner he was forced to resign after making insensitive remarks about Black, gay and trans people to colleagues. He had made similar comments in the past, but had never faced criticism for them, he said.
“Nothing that was said was anything that we hadn’t talked about over the past three years,” said the man, who believes it was unfair that he was terminated for his comments. He said he believes that a colleague had taken concerns about him to the park service’s leadership.
Kurtz and Crenshaw said they are working to make it easier for parks employees to share feedback with leadership. Previously, communication among staff was very “regimented,” Kurtz said.
“There were policies restricting conversation between certain levels of the park service when I started, and so we wanted to break that down,” he said. “You can’t have a healthy organization if there are people in the organization that can’t communicate with leadership, especially when they’re having a problem. That will just breed opportunities for bad actors.”
The new leadership team has also revamped the park system’s housing and transfer policies to ensure they are enforced fairly and uniformly. The park system manages many houses that were donated to the state along with the surrounding land.
The Browning case exposed serious issues with the way such housing was allocated. Browning had arranged for one of his accusers, a young woman he met when she was a home-schooled teen taking part in a 4-H program run by his wife, to work at Gunpowder Falls and live at a house in a remote section of the park bordered by water and a dump.
Going forward, a board of park service officials, as well as a least one staff member from the Office of the Maryland Attorney General, will evaluate applications for park housing. All DNR employees, including members of the Natural Resources Police and central office staff, will be eligible for housing if they are able to fulfill the responsibilities that come along with it, Kurtz said.
At Gunpowder Falls, a new manager and assistant manager have assumed leadership of the park. Browning, who was sentenced to two years of probation after a grueling trial, was forced to register as a sex offender and is barred from state parks as part of his conviction.
Lindley Austin, a former Gunpowder employee who shared her experiences of harassment at the park with The Banner last year, said she is heartened by the changes she is seeing in the park service.
“My goal was to make the park service a better place to work,” said Austin, who has moved on to another career. “It was too late for me, but if I could help others and pave the way for others, it was long overdue.”