An Interview With...
How did you become a National Park Ranger?
I've been camping on the Blue Ridge Parkway with my own kids for 15 years. (We also once made a 7 week, cross-country trip to see National Parks.) I got more interested in the parks through a friend who is married to a ranger. We were working on a book together. Then I was asked to give a speech to the Association of National Park Rangers (anpr.org) and did some work with other Parks’ groups. Then last year I was camping and a ranger on the Parkway said I would make a good ranger, so when the jobs were announced through USAJOBS.com, I applied to several and to my surprise, they called me!
Not all sites in the national park system are actually "national parks". The system includes battlefields like Gettysburg; shorelines like Hatteras/Outer Banks; historic monuments such as all the ones in Washington, DC and Martin Luther King in Atlanta; recreational areas such as out in San Fransisco; and 4 parkways.
Where do you work and live?
I work on the Blue Ridge Parkway, VA, at Rocky Knob and Mabry Mill which are Milepost 167 through 176 in southwest Virginia. While working on the Parkway I live in Virginia but I have a home in Raleigh, NC.
What do you do on your job?
First, let me explain that there are two kinds of rangers: the protection rangers and the interpretive rangers. The protection rangers do police, fire, EMT and search and rescue work. The interpretive rangers do the educational and other visitor services work.
Interpretive rangers help "connect the visitor to the resource". They help people who visit the parks understand and appreciate what they are looking at and why the land and history of that place is so special to us that we have made it part of the National Park System. There are currently 390 such special places in the Park System. Hopefully with this better understanding and appreciation, they will want to help preserve and protect these special places for future generations - just as our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents did for us.
Since I am an interpretive ranger, I help people at the Rocky Knob Visitor's Center, give campfire talks at the Rocky Knob campground, give talks and tours and do craft demonstrations at Mabry Mill. This fall I will also do school programs with visiting school groups.
One aspect of the job that I really like is that I learn something new every day, which helps to keep it fresh and interesting. I sometimes feel I have learned more from the visitors themselves, who come and tell me stories of their families history or of other things they know, than what they learned from me! Sometimes visitors ask me a question that I don't know the answer to, which sends me hunting for the answer. I also learn an awful lot from the other Park Service employees and volunteers.
Is it normal for people to take jobs as National Park Rangers seasonally or temporarily?
Yes. Most of the interpretive rangers a visitor would meet are "seasonals," or temporary rangers. The length of the season depends on the park, and is determined by when a park has the most visitors. For example, since the Blue Ridge Parkway is in the southeast where we have warm springs and falls, our season runs from early May through late October, but a season in a park in New England might only be June through September. In some of the Florida parks and places like Death Valley, the winter is the busiest season. Some rangers will work a summer season in one place, then go to a 'winter park' for the other part of the year. Some seasonal rangers come back year after year. One of my co-workers has been a seasonal ranger for 23 years!
What type of qualifications do they look for in Park Rangers?
It depends on what kind of ranger (protection or interpretive) and the Park site, but in general the Park Service wants people who have good 'people skills' and also some special knowledge that would relate to the particular park. For example, some parks are historical sites, so they would want someone with a history background, while another park site might be a seashore like Hatteras, so they might want someone with a degree in oceanography or with life-guard experience. Things you learn outside of a regular job, just as through reading, hobbies and volunteer work, counts towards the knowledge and experience that will make you qualified for the job.
What did you do before becoming a Park Ranger? What is your "real" occupation?
I'm not sure how to answer this! I have done many different kinds of jobs, so I don't know I can claim one particular "occupation." I never had any clear ideas of what I wanted to be as a kid, and probably still don't! I've done many different things: fundraising, nuclear regulatory compliance, regional planning in solid waste, mediation, even cartography and landscaping. Of course, the most important job was raising my children! The field I entered as a result of my university studies was limnology (the study of fresh water). I have been lucky that I've been able to experience a lot of different kinds of jobs in different fields, and I have enjoyed them all.
What lead you to your work as a limnologist?
When I was 18, I decided I wanted to do something to make the world a better place. Then I decided the most basic problem the world had was the environment, because without a clean environment, we wouldn't have other people problems to deal with, so I knew I wanted to do something in environmental science. I got interested in 'water' through a job I had in college, as a laboratory technician in a research and development firm, but didn't know what limnology was until after I signed up and walked into the first class in college! Limnology is the study of freshwaters, which includes rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, bogs, swamps, and other wetlands. What I like about it is that it involves so many different sciences: geology, physics, meteorology, chemistry, ecology, zoology, botany, ichthyology (study of fish), phycology (study of algae), even socials sciences and politics, as what we do as people has a big effect on water. Limnologists are scientists. They do field work collecting then analyzing samples of water chemistry, plants, animals, etc., for study to see how clean the water is, or research and other activities (to include making policies and laws) to protect or help clean up a water environment.
Are you also an environmentalist?
I make a distinction between environmental scientist and environmentalist, the first being someone of a technical field that looks at things objectively, and an environmentalist being an activist who tries to live in earth-friendly way and also be actively involved in trying to make or keep the environment clean. I used to consider myself more an environmental scientist, but since I'm no longer doing field work, research and other things more directly related to limnology, I feel I am now more of an environmentalist.
What type of lobbying do you do and how did you get involved in that?
I first got involved in politics as a kid, when my uncle ran for Congress. Everyone in the family helped in his campaign in some way. Then in college, I got involved with a group that was fighting the building of a big mall, because we felt it would hurt the environment - to include the human environment in the older downtown part of the city. Then as a mom and homeowner, I got involved in trying to protect our local watershed from development. Next thing I knew I was the executive director and lobbyist for a state organization, but it wasn't directly dealing with any environmental issues, but rather 'good government' things like campaign finance and lobby laws.
