Reader Participation Day: Do We Need More Interpretive Rangers, Or Law Enforcement Rangers, in National Parks?

Do you think there are enough interpretative rangers in the national parks? NPT file photo by Kurt Repanshek.

Do you wish there were more interpretive rangers, or law enforcement rangers, in the national parks?

Do you find yourself looking for an "LE" ranger when you're visiting a park, or wish you could find a park interpreter to help you better understand your surroundings?

And while you're mulling that question, do you think interpretive rangers should be full-time National Park Service employees, or volunteers?


I went to Manassas National Battlefield about three weeks ago. Ranger Gregory Wolf relived the battle on Henry Hill for our small group huddled on that blustery cold knob. Afterwards I complemented him on his storytelling skills. His story and voice were as pleasant and moving as Shelton Johnson, the Yosemite ranger featured on the Ken Burns documentary.

So what if Mr. Wolf also wears a sidearm? Dual-role jobs are not uncommon in the workworld. Interpreter and peacekeeper make a natural combination. Putting great storytellers into the crowds, or even one-on-one, is a far better deterrent than visible firearms. People naturally gravitate to folks like that, enjoy the park experience, and leave richer and better informed.

I would guess that the need for good interpreters is much higher on any given day than a law enforcer. Legal incidents are infrequent. But interactive storytellers are always in demand.


Maybe at Manassas, legal incidents are infrequent. The rest of the parks need more LE rangers. Gangs at Lake Mead, drinking and drugs at beach parks, drug smugglers at our border parks. We need to protect our parks first. Let's pose this question: Should Organ Pipe NM have more interpretive rangers or LE rangers?

Some parks could have the two ranger roles combined, but resource protection and law enforcement [traffic violations, domestic disputes] need full time attention in larger parks. It's really a individual park issue, not a one size fits all matter. Not to mention, there are many units where no law enforcement on staff.

While I know that the general public can be fooled into thinking [though not on purpose, mind you!] that volunteers are rangers, and not that volunteers do a bad job at all--they contribute millions of hours to the NPS, literally holding it up with their service--the majority of the public will either meet volunteers or seasonal rangers. While the seasonals don't do a horrible job either, there isn't much park 'loyality' when a system runs as such. The way the system works, there are no 'experts' at any park aside from the full-time and return seasonals--you don't to have a degree in the subject nor even be familiar with it on a basic level. While some will take the time to learn all they can, there are some [and I'm hoping I've just met my fair share] that only cover their bases, so to speak. I recently received a confession that a ranger previously so lucky to work in Yellowstone had just 'brushed up' on bears by reading for an hour or so and then presented a program. Said ranger was chuckling about how his audience had commended him on sounding like an expert and that 'environmental studies' wasn't his thing.

My point here is that either you convert a portion of the seasonal workforce into full-time or convert them all into volunteers. Operating with an overpaid seasonal 'gypsy' front-line staff doesn't provide the best for the visitors or the park, not to mention it's a poor use of money, having to retrain every year. With the addage saying that it takes 10 years on average to become full-time nowadays, it's not the best recruitment method either.

What a great question!

Back in the 1960's, park rangers were hired who had college education in the natural and physical sciences or in the cultural sciences. They were given on-the-job training to engage in law enforcement activities.

The corps de elite were the park ranger-naturalists, who also participated in park research activities. On rare occasion, the naturalists would assist the ranger-generals in park protection actions. Neither the ranger-general nor the ranger-naturalist wore side arms nor law-enforcement utility belts.

All this has changed, begining with the aftermath of the Stoneman Meadow Riot of July 4th 1970 in Yosemite Valley, when National Capitol Parks Police were brought into Yosemite to assist with law enforcement demands and train rangers in law enforcement, crowd control, and mounted patrol, followed by the creation of law enforcement as an NPS career-path specialty (in about 1976 or so).

Since the late 1970s, more than 3 decades have passed. The park naturalist series has been terminated, and duties once carried out by academics and professional educators are now carried out by interpreters and volunteers representing a broad range of experiential and educational backgrounds. The role of commercial guide services, concession programs, and more in-depth programs sponsored by park associations has also expanded greatly since the mid-70's.

In most parks, the public contact duties once exclusively carried out by the park ranger-naturalists have been drastically reduced in scope and the niche either left vacant, or filled by others. In general, park research is conducted by visiting university professors and by the park division of resources management.

Meanwhile, law enforcement has become a skill specialty that has only intensified since Sept. 11, 2001. It is not unusual for a park ranger with a speciality in law enforcement to have minimal education in the resource sciences but instead to carry a degree in criminal justice or police sciences. In large parks or parks situated in or near urban centers, the demand for law enforcement rangers remains high, as is evidenced by local park registries of incidents and arrests.

