Odes to the National Park Rangers Who Wear the Grey and Green

Who would lead us on hikes in the national parks if there were no park rangers? NPT file photo by Kurt Repanshek.

What would a national park be without a national park ranger? Who would we ask for directions to the restroom, or question whether the bear we see is a black or a brown?

When you're wondering how many miles down the trail you'll find your campsite, who would you ask if there were no park rangers? If you've wandered off the trail and became lost in the woods, who would rescue you if not a park ranger? Who would lead us on a hike if there were no park rangers?

While much of the attention focused on park rangers too often focuses on the leadership of the National Park Service in Washington, there is an elite corps out across the National Park System that, budget cuts notwithstanding, is ready to answer your questions, treat your wounds, bring you back to civilization, and, of course, spin a good yarn around the campfire at night.

With that understanding, here are two wonderful videos that pay tribute to the rangers of our National Park System. (Be sure to have your volume turned on!)


This is a fine piece to be sure, but not all NPS rangers wear the green and grey. Indeed, many of us wear green polo shirts and khaki pants since we are Centennial employees and Congress didn't fund our uniforms, and due to this many visitors don't see us as park employees. Perhaps a better title would be "Odes to the National Park Rangers Who Wear the Arrowhead".

Good grief! Buy your own uniform. Nobody has ever funded my work wardrobe...

Who would lead us on hikes if there were no rangers?

In 2006 my wife and I visited the Canadian Rockies. We found a few park wardens in uniform, but none were involved in leading hikes. When we stayed overnight at Moraine Lake Lodge, the Lodge offered guided walks and evening programs free of charge to all lodge guests. I went on both the morning hike to the Consolations Lakes and the afternoon hike to Larch Valley. These hikes were both led by a Moraine Lake Lodge employee wiho had a degree in the environmental sciences. She was able to do quite well with her groups, and she could field questions about the park as well as about the subject of climate change (her specialty at school). In the evening, she was dresssed in all white as our server in the lodge dinning room.

The free evening interpretive programs at Moraine Lake Lodge turned out to be creative. They were mostly skits performed by former Parks Canada interpreters who have gone private. They often changed costumes and acted out their roles as park fauna and flora with personality. I found the acting and costumed aspects of these presentations somewhat "over the top."

As a former NPS park ranger-naturalist, I would prefer that the guided hikes and evening programs in parks be given by uniformed rangers. I would also hold the information content and quality of the experience to an exceptionally high standard. I believe that the outdoor educational mission of the NPS needs revitalization. Attending a guided walk in the company of a uniformed and knowledgeable national park ranger is an important part of the national park experience.

I would not like to see the NPS go in the same direction as has Parks Canada, but my fear is that this may already be the case in many our parks where visitor services are now provided by park volunteers, Natural History Association employees, and concessioner guide services.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

Owen I agree with you about the important contribution ranger naturalists bring to the experience of many visitors (having been one myself for over a decade in the NPS) but the uniform alone does confer knowledge, depth or insight. I'm afraid that the visiting public is seeing an overall decline in the quality of interpretive services in the NPS, judging by the number of sub-par programs I have attended in the past few years over a wide range of units. I hear this from other people as well. I can honestly say that this was NOT the case until fairly recently. What happened?

It is a situation that probably stems from a number of factors which includes the dumbed down curriculum of public education (and college as well), the inability to attract people willing to dedicate themselves to turning out superior material for a low-paying seasonal position and the lack of focused auditing and coaching from mid-level managers who are too absorbed in the latest WASO mandated trend such as podcasting and safety campaigns.

I'm sorry to report that I've sat through way too many programs of late that were filled with bad grammar, lack of a central theme and often end with the depressingly familiar message that the world is going to hell in a handbasket if humanity doesn't come to a screeching halt and mend its wicked ways towards our humble and besieged Mother Earth. It seems that the fruits of a so called "environmental education" have finally come home to roost.

Maybe rangers should start selling carbon credits after their programs instead of handing out Junior Ranger badges. It would provide a boost for their depleted budgets as well as help to cleanse a tapped out and exhausted planet.

Certain occupations are entitled to uniform remunerations due to the nature of the environment in which the operator is placed. My basic clothing doesn't qualify, but many of the "accessories" specific to the minimum safety level from hazards posed by the job are supplied by the employer....lab coats, respirators, protective eyewear, gloves, masks, foot-wear shields and the like, at ZERO personal expense to each employee. It's called the cost of doing business. To expect a park ranger to "stand out" so as to be easily identified in a crowd, for purposes of emergency contact, leadership, as on tours, hikes or interpretive walks, crowd control (or maybe management is a most proper description) or other required "quick ID" situation without a specialized and unique manner of dress is not being realistic. Thereby, the employee hired to conduct such functions should absolutely be permitted either uniform reimbursement or be outfitted entirely from the exterior clothing and for any "tools of the trade" as necessitated by the job; flashlights, canteens, radio, sidearm, holster and ammunition (as deemed necessary by park management, pending assignment to be conducted on any given daily rotational basis), backpacks, parkas, mukluks, and whatever other toys that are specific both generic to the position and specific to the location.

Unfortunately Beamis, this wouldn't do a thing to elevate the quality of the written reports or interpretive presentations . On the other hand, that situation isn't the direct or indirect result of NPS policy, training, screening or selection. You do, after all, have to choose from the "best available", sad as that statement may be, both prior and subsequent to the quotas being fulfilled. And we can't force all government hires to be proficient in English, now can we? Why should they be any different than their superiors?

". . . the quality of . . . interpretive presentations . . . isn't the direct or indirect result of NPS policy, training, screening or selection."