My daughter thought a lobbyist was someone who worked in a hotel lobby! A lobbyist is someone who tries to influence policy and legislation. Mostly they EDUCATE--they try to help lawmakers and other policy-makers, the press and the public understand an issue and why the group they represent thinks a certain law or policy is good. It involves a lot of listening and compromise, and requires good 'people skills' --just like a ranger.
What were your favorite activities as a child?
I grew up in suburban Washington DC, in Alexandria, VA near George Washington's home at Mt Vernon. I was a 'city-slicker'. My favorite activity as a child was playing with my pets, sewing and doing crafts, reading, going to the Smithsonian and on field trips to the historic sites and places around Washington, but most of all, walking in the woods. I clearly remember the day I "discovered" the woods--I was in second grade and was invited to a friend's house, and she took me on this long path that followed a creek. I was instantly hooked, and used to go there as often as possible--even though my mother had forbidden me to! (I never went alone, though, which is dangerous at any age.) I knew right then that the natural environment was going to be a big part of my life, of who I was and what I would do in life.
What were your favorite subjects in school?
I loved school--and still do, and still take classes when I can. How could anyone ever get tired of learning new things? I always knew learning and getting good grades was for ME, not my parents or teachers. I had a passion for learning and I still do. I especially liked History, English and Science.
Did you have any teachers who made a memorable impact on your education? If so, what made them special?
I had some teachers who made learning fun, but other teachers who actually taught me to hate certain subjects, like poetry (I like it now, though--but I learned to like it through my own kids!). One thing I have learned, that I think is important for kids to know, is that there are some subjects or topics you will only get once in all your schooling, so if you don't take advantage of the opportunity to learn about it, you might never get another chance. For example, I only got to learn about clouds and constellations one, maybe two years, but never again.
What were your least favorite or most difficult subjects in school?
I didn't like math or foreign language because they were hard for me, or at least I talked myself into that with the math (a brother was always telling me I couldn't do it, making me feel dumb--I WAS dumb to believe him!) In my last year of college I found out I was slightly dyslexic, which might explain why I had some problems with those subjects. I'm glad I wasn't told earlier, though, because it might have made me feel I couldn't major in a science, and I would have missed out on so many things I love! But it was good to figure out that I really had understood the math concepts perfectly well, but didn't get the right answers because I was switching numbers around. I also couldn't see how I would use math in 'real life'--until I got to college and had an interesting class that showed how it was used in building bridges and all sorts of things. Now I wish I had taken more math!
Do you speak any other languages?
I still remember a little bit of French and still think about trying to learn Spanish--AND Sign Language. I think learning another language is VERY important in today's world and would help anyone in any field.
Did you live in any other countries or experience other cultures or languages as a child?
No, I have not traveled outside the US too much. When I was a kid there was a campaign to get people to "See America First" and I'm still trying to do that! (I've only been to a fraction of the 390 places in the National Park System.) I would like to see more of the world, though.
What subjects most prepared you for your career?
I think every single thing I took has helped me in some aspect of work and life. Also, outside experiences in volunteer work, reading, hobbies and travel have also helped me in jobs.
What do you like most about your job?
What I like most about being a Park Ranger is being outside in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains and the visitors themselves. They are so fun to talk to, and I feel good when I can help them have a better visit and vacation, learn something, and especially if I can help them develop a special love for our National Parks and desire to help protect and preserve them.
Each major national park unit has a Junior Park Ranger program. After kids do certain things (on the Parkway they have to go to one ranger talk and fill out a little booklet), they get a certificate and a Jr. Ranger badge that names the park site; I met one kid who had 42 different badges from 42 different parks. At Rocky Knob, I've been dubbed "Queen of the Junior Rangers" because I'm the only one there who recruits kids to it. (I make them take a solemn pledge in front of other people, then pin them, shake their hands and say "welcome to the ranger force" and everyone claps.)
What would you like children to know about Rangers?
Rangers are there to HELP you enjoy your visit, so ask everything and anything you want. And… if you can't get to a park in person, visit them on the Internet. You can email the park and ask questions, and they will do their very best to answer them. Become a Junior Park Ranger! Most parks have a program; you can learn about them on the Internet or by asking a ranger.
WebRangers, the national Junior Ranger program on the web, just launched an expanded and enhanced site today: Founders Day - Thursday, August 25th, 2005. Activities on the site highlight themes common to many national parks, and allow kids to peek into the "secret world" of rangers. Find out more about this new site at: http://www.nps.gov/webrangers/
Do you have any advice for the students reading this interview?
Yes, GO VISIT as many parks as you can. Get out of the car and really EXPLORE: camp, hike, go to ranger talks, really get to know the place. BECOME A JUNIOR PARK RANGER. GET INVOLVED--do whatever you can to help PRESERVE AND PROTECT these very, very special places for future generations. How can you do that? It's simple--LEARN about the parks and the problems they are facing. TALK to your parents and friends about the issues. WRITE or call your congress people and tell them what you think and how you feel (and NO, you aren't too young to do this--and yes, they WILL read them.) See if your class or school could do a field trip or some other project related to the parks. VOLUNTEER.
Do you have a favorite quote (or a favorite person) that inspires you?
I have a few and I think they are self-explanatory:
Evil triumphs when good men (and women) do nothing.
I also have some favorite poems:
The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry
And this one by D. H. Lawrence:
When we get out
of the glass bottles of our egos
- 25 August 2005
25 August 2005
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