Now you ask, what would I wish for if I had the chance to influence the system? I would like to bring the professional naturalists back and limit the role of volunteers, although I know of some parks where a few volunteers have served the NPS as rangers and have more years of past park and visitor contact experience than most members of the paid permanent staff. Some are retired educators and former seasonal or permanent ranger-naturalists. They simply love working part-time for the park and the public, and they are willing to work without compensation.

If I can't bring the naturalists back, I would hire and train first and foremost for visitor contact and interpretation/education, and train secondarily for law enforcement activities. Come to think of it, I believe that everyone in uniform who works for the NPS and who potentially comes into contact with a member fo the public should be trained as an interpreter/educator first, and as a specialist (law enforcement, resources management, administration, etc.) second.

More uniformed rangers should be accessible to the public, out roaming on foot or horseback, and inter-mingling with the visiting public, answering questions and giving out excellent advice as to how to best experience the park, with an invitation to return for more.

In my most recent visits, other than fee collectors at the entrance gates, the only NPS'ers I typyically see in uniform are maintenance personnel and on rare occasion, law enforcement rangers in their patrol cars. I may or may not see a uniformed ranger at the Visitor Center, but I also spend very little time inside park VC's. Many VC information desks are staffed with volunteers or park natural history association employees.

In general, most park employees that I meet tend to be employees of the local concessioner. Few of them have formal training to answer more in-depth questions, other than to direct the visitor to the park VC for more informaiton. There are notable exceptions of course, and as mentioned previously, some concessioners even offer professional guide services.

So yes, I would like to see more uniformed park naturalists, historians, and park interpreters/educators out and about, eagerly looking for different and creative ways to enhance the experience of the park visitor. If we cannot increase the ranks of the staff of uniformed naturalists, historians, and interpreter/educators, then at least increase the number of law enforcement rangers who can also function proficiently as highly knowledgeable park ambassadors.

Do you find yourself looking for an "LE" ranger when you're visiting a park, or wish you could find a park interpreter to help you better understand your surroundings?

As a general rule, the only time someone goes looking for an LE ranger is when they have a problem involving a crime (or something that involves potentially criminal behavior). In some parks, crime is a much more prevalent problem than in others, so I tend to agree with the anonymous commenter who said the question needs to be addressed on a park-by-park problem. In Yellowstone (the park with which I am most familiar), I think the balance of LE rangers is about where it needs to be. As with most other parks, the interpretive ranger corps has been drastically reduced over the past 30-40 years.

In my opinion, the base experience a visitor has in a park should include access to NPS personnel who can speak intelligently about the park and "interpret" the park for him/her (in addition to any concessioner tour guides, who tend to be itinerant, even within a given season). Printed material, videos that are shown in one or two places (typically the VCs), and whatnot often lack context and aren't sufficient to address the unique questions that people come up with while wandering through the geyser basins, for example. Could an LE ranger do that? Sure. But I think it isn't realistic to expect someone in place primarily for LE activities to be well-versed in every aspect of the park, including not only patrol/police work, but SAR, fire suppression, etc. (at least, parks as large and diverse as Yellowstone, Yosemite, etc.).

To pkrnger's point, by the way, Yellowstone has pretty much always had separate cadres of protective rangers and interpretive rangers; it wasn't something that has come about recently (though I do agree that law enforcement seems to have become more robust and visible over the past few years, perhaps as a result of 9/11).

And while you're mulling that question, do you think interpretive rangers should be full-time National Park Service employees, or volunteers?

Personally, I believe the majority of them should be professionals. I don't think it is realistic to expect there to be volunteers available who've invested the time and effort to obtain the educational background to speak intelligently about different aspects of the park. Again, that may be more of an issue for the larger, more diverse parks than the smaller ones. These could (and should, where possible) by supplemented by suitable volunteers, and the professional rangers should supervise the volunteers. I don't think it is fair to ask/require someone to volunteer their time in a place as isolated as Yellowstone and not provide them with housing and a meal allowance at a minimum, for example. It would be tough to exist as a volunteer in the Yellowstone area unless you were from the area and/or had a local support system.

While only a small number of visitors to any given park are likely to encounter an LE ranger (in their professional capacity), a much greater number will/should encounter interpretive rangers, and therefore they are the image of the NPS that the visitor is going to leave with. Regardless of whether they're professionals or volunteers, they need to be trained and well-versed in the subject matter, and that's what matters the most, IMO.

Quoting pkrnger, "Come to think of it, I believe that everyone in uniform who works for the NPS and who potentially comes into contact with a member [of] the public should be trained as an interpreter/educator first, and as a specialist (law enforcement, resources management, administration, etc.) second. "

I think I agree with that statement; that seems to be the best way to deal with it. Every visitor who sees someone in the green and gray uniform just assumes that person is a "ranger" and can speak intelligently about anything they're asked related to the park. And most questions they're going to be asked have little to do with subjects like law enforcement, administration, etc. Every LE ranger gets questions about the wildlife in the park, the geothermal processes, and so forth. They need to be able to speak intelligently on those subjects.

