You are here

A View From the Overlook: “How Do You Get A Permanent Job With The NPS?”

A ranger's job, and how to get one, have both changed quite a bit since these ranger's posed for a photo at Mt. Rainier in the 1930s. NPS photo.

“How Do You Get A Permanent Job With The NPS?”

This is a frequently asked question, neighbors! If the National Parks are “America’s Best Idea,” then it logically follows that the agency that services the National Parks, that is, The National Park Service, is the best damn bureaucracy in the world, and (therefore) NPS rangers, including myself, are the best damn bureaucrats in the world. (There is a flaw in logic in there somewhere, but you get the drift.)

Everyone enjoys basking in the reflected glory of an elite organization; this is one of the many reasons for the popularity of both the National Park Service and the U.S. Marine Corps. (Admittedly, the Marine Corps is easier to get into.)

Another reason for NPS employment popularity is Positive Feedback: People actually like you and like what you’re doing. Many of the federal agencies are regulatory, which means you have an established Enemies List, people that hate you automatically, even before you arrive at work at eight in the morning. Not so in the case of the NPS (except for Tea Party fanatics!)

Consider the Internal Revenue Service. Have you ever wondered why the IRS does not have a “Junior IRS Agent” program similar to the Park Service’s Junior Ranger Program, in which aspiring juvenile IRS agents could conduct mock audits of the neighbors? No? I thought not. The same is true of the CIA.

A third reason for NPS job popularity is the physical setting.“Vignettes of Primeval America, at the point of European contact: Towering trees! Thundering waterfalls! Limitless vistas!"

No doubt about it, friends, the NPS is a feel-good agency that many people would like to join, and they are not easily dissuaded.

Recall the last cocktail party you attended. After the host has introduced you as a retired or active member of the NPS, you will be asked two questions: (A) “What is your favorite bear story? (Pretty difficult if you were at Statue of Liberty), and (B) "How can my (son, daughter, grandchild) get a job with the NPS?”

Now the answer to question B is complicated, ambiguous and fluid.

You might like to hedge, particularly if you are feeling a tad malicious.

“Do you want your child to be happy?” you might solemnly inquire.

The answer will, of course, be “Yes! Yes!” (America being the first country to be founded on the “Pursuit of Happiness" as a goal.)

“Then,” you reply, “Your child should get a job as a Federal Prison Guard.”

Your questioner will be appalled.

No, you have not taken leave of your senses due to Sequestration Frustration; you are merely alluding to a famous yearly study by The Partnership for Public Service in which they ranked the various federal agencies as “The Best Places to Work.”

Now the NPS has never done particularly well in this survey, landing somewhere in the low middle. One notable year, the Federal Bureau of Prisons was found to be a happier place to work than the NPS.Why is this the case?

Actually, it is an unfair comparison. You see, there is a difference in expectations.

A person who applies for a job as a prison guard has rather low expectation of approval by the clientele he serves. Most federal prisons are located in rural, low rent areas with few permanent jobs. Our prison guard candidate will be looking for a favorable retirement and medical package rather than Spiritual Fulfillment. In addition, he/she will be pleasantly surprised that they were not murdered the first day on the job. Every day after that is an improvement.

The NPS seasonal acolyte, on the other hand, has high expectations. If only he/she can enter the Nirvana of permanent employment in “The best job in the world,” our Newbie expects 30 years of blissful contentment. What they fail to realize is that the National Parks are not administered by “towering trees or thundering waterfalls,” or even by a John Muir clone, but by rather fallible and ordinary human beings. There will be difficulties and frustrations.

When approached by young men or women desiring a career in the National Park Service, Roger Siglin, former Chief Ranger of Yellowstone and Superintendent of Gates of Arctic National Park, would ask, “What is your second choice for a lifetime career?” They rarely had one. One should have a back-up plan, unless one is wearing a suicide vest.

“Yes, I know that!” our acolyte exclaims irritably. “I understand that the NPS has some serious personnel management problems, but I am different! Once I become permanent, I will reform the organization from top to bottom (WASO is clearly shaking in its boots!), BUT FIRST I NEED TO GET A PERMANENT JOB WITH THE NPS!”

Thereupon hangs many a frustration, neighbors! There are many rumors abounding that “One must know someone” before the Holy Grail of a permanent position can be grasped, or that certain jobs are “wired” for certain individuals or certain minority groups.

“Outsiders,” those brave, noble souls who are not part of the “Conspiracy,” are condemned to wander forevermore in the Twilight Zone of seasonal employment or working for free as a volunteer. Since the NPS is one of the more gossipy agencies of the Federal Government, rumors abound. Some of them are true.

It is true there is malfeasance and corruption in the obtaining of government jobs, but less so than in the rip-roaring, wide-open period after the Civil War known as the Gilded Age, when everything seemed for sale, even if seller didn’t own it. Federal jobs were just some of the merchandise available. People worked for political parties and voted for candidates not because they were interested in Good Government and Progress, but because they wanted the postmaster’s job in their town or the lighthouse tender’s job, or wanted to be the lucky chap that handed out land to railroads.

