13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Park Rangers
The National Park Service is over 100 years old, and while we could wax poetic for days about the splendor of the parks themselves, we decided instead to find out more about the people who help preserve them on a daily basis—not to mention keep us from getting lost. Here are a few insights about what life is like as a park ranger for the NPS and other agencies, from their biggest perils to some of their most special moments.
1. THEY DO (A LOT) MORE THAN ANSWER YOUR QUESTIONS.
The job of a ranger is more multifaceted than it may seem. “As seasonal employees we essentially have to get a year of work done in three months or so,” said Alex Miller, a Lead Park Ranger for the US Forest Service at the National Grasslands Visitor Center in South Dakota. Ranger duties may include giving tours, staffing the visitor center, collecting fees, fielding questions, patrolling the park, enforcing park regulations, doing demonstrations, coordinating education programs, tidying up park areas, conducting interviews for oral history projects, running outreach programs, serving as a first responder, fighting wildfires, and even manning social media accounts (phew).
Steve Gifford, who has worked as a ranger at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Illinois, as well as other NPS sites, told us: “People think that it is an easy job, that all you do is answer some questions and offer a few tours. But it is much more than that; you do the general things people see, but also the behind-the-scenes work is varied and intense.”
Despite all that hard work, many rangers told us that the hands-on, unpredictable nature of the job was all part of its appeal. The life of a ranger never looks the same from one day to the next—in part because the tasks are so varied, and in part because the rangers never know what sort of things might come their way.
2. THEY'RE NOT NECESSARILY NATURE PEOPLE.
An NPS uniform doesn’t automatically mean your park ranger is a wildlife expert or skilled mountaineer. After all, not all locations under the National Park Service are nature preserves. There are also historic sites, national monuments, battlefields, and other conservation sites [PDF]—which could mean your ranger is more of a history buff.
Perhaps surprisingly, not all rangers are technically "rangers" either. There are also Park Guides, who are typically on a lower tier within the specialization of interpretation and education and have less potential for promotion. Still, even these guides sometimes go by "ranger" informally or wear a badge that reads "National Park Ranger." Other ranger specializations include law enforcement, emergency response, maintenance, administration, and more. Additionally, while every agency is different, there are distinctions that come with rank—like District Ranger and Supervisory Park Ranger.
3. THERE’S SOME SECRET LINGO.
Since the NPS is a government organization, acronyms are everywhere. Miller told mental_floss: “We do the GARS and GOHP projects as the USFS under the USDA in partnership with the BHPFA, VBJ and NPS, but for UNL have to be CITI certified with IRBs. All perfectly clear, right?”
Aside from the ubiquitous acronyms, other slang terms includes "clustering," which occurs when there are too many rangers and/or volunteers at the front desk at one time, and which can give the impression that the park service employees have nothing to do. A "Furniture Tour" is when a ranger does a historic house tour but talks about the furniture or architecture of the house without talking about the people who lived there. While those tours are sometimes intentional, they’re also sometimes a byproduct of visitors who steer a tour through their persistent questions (you know the type).
Yellowstone in particular has its own set of lingo, where the rangers and other seasonal employees refer to themselves as “Savages," the exact origin of which is unknown. Then there's a "Code W" tourist—a wimpy hiker who requests emergency help when they don't really need it.
4. IT CAN BE A SCARY GIG ...
Rangers are incredibly well-prepared, skilled, and knowledgeable—both in their background and the education they receive on the job—but you can’t prepare for everything. The parks employees we talked to mentioned everything from bison to rattlesnakes to mountain lions, though nearly all of them also talked about how easy it was to avoid getting into trouble with wildlife if you take the right precautions. Basic rules, like not getting too close or moving too quickly, will generally keep you out of harm's way: "They give plenty of indicators when their territory is being encroached," Miller told us. It's also a good idea to properly stow your food items and trash, as those will attract all kinds of creatures.
The elements can become an issue too; severe storms, tornados, and other surprise weather events all come into play from time to time. As does the paranormal, in some cases. Nick Sacco, a ranger at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri, joked, “Some visitors talk about seeing ghosts in the basement of White Haven [another name for the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site] but I haven't seen any yet!”
5. … BUT THERE’S PLENTY OF ADORABLE TOO.
The laws of nature state: Where there are big scary animals, there are little, enchanting ones too. You’ll probably be happy to know that multiple rangers mentioned cuddly creatures; perhaps surprisingly, porcupines got a few shout-outs (not necessarily first critter that comes to mind when conjuring “cute”), in addition to other furry, park-dwelling friends who’ve crossed paths with rangers and visitors over the years. It's just one of the perks of the job.