In reality, law enforcement issues could be dealt with by state/local officials in most cases (deputized to enforce laws on federal property), so you would always have access to professional law enforcement services (esp. the specialized services like crime scene processing, investigation, etc.). You don't necessarily need professional LE rangers in many places.

If you don't have professional/competent interpretive staff, however, there's just going to be a void there that can't be filled by the state or locals. And my experience with concessioner tour guides is that the majority of them lack suitable credentials and or the requisite knowledge and experience to talk in depth about most aspects of the park (Yellowstone, in this case). Not that they don't try, but most of them are young folks who're in school (often majoring in subjects that have little to do with interpretation or any of the sciences that would be beneficial for someone in such a role), and are in Yellowstone themselves for the first time. They just don't have the background to make it "work."

So, in summary, my opinion is that we need more interpretive rangers, and they should be paid professionals, supplemented by volunteers where possible, necessary, or desired.

Given pkrnger's great answer, I must expose Pogo. I visited Yosemite this summer. I was fortunate to be there the week after their two busiest weeks ever. Every ranger I talked to expressed the need for a little breather. I'm not sure why my week was lighter. The weather was perfect. Nontheless, I think the record crowds were due in part to the Ken Burns documentary. Lots of people wanted to meet Shelton Johnson (including me!). I would have been satisfied with a ghostly visit from John Muir. Indeed, the naturalists and storytellers (those who are truly knowledgeable, not having read up a mere hour before) are what make the park experience for me. My perspective is biased of course. I love the full park experience. I go off the beaten path. I want to know the history, the stories, the little-known facts. I did not come to Yosemite to join the other 95% who never leave the Valley. Perhaps they are the 95% who require the greater attention of the law enforcement.

My point is that with America's Best Idea, people have a pre-conceived notion of what their park experience will be. Maybe that's just my romantic side and it is the side I enjoy experiencing when I visit the parks. I still think cross-training is best.

Great question, Kurt. I'm torn on this one myself.

Here at Capitol Reef, LEs are somewhat less "necessary" in protecting the public (sad thought, no, that visitors to national parks must be protected??). Since we're so remote, we don't seem to have the abundance of drug runners (well...lately in the surrounding mountains there have been!), desperate and scary situations (Organ Pipe), and random shooters (the recent incident involving Utah State Parks Officer Brody Young near Moab) that some other NPS units unfortunately experience. However, the LEs here are always on patrol and deal with basic things like traffic violators, SARs, all that good and necessary stuff. They also can be sent/volunteer to go to help out in other areas, say a border NPS unit that has law enforcement issues, or an NPS unit located in an area that has extreme local poverty, violence, and and almost no law enforcement, all of which adversely affects visitors and locals alike. According to my LE friends here, when you look at the big picture, there are definitely some NPS units that need a heck of lot more LE support in the form of active officers.

So...could there be more LEs in park units in general? Yes, I think so.

Yet interps do a very vital job as well. Are they less well-trained than in years past? According to above posts, yes. (I personally don't really know, but it seems like it's probably true.) Should they all be volunteer? Let me tell you, the way things are going now, they might well end up being so. The NPS is in a financial hole in many ways. And with the current administration freezing ALL federal wages for the next two years, my many friends already in the NPS are anticipating feeling the pinch, not to mention how that affects future interp hires. People with advanced degrees are less likely to look at positions that have frozen wages for the next 24 months, not to mention that just trying to get into the NPS can be a comedy of paperwork, bureaucracy, and frustrated waiting. (This, I speak of from personal experience.) Also, who's around to train interps anyway? There might be one overburdened chief of interp and a bunch of seasonal newbies...and not enough time/money to get them all really trained up. we need more interpretive park staff? I'm not entirely certain "more" is the operative word. Possibly better-trained interps with more incentive to stay in a particular unit longer. When you're a seasonal, sometimes that incentive is quite low.

Food for thought as usual. Thanks for posing the question.

In an alternate reality where the NPS gets a healthy budget, why not get more of both? Then we'd have interp. rangers able to rove and meet the public as well as more than one l.e. ranger to cover 100,000+ acres alone.
In this reality, maybe we shoud be happy with what we got. In all honesty, the budget is about to go down the toilet. Volunteers can be great if you can get them and train them. Yes, seasonals vary in training, education and enthusiasm, but a lot of them are good people (in a no-so-great situation).

I'm not interested in law enforcement rangers. And frankly, I never understood, why the NPS has police authority at all. Yes, the parks are federal land, but does that mean it needs federal police? On BLM land the primary police is that of the county.

Abandon all LE functions with the NPS, shift it to the counties. And make the NPS an organization that deals in science, environmental protection and education.