This was called Patronage, and constituted a venality tax on just about everyone as the wheels of government ground slower and slower. The various presidents of the Gilded Age may not have been personally corrupt, but many of their appointees certainly were, and the country was shot through with graft from top to bottom.

How were we to get out of the Civil Service corruption trap that even today bedevils most of the poverty stricken countries of the Third World?

“If in doubt, ask a ranger!" So, I asked Ranger Todd Arrington of James Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio to clear things up for us. You see, in addition to being in charge of the tallest tree and tallest mountain in America, the National Park Service is in charge of American history. If you are interested in the history of the light bulb, you contact Thomas Edison National Historic Site; if you are interested in Civil Service corruption, you contact James Garfield National Historic Site. It seems that President Garfield died for our sins.

Here is what Ranger Todd had to say:

“…Civil Service Reform was something that was awaiting James A. Garfield when he became President in 1881. Garfield was inclined to agree that some reform to the civil service system was necessary to get rid of patronage and replace it with a merit-based system in which only qualified candidates who passed exams could receive appointments to federal positions. However, Garfield became much more adamant about this need after his election to the presidency, when he was almost immediately bombarded by letters and visits from people seeking jobs. Very few of these individuals had any real qualifications for the positions they sought and to which they felt entitled simply because they were Republicans or knew someone who knew a Congressman, etc.

Alternate Text
President James Garfield supported major changes in hiring practices for federal jobs in the 1880s. Library of Congress photo.

This continued after Garfield’s inauguration when he unhappily spent hours each day receiving job seekers. One of those who tried to convince Garfield to appoint him to a position (American Consul to Paris) was Charles J. Guiteau, a mentally unbalanced stalwart Republican who had given a meandering, unimportant speech promoting Garfield in New York and wanted to be rewarded for it.

Guiteau didn’t get the job, and he soon grew concerned about Garfield’s intention to replace the patronage system with a merit system, as the new president engaged in a very public battle with New York’s Senator Roscoe Conkling over who would be appointed to the most prestigious and lucrative patronage job in the country: Collector of the Port of New York.

Charles Guiteau eventually decided the best way to handle this was to murder President Garfield so that Vice President Chester A. Arthur, a New Yorker and Conkling acolyte, would be elevated to the presidency.

Guiteau shot Garfield on July 2, 1881; the wounded President lingered until September 19.Vice President Arthur then became the new president and, to his credit, immediately distanced himself from Conkling. It was President Arthur who signed the Pendleton Act on January 16, 1883. That law reformed the Civil Service, as Garfield had desired, by instituting exams and qualification requirements for those seeking federal jobs. This was the beginning of the end for the patronage system.”

Thank you, Dr. Arrington. You will note that Todd said that it was the beginning of the end, not the end of patronage.

Do we still have Patronage? Sure do, neighbors! Even in the National Park Service? Yup! These are called Schedule C jobs and are awarded to deserving, helpful people by the political party that won the last election. This is sort of a sanitized, “Living History” patronage relic of the Gilded Age, as the Schedule C jobs are relatively few in number and mainly deal with policy. (Nothing secret, neighbors! The Schedule C jobs are listed in a handy little book produced by the US Government Printing Office. It is called “The Plum Book” because, among other things, it has a purple plum colored cover. (Who says the Federal government has no sense of humor?)

But what of our original question: lacking patronage, how DO you get a permanent job with the National Park Service?

Again, James Garfield National Historical Site was most helpful. According to Ranger Arrington:

“Jobs with the federal government, both permanent and temporary, as well as paid internships, are advertised on USA JOBS.  You may search by the type of job you are interested in and the agency. National Park Service jobs are found under the Department of Interior. Be sure to read the announcement very carefully to determine what documents you will need to submit. On-line submittal of your application is preferred.”

Now is there any other way? (Aside from that of Charles Guiteau).

Well, yes, neighbors, at least for the protection ranger (law enforcement) there is something known as the Pro Ranger Program.

You see, the NPS, along with the rest of the Department of Interior, has a “Diversity” problem. That is, the Department of Interior is the “Whitest” of all the Federal Departments. (It is also regarded by some as the most corrupt, but any cause-and-effect correlation could be interpreted as racist.)

Anyway, how to solve the Diversity problem? Rather than trying to recruit graduates, it was decided to seek colleges with large minority populations and set up a program to steer undergraduates to a guaranteed career in NPS law enforcement.

Undoubtedly, there will be (or are) more colleges, but the ones that show up on Google are Temple University in Philadelphia and the very enterprising San Antonio College, a two-year community college in San Antonio, Texas.

According to the Temple blurb: “Upon graduation from Temple University and successfully completing the Pro Ranger Philadelphia Program, participants are placed in a permanent career tenured law enforcement park ranger position with the National Park Service.”