6. MOST OF THEIR EXPERIENCES WITH PEOPLE ARE GREAT.
When we set out to discover what the life of a park ranger was like, we expected to hear a lot of horror stories about ridiculous tourists. While those do exist, the rangers we spoke with were overwhelmingly positive about visitors. They love talking to people, and not just about the parks. They like finding out what brings people out and what experiences they’ve had, which sometimes even leads to lasting connections. Sacco recounted this story:
I'll never forget this family of three that visited the site—a grandfather, a father, and a boy with autism. It was just the three of them during the tour and I tried to give them a personalized experience showing them around the house. The grandfather bought three pocket watches from our gift shop, but he came back another month later and showed me a plaque he had bought with one of the watches glued on top and a personalized engraving stating the date in which they had visited the park. He told me that the boy absolutely loved the site and couldn't stop talking about it for days with his family, friends, and classmates, and that the experience had brought the three of them together. That was really special to hear.
Rangers also told us that visitors are generally pretty well-prepared on a practical level—camping etiquette is on-point!—and said that occasionally visitors will even have teach park employees things about the great outdoors.
7. BUT PEOPLE STILL DO STUPID THINGS SOMETIMES.
From dangerous selfies to not reading signs to starting fires when they shouldn’t (there’s a reason Smokey Bear is still around), park visitors do occasionally do things that put themselves and the land in danger. Other common issues include people who want to argue about historical facts or who want to interact with places or things that are off-limits. Rangers also told us that they’re commonly mistaken for law enforcement—so let this be a reminder that not all uniforms are created equal.
8. IT TAKES A LOT OF WORK TO BECOME A RANGER.
Anyone who dreams of being a park ranger should know it doesn’t just happen overnight. But the good news is, there are a lot of roads that lead there, most of which involve a relevant degree and volunteer work (usually a lot of volunteer work).
One of the rangers we spoke to volunteered through a Forest Service program called Passport in Time before becoming a ranger, while another went through a program now known as Pathways, which allows undergraduate and graduate students to work for the NPS while also working on their degrees. Sacco got his start at the park as an undergrad through an internship with a predecessor to Pathways called the STEP program. “The plan all along had been for me to become a high school social studies teacher," he says, "but when I started working at the Park Service it was real revelation for me. Learning about and teaching history became something that went far beyond the confines of the classroom and history textbook, and I loved how people of all ages relished the chance to interact with NPS staff and see historical homes and artifacts in person,” he told us.
9. THE FIELD IS HIGHLY COMPETITIVE.
Even those who put in the hard work to become a ranger might not get a job or get placed where they want to be. According to Gifford, “There is so much competition for every single position within the agency. One of my coworkers applied to 90 different jobs before getting on with us.”
As far as compensation goes, it varies quite a bit based on the location and scope of the park, the position itself, and the employee's education history. Most NPS jobs—like other government jobs—have their pay based on the General Schedule pay scale [PDF]. But while most on the GS pay scale are full-time workers, many parks employees are seasonal, meaning they have to find work in other areas during the off-season. For a few specific examples of jobs (and their pay brackets) check out the USAJOBS site; some positions are hourly while others are salaried.
10. A PARK RANGER DOESN’T NECESSARILY WORK FOR THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE.
Of course, not every park with a ranger falls under the umbrella of the NPS. There’s also the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Wildlife Refuge System, and other state agencies that employ the term “park ranger.” It might seem like a small distinction, but the agencies have different approaches and missions, which means their rangers can have different roles and responsibilities. For example, while national parks emphasize preservation and work under the Department of Interior, the US Forest Service is under the Department of Agriculture and is focused on both preservation and uses—such as lumber, cattle grazing, and mining.
11. THEY ADVOCATE R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Since every park is so different, it’s tricky to come up with a hard-and-fast rule of behavior to encompass them all, but one thing a few rangers mentioned was plain old respect. If visitors all went in to the parks with a spirit of respect—for nature, wildlife, history, and other people—a lot of park problems, like trash and fires, could be avoided.
12. THEY WANT TO HELP YOU.
Another thing rangers strongly advised was planning ahead—and asking them for help when you arrive. Many parks offer varied experiences, from hikes to horseback riding, and knowing what you want to do ahead of time is useful for both you and parks officials, who are trying to serve the needs of a lot of people (over 10 million annually at the most popular location, Great Smoky Mountains National Park). Many of the parks have extensive online resources to help you plan your park experience.
The whole asking questions thing isn’t just about planning, though—rangers also want you to talk to them if you have concerns or need help. It’s what they’re there for, and many say that people don’t do it enough.
13. THEY’RE NOT ALLOWED TO SPILL ALL THEIR SECRETS.
As active government employees, many rangers aren’t allowed to speak about the job—we talked to mostly former rangers, or current rangers who were given approval from above, and they couldn't share all the details of their work. (We should also note that the views expressed here are personal opinions that don't necessarily reflect the views of the National Park Service). Many rangers have great stories—there was some off-the-record talk of finding visitor underwear and other misadventures—but for the most part, the rangers had to be tight-lipped. Yet another good reason to take one out for a drink, and ask to be regaled with some anonymous tall tales.
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