This is an overly simplistic question that will find people strongly aligned on both sides of the issue. I worked both in interpretation and protection during my 32 year career in the National Park Service. So here are my simplified views.

As several of the respondents above referred, I long for the days of the “generalist ranger” who was able to do it all. One minute leading a guided walk and the next dealing with a violation of park regulations. Unfortunately it has been my experience that times and society have changed. The threat of physical violence when dealing with even the simplest park violations have increased exponentially in the past ten years or so. I do not pretend to know all the societal reasons behind any changes in behavior, but evidence of this potential for violence is evident.

Academic studies have shown that National Park Rangers are the most likely to be physically assaulted of any Federal Law Enforcement Agency. During my career sixteen National Park Rangers died in the line of duty. In 1999 National Park Ranger Steve Makuakane-Jarrell was shot and killed while investigating a report of a dog off leash in Hawaii. Just since November 11 a Pennsylvania Wildlife Consevation Officer was shot and killed outside Gettysburg National Military Park, a Tennessee State Park Ranger was shot at while attempting to stop a vehicle for a traffic violation, and Utah State Park Ranger Brody Young was shot during a vehicle stop. These incidents exemplify the inherent dangers of conducting law enforcement duties in park like settings.

To keep our parks, visitors, and employees safe the National Park Service has increased the standards and training for law enforcement commissioned Park Rangers. This perhaps hard to accept concept is driven by the need to meet the mission of the National Park Service to protect and preserve in today’s society. The result is a more law enforcement skilled and experienced workforce within a park.

Interpretation remains an important tool for our National Parks to ensure positive visitor experiences, support for the parks, instilling a respect from the public to help the parks, and educate future generations. The complexities and demands placed on Interpretive Park Rangers have also resulted in the need for more specialization and subject expertise to meet the expectations of a more educated public.

To get back to the original question, it is not appropriate to make a blanket choice to increase Interpretive Ranger or Law Enforcement Park Rangers system wide. There is no doubt that there are insufficient employees in either discipline of rangers to meet the Agency Mission. This issue needs to be looked at on an individual park basis and by using professional staffing and workload analysis determine the positions needs by each park in all work areas. This could also include scientific and maintenance disciplines.

As an example, on the Blue Ridge Parkway a law enforcement work analysis was conducted a number of years ago. The resulting recommendations included that the Park should have a minimum of 50+ law enforcement commissioned Park Rangers to work safely, not necessarily affectively. Today there are still only half that many protection rangers assigned to the park. But the issue in this one park is more complex than that. Due to budget shortfalls the Blue Ridge Parkway has approximately sixty vacant permanent positions of all disciplines that cannot be filled.

Staffing levels across the board in most National Park Service areas makes the preservation and protection of our significant cultural and natural resources, visitors, and employees a challenge we need to step up to meet.

I think an important distinction should be made between formal and informal interpretation. While I was stationed at Yellowstone I gave informal interpretation on the wildlife while working in a public safety capacity. The information I gave visitors was in response to their questions, many of these questions were answered in our park handbooks so should I have ignored the questions or worked during my own time to provide the visitor the best possible experience?? Formal interpretation, while not always, is for the most part given by professionals who are either formally educated on their content or have a great passion for the subject and this was true at Yellowstone and other parks I have worked in over the years.
I agree the recruitment process for new park rangers should be fixed, however we cannot lessen the important work that passionate seasonals and volunteers bring to our parks. To answer the original question we need more of both, and dual capacity rangers could be the best answer.

I fully agree with this

"If I can't bring the naturalists back, I would hire and train first and foremost for visitor contact and interpretation/education, and train secondarily for law enforcement activities. Come to think of it, I believe that everyone in uniform who works for the NPS and who potentially comes into contact with a member fo the public should be trained as an interpreter/educator first, and as a specialist (law enforcement, resources management, administration, etc.) second.

More uniformed rangers should be accessible to the public, out roaming on foot or horseback, and inter-mingling with the visiting public, answering questions and giving out excellent advice as to how to best experience the park, with an invitation to return for more."

I believe that if more of the so called law enforcement rangers were trained to deal with visitors and education there would be for the most part, less need for law enforcement.

I do see some visitor rule breakers - notably cone walkers at Yellowstone - and hear about others. Considering the number of visitors to the bigger parks its a very small percentage of law/rule breakers with a very large percentage of the budget being used for law enforcement.

This is such an important discussion - thanks so much for providing a forum!

Although it's been about 20 years since I went to the seasonal academy up in Santa Rosa, then director Bill Orr shared something important with the students that has stuck with me ever since. He said - if I can paraphrase - "Interpretation is the first level of compliance for a law enforcement ranger and the most important tool in your arsenal. It will serve you better than a ticket book, the ability to arrest, or any of the defensive tactics you will learn here."