San Antonio College says, “Rather than recruit or find the next generation of NPS law enforcement rangers, the Pro Ranger Program is a proactive approach to creating them.”

So, neighbors, I guess where your child goes depends on whether he likes Philly Cheesesteak sandwiches or Mexican food!

Featured Article


So funny Lee. You rail against "special interest" but its OK for Obama because Jay says it happens all the time. LOL

why are they there in the first place?

I would suggest because the NPS brass wants them there. Do you have any indication that anyone from the NPS has requested the law to be changed. I can't imagine why anyone in Congress would oppose giving a seasonal employee with experience an opportunity to compete for a full time job. Do you have any evidence that a Congressman has taken money and therefore opposes such a plan? Or is this one of your typical empty accusations?

And as I said, President have been doing this since the beginning.

Witness: "The people who got those positions got them because of their credentials," said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. "They also happen to be donors in some cases. … Being a supporter does not qualify you for a job or guarantee you a job, but it does not disqualify you."

It's essentially the same explanation the Bush administration gave.

As I said, What's new? It's not right with any administration. But it all has to do with those dollars again. If we could just find a way to get money out of politics we'd have much better governance.

Now let's get back to the discussion at hand. While it may be true that the NPS can do better in trying to deal with the hodgepodge of laws, why are they there in the first place?

These problems are due in large extent to internal decisions in the NPS and in the administration at large not as much with congress. There are already laws in place that would help a great deal with these problems if followed. But the NPS has approached the personnel laws as a tax attorney might look at the tax code to figure out how to creatively exploit each and every loophole they can. And where no loophole exists they just ignore the law. Director Jarvis has named his program "A Call to Action." Google it and you will see where he states that his intention is to use whatever discretion he has and to interpret regulations creatively in order to implement the agenda. So while they can't explicitly give extra points to a job applicant because of their race they can, as they have with pro ranger, construct an entire regime using layer upon layer of requirements that narrows the applicant pool to guarantee the result they want.

It would take congress to do things such as making seasonals eligible for non-competitive appointments but the agency and the administration could do much more to help with the situation by reinstituting an evaluation criteria for applicants which would appropriately credit that prior service. This would at least give long serving seasonals a fighting chance. The problem with that is the NPS leadership fears it would result in too many appointees from the wrong demographic background so they finagle the system to the disadvantage of the most highly qualified candidates to get the result they want. Also bringing back a system that credits merit would require a lot of resources to properly evaluate applicants and the NPS has slashed, and consolidated, HR staffs in the last six years.

Another way congress is contributing to the problem is the need for greater funding. Surely this is a major reason that NPS supervisors routinely stretch the use of temporary employees past the legal limits --because they are cheaper. But as much as I know funding is a problem I would be afraid to see what the NPS might do with it --more trainless train stations at the Grand Canyon more million dollar outhouses?

But regardless of what and who exactly got us where we are it is time to pick a target and go after it. Start applying enough heat and the recipient of the heat will intern begin applying the pressure where needed to make the needed reforms. Stop dithering and do something.


I think the culture problem is internal to the NPS. Not saying it isn't replicated elsewhere, but it is within the NPS's power to fix it within the agency. The policies with unintended concequences probably have a mix of internal and external sources. The issue of lack of status for seasonals is absolutely an external problem, imposed (unintentionally, I believe) by Congress. That is why I wish the CNPSR and ANPR, among others, would step up and lobby to get the law fixed.

Yes, including special interests like CNPSR, ANPR NFFE and a few thousand others. The problem now, however, may be that Congress is more concerned with trying desperately to keep all of them happy than in making good decisions. As a result we have literally hundreds, if not thousands, of hasty laws that frequently conflict with others. Trying to navigate that morass of mush is, I believe, the main problem with our various governmental departments today.

And what the dickens are "bundlers?" Ambassador jobs have been political handouts by Presidents to their friends ever since the beginning. Nothing new there.

Willj, yes, I agree. But I still wonder how much of those problems started within the NPS and how many were imposed by laws beyond the agency's control?

Thank you very much Owen. It is great to see that some people get it. I think that advocacy by people who are not currently seasonal employees, and thus don't stand to gain personally from fixing the problem, is key to the issue being taken seriously and addressed. So again, thanks. I hope you aren't the only one.

from a Congress beholden to more special interests than we can count.

What like CNPSR, ANPR NFFE....? Come on, get off your "special interest" high horse. Every person, organization, business et al have a "special interest". They try to bring that interest to the attention of Congress and have their interest addressed. There is nothing wrong with that. It is the way government has worked for thousands of years and is likely to work for thousands of years into the future.

If you have a problem with a specific "quid pro quo" bring it forward, - you know like appointing 23 "bundlers", many with absolutely no qualifications, to ambassador jobs.

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide

Recent Forum Comments