I totally disagree here. Referring to my [Mount Rainier NP] experience again, had the ranger at least had her program audited or coached, I believe it would have been better than the program I saw. At Zion, we had a stinker, but through an intensive coaching program, his programs were elevated. The stinker I remember from Zion was hired, and he told me this directly, because he was half Japanese. (I also remember this stinker giving me the tour of admin and angrily pointing out that all the photos on the superintendents' wall were "old white guys".) At Sequoia-Kings Canyon, my boss hired a woman who was Hispanic simply because she was the highest ranked Hispanic on the list. On her Grant Tree hike, she went around telling visitors that trees had a lot of gravity (I think she meant mass) and making many factual and delivery errors. This policy of diversifying the staff, at least in my observation, is at least partially responsible for the decline in quality of NPS interpretive programs.

Training at national parks is a mixed bag. I've had great preseason training at some parks ([Zion NP and Crater Lake NP]), and wretchedly horrible training at others ([Fire Island National Seashore and Sequoia-Kings Canyon NP]). For new interpreters, that training a crucial part in producing quality interpretive programs.

Back to hiring, but I'll the issue of affirmative action behind: If the NPS came up with a better hiring/screening system, I believe the quality of interpretive programs would improve. The current hiring system, which I won't delve into--it would take pages and pages to describe--is broken. It's an entanglement of preferential treatment and relies on self-rating rather than investigation and demonstration of stated skills. It's an unfair and ponderous system of really meaningless numbers and artificial ranking.

I agree that no uniform (not even one as uncomfortable and impractical as this) can make up for a substandard employee. Certainly, there are many fine interpreters and rangers out there on the front lines, but there seem to be more stinkers lately, as observed by Beamis, me, and others.

Here's to that Ranger just the other week, at the Camp Siberia Shelter in Olympic National Park who traded me honest to goodness to die for chocolate for a few hands full of GORP while the wind howled and the rain fell sideways.
Here's to that Ranger who opened the door a half hour early in answer to my banging so that I could get a Bear Canister (free rental) because I just could not wait to get on the trail.
My list goes back a little less than 50 years of camping and backpacking in Our National Parks,
...back to that first Ranger who took the time to answer a child's millions of questions all day long (what bug is this!)

Frank, is the problem really one of recruiting subtandard employees, or is it the absence of training, auditing, and mentoring?

If it's the former, how does the NPS as a Federal agency rise above the plethora of restrictions and preferences placed on hiring and pormotion of women and minorities that now prevails throughout the Federal government, and beyond? Certainly, the NPS can recruit the best of the best minority candidates to achieve the over-arching goal of building a professional staff that is diversified in gender and ethnic background to reflect the fact that the NPS and our parks are for all Americans, not just white males.

In my era, the NPS worked hard to hire the best of the best candidates, even for seasonal positions. There was a strong preference for candidates with an academic background in the natural, geological, and cultural sciences. Experience as a professional educator was given a high priority for seasonal hiring. Law enforcement procedures and interpretive techniques were part of on-the-job training. Guided walks, formal presentations, and evening programs were audited frequently and evaluated often.

We were also encouraged to audit the programs of our peers. Observation of excellence in the performance of one's colleagues was incentive in and of itself to achieve a high standard in one's own work as a ranger-naturalist. Of course, positive feed-back from the public helped greatly in that regard as well.

However, if the problem is mostly due to a decline in NPS training, auditing and mentoring of newly hired employees, then I wonder what has happened within the NPS structure to allow a culture of apathy to flourish? Regardless of the organization, there are two fundamental objectives of management: (1) to maintain standards of performance, and (2) to demonstrate to staff that management cares about them and the effectiveness of their product.

Could it be that the performance expectations of us former NPS'ers are that different from the general public? My friend, PJ Ryan, editor of the newletter Thunderbear, once said, "The primary reason why interpretation in the NPS has experienced a decline over the decades is that no one has ever sued because they experienced a substandard presentation by a park ranger."

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

Owen, You've made some great points here, especially about what worked in the NPS's "golden age" of interpretation. To answer your question, I feel both hiring and training are root causes for the decline in interpretive program quality. Your mention of a "plethora of restrictions and preferences placed on hiring" missed a few other problem spots which include veterans' preference and non-competitive hiring status for permanent federal employees. These two practices can have disastrous effects in middle management as those with extensive front-line NPS experience are passed over for those without NPS experience. I've seen this happen many times.

Even once skilled and talented interpreters are hired, the NPS cannot retain them due to the seasonal nature of employment. As others have mentioned, what kind of professionals want to work for $15,000 a year and live without benefits? So, until the NPS scraps its arguably unfair hiring system and commits to paying its educators a livable wage and providing them with benefits, I think we will continue to see a decline in interpretation.

Kudos to all those out there who somehow made it into the system and are working hard to deliver quality programs while moving every 6 months and scratching out a meager financial existence without receiving recognition or quality professional development.

Frank.....my point is more directed to the limitations in skill set that candidates bring to the table. You can only hire from the available pool of candidates, substandard as they may be, and the lack of intellectual development and presentation skills has nothing to do with the NPS, since to the best of my knowledge, they aren't in the business of either basic or remedial education. While it's true that the content of the presentations to be given is indeed the responsibility of someone "higher up" at the NPS, those who are most interactive with the crowds have the duty to competently express the material and subsequently field whatever questions or concerns arise within each unique group after the speech. You can train a chimp to do most anything, but over and above the specific skills with which you endow him or her it is still, after all, just a chimp. Reading or memorization of prepared materials is quite easily accomplished. Thinking and responding over and above what you've just recited is quite another issue.

That said, I'm quite sad that you're guide was a moron. The person in the uniform is a direct reflection on the organization that they represent however, and that thought leaves me personally feeling less than enthusiastic about the present state of the NPS overall.