Personally, I found interpretation to be the most effective tool in dealing with the vast majority of protection issues. Obviously, in situations with the potential for physical harm or property damage, other tools were more appropriate. When I think of people that I respected in the field doing LE, they typically were also very capable interpreters. I truly believe that a good protection ranger has to be by definition a good interpreter - she builds a level of stewardship with each person in every one of her interactions. Not to down play the important role of our community police, but this is what makes a park ranger different from a cop on a beat. In addition to the hundred other things we expect of our rangers, they have to be able to make the resources relevant to the visitor.

I would suggest that we take this even a step further and apply the same idea to anyone who has the potential to interact with visitors. Let's face it - in even well staffed interpretive operations, at best, only ten percent of the visitors every interact with an interpretive ranger. A visitor is much more likely to interact with a generalist at the the gate, or a maintenance worker cleaning up a wayside, or a VRP ranger contacting them while speeding. These are the real individuals that have the opportunity to function as interpreters.

So, I think we are asking ourselves the wrong question. It is not a matter of robbing one division to pay for another. It is a matter of making sure that everyone on staff has a minimum level of proficiency in making interpretive connections with the public. Although I have spent a fair amount of time working as an interpreter, it's not rocket science. We should be asking ourselves whether or not we are willing to train our people to adequately serve as interpreters, regardless of the division they work in. We have very capable folks working in our parks - we just need to make sure they are equipped with the tools they need.


my response to that is try getting a county officer to do an ARPA case. Better yet, have the county do a 19 jj case. While looking at the significance of a LE Ranger, most of my contacts come from the general visitor who's making a simple mistake that needs to be educated about the park service in why we're doing what were doing

Wow, what a stimulating and thoughtful question and posts. This has been one of the most interesting reads I can remember on this website and there was nothing in any of the postings with which I disagreed. The fact that they were all right to one degree or another speaks volumes about the complexity of this whole thing.

I very much agree with David Smith that ALL our personnel should be interpreters first and whatever else second. As a park visitor, I've found myself in awe sometimes when talking with a lowly maintenance worker who was providing excellent interpretation. In fact, when I was one of those old-fashioned "generalists," I made sure we provided at least some interp training for all our maintenance crew.

As for the question of quality -- it doesn't really matter whether one is an interp ranger, LE ranger, maintenance worker, volunteer, concession employee or what have you. It all really boils down to just one thing -- ATTITUDE. If the person really loves the place in which they work, they will be a great whatever they are.

As I've talked with some of those who have taken my place in green and gray uniforms, I have become very concerned however with all the seemingly insane bureaucratic mazes, hoops, and inanities any potential NPS employee now faces in trying to join the team. Good heavens -- it's a wonder anyone has the drive and dedication to keep trying to find a job in one of our parks. But maybe that helps separate the real winners from all the rest.

I've been a protection/public safety ranger with a local agency in CA for nearly 16 years and my wife been on the seasonal circuit with Ca State Park and NPS for they past 4 years.  

Both type of rangers are equally important and in the end have the same goals of protecting the park resources and park visitors, they just have different, training, tools and techniques for doing it.

Protection rangers are needed because they are the most effective way to provide law enforcement and other public safety functions (EMS, SAR and Fire) in parks.  Traditional law enforcement officers usually have little understanding of or desire to enforce resource protection laws or park regulations.  The resources in parks "protected" by traditional law enforcement are not as well protected resources in parks that have law enforcement rangers.  A long time CA State Park ranger told me once that you can't make a cop into a good ranger, but you can make a ranger into a good cop.

Let's not forget law enforcement is nothing new for rangers.  It's been part of the duties for rangers with my agency since they hired it's first rangers in 1917.  In 1926 Horace Albright who at the time was Superintendent of Yellowstone stated: 
"Qualifications of a Ranger... The ranger is primarily a policeman... The ranger comes more closely in contact with the visiting public than any other park officer, and he is the representative of the Secretary of the Interior, the Director of the National Park Service and the Superintendent of the Park in dealing with the public. Naturally, therefore, the ranger must have a pleasing personality; he must be tactful, diplomatic, and courteous; he must be patient... The ranger is charged with the protection of the natural features of the Park, especially the forests..."

Albright also stated: "Duties of A Ranger: The ranger force is the park police force, and is on duty night and day in the protection of the park. Protection work primarily relates to the care of the forests, the fish and game, the geyser and hot spring formations and the campgrounds. Of equal importance is the detection of violations of the speed rules. The ranger force is the information-supplying organization. The issuance of publications, answering of questions, lecturing, and guiding are all accomplished by rangers."

I agree with the David Smith's post, especially  "Interpretation is the first level of compliance for a law enforcement ranger and the most important tool in your arsenal. It will serve you better than a ticket book, the ability to arrest, or any of the defensive tactics you will learn here."
The law enforcement training, skills and powers come into play when visitors know the rules and choose not to follow them or when dealing with traditional criminal activity that occurs in all parks.  I also was one of Bill Orr's students at Santa Rosa.  I remember another instructor there told us "even criminals take vacations." 

