Grand Canyon National Park Ranger Honored As Park Service's Top Ranger

Brandon Torres, chief of emergency services at Grand Canyon National Park, has been honored with the Harry Yount Award for his talents and actions. NPS photo.

A Grand Canyon National Park ranger, one who you might see dangling from a helicopter to help an injured visitor, has been honored as the National Park Service's top ranger.

During his career so far Ranger Brandon Torres has rappeled down cliffs and climbed over mountains to come to the aid of park visitors. Since becoming a park ranger in 1998, he has dedicated his life to helping others as a federal law enforcement officer, paramedic, rescuer, firefighter, coach, guide, and teacher.

Last week the Park Service and the National Park Foundation presented Ranger Torres with the 2012 Harry Yount National Park Ranger Award for excellence in the art of rangering. Named after the first known park ranger, the award is the agency’s most prestigious ranger honor.

Also recognized at the ceremony were the recipients of the 2012 George and Helen Hartzog Awards for Outstanding Volunteer Service. The awards are named for former National Park Service Director George B. Hartzog, Jr. who started the extremely successful Volunteers-In-Parks (VIP) Program in 1970.

“In a profession where extreme dedication and high standards are the norm, Brandon Torres has set himself apart with his impressive leadership ability and wilderness skills,” said Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis. “As the chief of emergency services at Grand Canyon National Park, his job is incredibly demanding. He never knows what will happen next and is prepared for everything, just in case. He is the steady hand that can save your life in a medical emergency, that can pull you out of a trouble when you’ve gotten in a jam, and that can correct a dangerous situation before it’s too late.”

In addition to Grand Canyon, Torres has also worked at Olympic, Grand Teton and Zion national parks and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. He has instituted lasting programs, including a backcountry bear canister loan program at Grand Teton and the search and rescue helicopter shorthaul technique at Zion. He has also served on high profile search and rescue missions, special events such as the 2009 Presidential Inauguration, and response efforts for Hurricanes Isabel, Rita, Ike and Sandy.

“It’s flattering to be recognized as a ranger who can perform in a wide range of situations and it has been a privilege to serve in a number of unique and different ways,” said Ranger Torres. “I like the analogy of racing sailboats to describe what we do. Like sailing, rangering is often full of unending learning, quiet observation, the constant checking of surroundings, terrain mastery and an intuition for sometimes subtle and/or minute changes in conditions that we must acknowledge in order to maintain an advantage.

"The quiet patrol and observation is then fully interrupted by chaos and terror during a turn, then suddenly and immediately followed by heart-pounding quiet and the struggle to regain one’s situational awareness. Rangers tend to thrive in this kind of turn-it-on, switch gears, change uniforms, and turn-it-off kind of environment. Rangers combat crime and violence one minute then calmly give directions or answer questions about the local flora/fauna the next.”

Top Volunteers

In 1970, when Director Hartzog started the National Park Service volunteer program, there were about 300 participants. Last year, more than 257,000 volunteers of all ages, from all over the country, and the world, donated 6.7 million hours of time to help preserve and protect national parks.

“The George and Helen Hartzog Awards honor the distinguished group of individuals that proudly give of themselves to make the National Park Service a stronger and more vibrant institution,” said Neil Mulholland, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation. “We recognize the profound contributions each of them have made, and the important work being done by volunteers across the national park system, in honor of the great legacy started by George Hartzog and carried on today by his wife Helen. Thanks to the contributions of these private citizens the national parks are more than America’s best idea. They represent America at its best.”

The 2012 Hartzog Award recipients are:

* Dr. Brett Oppegaard from Fort Vancouver National Historic Site received the Hartzog Individual Service Award. Through more than 5,000 hours of volunteer service over the past four years, Oppegaard led the creation, from scratch, of Fort Vancouver mobile applications for the iPhone, iPad and Android devices.

He led a team of 20 core collaborators and about 100 other community members who volunteered thousands of additional hours. Interpretive material, including the vast majority of the content within the apps, was created by the team, just for this purpose, as a way to explore new uses of mobile devices for historic interpretation. These free apps have been downloaded and enjoyed by visitors more than 1,000 times.