In my job I've been lucky, I regularly provide informal interp and do also get a chance to present formal interp programs too.  Interp rangers play a vital role by providing full time interpretation, information and education to park visitors to help them understand the park's resources better and hopefully inspire them to want to preserve and protect the parks. 

Each park needs it's own specific mixture of protection and interp rangers.  Volunteers can be a great supplement in interp services, but they are not a replacement for interp rangers.  Seasonal rangers in both classes of rangers and are vital to many parks operations.  The NPS should       fix the hiring and recruitment process both Seasonal and Permanent rangers, both LE and interp, the way it's done now leaves much to be desired and produces a high level of disillusionment for those wanting to transition from seasonal to permanent rangers. 

The question is a false dichotomy. We need more of both. I agree in general with many of the previous commenters, that the precise balance of need is something that needs to be decided on a park by park basis. Reservoir and beach parks readily accessible to large populations tend to have more law enforcement problems, often involving people who have poor social skills to begin with, and tend to really let loose when in a park. While prevention through contact with great interp rangers is better than law enforcement action for long-term changes in public behavior---inspiring people to find value in preserving the parks---too many resources are at stake to reduce the law enforcement element. And, in larger parks, it certainly is not realistic to expect the local county or state police to handle most offenses. Even if parks did not have specialized violations that regular law enforcement officers are not trained to handle (e.g. archaeological site damage, wildlife harassment, campground rowdiness), the counties and states usually have too few people of their own even to do an adequate job with something they could handle, such as speeding violations.

There could be more cross-training, and in some areas, there are. In some parks, interpreters are medical first responders just like LEs. Maintenance workers who are out among the public ought to be cross-trained about handling some visitor issues. (E.g. when I worked as a custodian at Grand Canyon several years after working as a fee collection ranger [visitor use assistant] in Mather Campground, I would make a point of stopping and talking to visitors who had on loud music, whereas my colleagues didn't seem to think that was their job. On the other hand, when out picking litter at the overlooks, most visitors tended to ignore us, apparently having no expectation that a trash picker would know anything about the geology and wildlife of the canyon---which I did happen to know.)

As someone else mentioned, there could be better incentives for seasonal employees to return to the same park to promote local expertise. For one, we are not eligible for step increases in wage rates no matter how many times we return. Secondly, the civil service law could be changed to make it easier for managers to hire on permanently high performing seasonal people non-competitively. Thirdly, we could restructure that sacred cow, veteran's preference, which currently often results in "second best" people getting preferences for a lifetime. It's great that we honor our vets, but for non-disabled vets, enabling them to get a free or low-cost college education plus preference in their first two or three positions should be enough to enable worthy people to get their feet in the career ladder.

I disagree with the comment implying that a federal wage freeze will result in less qualified people being hired. Right now, there seems to be a glut of highly qualified applicants, and even those of us who are experienced at interpretation who score 100 on the assessments don't get job offers. A wage freeze could be a very good thing--separating those of us who are dedicated to working in the parks from those in it primarily for the money.

Park volunteers are wonderful, but should not be expected to shoulder the bulk of interpretive needs. Too few people can put in the hours needed to get up to speed. For those who can, the parks should do everything they can to accommodate them, such as providing free RV or other campsites, perhaps a significant stipend for those committing to a season of work. Even better, set up a program of volunteer preference points, so that people who volunteer X number of hours can use the points to give them a leg-up on obtaining a paid job in a related position. This should apply to current federal employees, as well. Who else should the parks most want to hire than people who are so dedicated that they will volunteer their time to help the park?

For me, this question is very personal. My son graduated cum laude in biology and spent the next 8 years in a variety of field work/seasonal positions. He finally became a permanent NPS employee through a ranger academy course at a local university that allowed him to obtain a seasonal LE position that led to becoming a permanent LE ranger. Needless to say, it was never his intention to become a policeman, but he is now at FLETC and the training there will accomplish just that. He will become, however, the ranger-naturalist that Horace Albright described and that perhaps is the best answer to the question posed here. I only hope that the service won't waste my son's naturalist skills by sending him to a park where his total focus will need to be LE.

I assisted with the administration of the Ranger Skills course taught at Albright Training Center back in 1985... most of the multidisciplinary rangers came from the smaller parks and I was most impressed by them. When the ex-marine law enforcement ranger got up to do her interpretive slide show and I wept, I have always believed THAT was a park ranger, and that all park rangers should strive to be multi-skilled (and hence, hopefully, better-compensated). So when park's needs change throughout the season or from year to year, people can stay in their jobs, parks can have their needs met at ultimately lower cost (without the need to overstaff to fill specialized roles). FLETC training ain't cheap though, so there will always be the need for specialized ranger positions. Volunteers can help with some of this, but there's no substitute for the round brown well-trained ranger.