* Brianna Machuga from Cuyahoga Valley National Park received the Hartzog Youth Volunteer Service Award. Brianna volunteers with the park and its partner, the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, as an actress, office worker, and program assistant for special events, including the Easter Egg Extravaganza and the Polar Express™.

On the Polar Express, Brianna presents a program to children who climb aboard in pajamas for a magical trip to the North Pole. Brianna also worked on a charity run for children and their families who might not otherwise be able to ride and for those who needed some holiday cheer. She worked with the cancer patients on this ride and did an incredible job bringing smiles to their faces. She also suggested and implemented a clothing drive for several homeless shelters that resulted in the donation of more than 400 coats, hats, gloves, and scarves.

* The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band from Pinnacles National Park received the Hartzog Group Volunteer Service Award. Tribal volunteers collaborated with the park and the University of California at Santa Cruz and Berkeley to conduct two research projects that took an innovative approach to habitat restoration by integrating traditional Native American land management practices with contemporary techniques to restore and protect the natural and cultural processes of a unique California grassland system.

As part of their studies, a traditional burn was reintroduced to the Pinnacles landscape with Tribal elders making the first ignition. Tribal volunteerism and involvement is also enriching interpretive stories and programs, understanding of the park natural and cultural resources, and strategic planning. The park hosted its first archaeological field school in 2011 with Amah Mutsun tribal volunteers working side by side with University of California Berkeley archaeologists and students to conduct detailed archaeological surveys. Tribal participation fostered a greater learning opportunity for the students and park staff as they relayed cultural practices and philosophies relevant to the past and present through dance, song, and storytelling.

* Student Organization for Aquatic Robotics (SOAR) at Isle Royale National Park received the Hartzog Youth Group Volunteer Service Award. Designing and building submersible remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) for combating invasive species at Isle Royale National Park may appear to be an impossible challenge to most high school students but the Dollar Bay High School's SOAR program took on this challenge. In the course of 18 months, 25 students (grades 9 - 12) participated directly in the project. This is approximately one third of the high school's student body at this small rural K-12 school.

Marine Robotics is a science elective course offered at Dollar Bay High School led by teacher Matt Zimmer. In addition to in-class project work, the students and teacher spent and continue to spend many evenings and weekends working on the Isle Royale project. The SOAR team was requested to engineer an ROV which could be used for monitor docks and inspect boat hulls for invasive mussels. This entailed engineering a design that had: visual acuity with sufficient image quality with the ability to discriminate between invasive mussels and other organisms and assure that there is enough contrast to pick out mussels against the substrate in low light conditions; had the ability to record images for future reference and for baseline and mitigation; and was portable, durable, and low maintenance. The complexity of the project has increased as the SOAR team members have built their knowledge base and become increasingly more sophisticated in their work.

* Everglades National Park received the Hartzog Park Program Volunteer Service Award. The volunteer program took several strategic steps to increase public awareness and interest in the VIP program. They updated the volunteer handbook and designed a park specific flyer to assist in recruiting diverse volunteers from the local community. They created Poisonwood Pages, an innovative and thematic volunteer newsletter published quarterly. They also increased the participation of universities and colleges in the Alternative Spring Break programs. Through collaboration with Biscayne National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve, more than 300 student volunteers contributed more than 5,000 hours in two months.

* Robin Goddard from Great Smoky Mountains National Park received the Hartzog Enduring Volunteer Service Award. This excellent interpreter, teacher, storyteller, and trainer has provided more than 12,000 hours of outstanding volunteer service over the last 43 years. Robin has developed material for curriculum-based programs, taught countless outdoor classes, assisted scientists with collecting data, developed first person historical programs, and served as a formal Great Smoky Mountains Ambassador through outreach programs in the community.

Because of Robin’s passion, knowledge, and professionalism, she often represents the park by conducting special programs for dignitaries, politicians, and other special park guests. She performs these duties while also faithfully conducting her weekly interpretive program for visitors April through October, rain or shine. Through her highly attended weekly program at Little Greenbrier Schoolhouse, Robin continually engages and educates the public, young and old alike, while also creating future park advocates.