Most Americans have the historical perspective of a gnat.

Wasn't that long ago that the ONLY employees of any national park were gun totin' rangers taking care of "law enforcement" and any other problem or issue.

Then we went through a happy phase when we all thought that enlightened Americans only needed education and inspiration to prevent the bad things could possibly happen to our icons. The guns went into the glovebox and the desk drawer.

Then reality smacked us down. Especially after a few folks were murdered in cold blood, some of them our own employees.

Education is the key to both the long and short term survival of our resources, yes. Absolutely, 100% true.

But there is more than one way to "educate" our users. Some of them have to be educated while in handcuffs, or in a courtroom. That is the only way they will learn.

The answer, is "yes."

Interpretation is the primary purpose of the National Park Service, because the interpretative mission is what distinguishes the NPS from the other federal land management and conservation agencies.

David Smith (the Sculpter? the Ranger?) is right about the effectiveness of interpretation as a protection tool.

Bruce W. Bytnar is only philosophically right when he says the decision for increases should be on a park by park basis. In reality the only big surge of staffing comes when a well-organized and persistent communications campaign with Congress pushes an initiative. In the early 1970's, when there was a freeze on all other employees, every month there were long lists of Park Police being hired as a surge; urban riots and the expansion of public political demonstrations helped make the case for big law enforcement staffing increases. None of these Park Police were hired because of their interpretive skills, or their insights into the Web of Life.

You would think interpreters, professional communicators would be better at devising a campaign to Congress to make clear what an enormous asset it would be if parks were more people-friendly to international tourists, if local school systems could count on trained professional educational expertise of park staff to develop cooperative education curricula, if American populations increasingly distanced from their history or the experience of nature could be brought to enjoy and appreciate unfamiliar but essential surroundings in parks. Incidental contact with non-interpretive staff do not do these things, as valuable and important as it is for all employees to be able to help interpret the Resource.

It is true that the law enforcement job keeps getting more demanding as our World gets more troubled.

It is true that some situations require straight up enforcement. But it is a shame in recent years that the angle of view of the US Office of Personnel Management and the theory of enforcement have a mindset of specialization. The Resource is a Whole, but the staff training becomes more and more fractured.

I think everyone should be rotated through interpretive and partnership experience, if they expect to move up in the Service. I would rather let the border guards and local law enforcement play a larger role, deemphasize 'National Security,' and add significantly to the ranks of trained professional interpretive and partnership rangers.

I see some people seeing the uniform who can't seem to tell the difference between LE and interpretive rangers. I guess it comes with the uniform that even those with LE duties have to do the mundane things, such as give directions, inform visitors where the bathroom is, and even take pictures of visitors. I recall seeing a group posing for a photo taken by an LE ranger. When the group left, I said to the ranger that they didn't seem to realize that he was essentially a police officer, but he said that wearing the familiar hat meant that he was responsible for more than just law enforcement duties.

I certainly am glad that there is a law enforcement presence in many of our NPS lands, whether it's the familiar LE ranger or US Park Police. Not all visitors display ideal behavior, and just it's an NPS unit doesn't mean that there won't be a criminal element. That being said, I've found our NPS LE rangers to be among the most professional police forces I've ever encountered. They seem to be highly cognizant that they have more than simply law enforcement, but have to represent the NPS in a positive light.

nicely put, y_p_w.

I've seen a lot of LE rangers in my travels. Some were actually pretty stern - especially those rangers who were handing out tickets or threatening to do so for parking violations. Some people just didn't seem to get that you can't block the road just because there's a bear in the area.

However - my experiences have been almost always positive. I remember forgetting to turn off the lights, when an LE ranger offered to give me a jump. I was prepared with an emergency jump starter, but I certainly appreciated the offer. I also remember a bunch of kids waiting for a naturalist to show up for a guided walk - with their junior ranger booklets ready to be signed. They mobbed the LE ranger who was just patrolling the parking lot (they saw "PARK RANGER" on the side of the SUV but probably didn't notice the assault rifle), but she was understanding and told them that the volunteer naturalist leading the tour should be arriving soon.

d2 wrote:

"Interpretation is the primary purpose of the National Park Service, because the interpretative mission is what distinguishes the NPS from the other federal land management and conservation agencies."

This is factually incorrect. The primary purpose of the National Park Service is "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." (National Park Service Organic Act, 16 U.S.C.1.)

The NPS Management Policies 2006 provide further clarification: "Congress, recognizing that the enjoyment by future generations of the national parks can be ensured only if the superb quality of park resources and values is left unimpaired, has provided that when there is a conflict between conserving resources and values and providing for enjoyment of them, conservation is to be predominant. This is how courts have consistently interpreted the Organic Act." (Section 1.4.3)

This wording is unequivocal. Conservation of park resources and values is the primary purpose of the National Park Service.

We now return you to the debate about the best way to achieve that goal :)

I agree of course with the Legislative purpose and your quotes of the Mission.

But it is still true that NPS is distinguished from the other conservation Agencies because of its Interpretation. It is interpretation and visitor services that formed the bond between the NPS and the American people.

Many National Forest wilderness are managed with a higher protective mandate than National Parks. The Forest Service has done more studies of trail formation and remediation, visitor practice and impacts, and environmental restoration than the NPS. Even the BLM has extremely well protected wild areas. The US Fish and Wildlife Service often has a much more professional approach to science and decision making than you can find in the NPS; rarely could you find within the NPS the professional capacity routinely displayed by the Fish and Wildlife Service as they assess resource protection and impact issues of all kinds.

Many of the wild lands in these 3 agencies are as spectacular as any National Park. Just look at how hard the NPS tried to include the Admiralty Islands and the monument valleys in the System, for confirmation. The Arctic Wildlife Refuge is equal to anything the NPS has in Alaska, and for generations the NPS tried to wrest the old Arctic Range from the FWS to be a great national park, but to no avail.

One of the key means the NPS used both to further public enjoyment and to build a constituency for keeping the resource unimpared is Interpretation. Originally, some in the congress were so apprehensive about the Service having such a program of public education of its mission, that Congress would not even let the NPS use the word "education;" that is why instead the NPS called what it does "interpretation."

The Founders of the NPS would not let it go because they knew it was essential to everything else.

Many times I have heard frustrated Forest Service or FWS people complain about how perplexed they are because of the ability of the NPS to capture public attention -- and funding -- they think should be going instead to them. They complain of the number of Atlases that depict parks, but not forests or refuges. When there is a threat to shut down government, they speak of closing National Parks - not Wildlife Refuges. They point out their land management professionalism; they speak to the value and needs of the wonderful lands they manage or programs they operate. They remain perplexed about what is the magic the NPS has that they don't. (Hint: it is not law enforcement)

Who could argue with the Legal framework of the Service? I wouldn't; it's sacred.

But FUNCTIONALLY, Interpretation has been the thing that has made the NPS special. It changes the depth of the visitor experience and understanding of the parks, and from the beginning built the public support for parks, without which no amount of legal madates would matter.

It has made the National Parks the greatest educational resource in America. That is what the National Park System and the National Park Service is: it is an Educational Institution, as much as it is a land management agency.

They remain perplexed about what is the magic the NPS has that they don't. (Hint: it is not law enforcement)

Perhaps it is because we don't spend a significant amount of our institutional time and money directly supporting and promoting resource extraction and consumptive uses. Just a guess *rolls eyes*

More law enforcement Rangers are needed to keep the tipping point of losing our parks to criminal activity, such as growing illegal drugs within the protected borders. If we lose control of the larger aspect of keeping our parks safe, no amount of interpretive Rangers can keep our parks safe, in my humble opinion.

I do fully enjoy the safety and informative program dimensions of our National Parks. Thank you, NPS. And, thank you, NPT editors and contributors for asking and reporting on this issue.

--Ken, New Jersey

Both are important to the mission. A State Park Ranger myself, an issue with combining roles is LE Rangers are in large part a specialized and reactive arm of the agency. When out with a group of 40 folks, unless staffing permits its not realistic to drop the group to respond to an emergency.

Best case scenario, the LE Ranger would have a solid understanding and appreciation for the resources that make a site special, and the Interpretive Ranger could be a conscious and aware extra set of eyes in the Park. And both would be able to focus on the details that makes them a subject matter expert in their discipline.

Though ideally they would be distinct roles, I see a significant amount of crossover (in the State system) as we are forced to do more with less.

" Operating with an overpaid seasonal 'gypsy' front-line staff doesn't provide the best for the visitors or the park, not to mention it's a poor use of money, having to retrain every year."

As a seasonal law enforcement ranger for the NPS, I can assure you we aren't "overpaid" by any stretch of the imagination. We get the worst of the LE housing, we wear the same badges-guns-protective vests-drive the same patrol vehicles etc, are in as much danger -can get shot-beat up-stabbed etc, as any of the permanent law enforcement rangers.

Every time I pull over a car-contact a visitor-arrest somebody-respond to a call, I must use the same "officer safety" survival skills as my permanent counterparts.

We risk our lives, especially in the high crime parks (my last park was ranked in the "top ten America's most dangerous national parks" list), each and every day...
All this for $18.50 (GS-5) or $21.50 (GS-7) per hour, with no benefits.

Overpaid? HA! Enjoy my job? Definitely!

The Moustache
Type II Commissioned Law Enforcement Officer