Monday, February 28, 2011

Are Our National Parks Over Regulated

There is an interesting article on The National Parks Traveler blog posing the question of having a National Park that is not regulated.  You can read this at this link:

This article prompted several thoughts;

This is a very interesting discussion that goes to the core of the dilemma found in the mission of the National Park Service.  Most of the issues and complaints about regulations in parks come from local people attempting to make a living off of the park.  I do not begrudge them their livelihood, but how many National Parks have economic development in their enabling legislation?  Is that why we have parks?

This reminds me of a situation I faced as a District Ranger on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The National Park Service purchased over 3,000 acres of land that directly adjoined the Park for the protection of the Appalachian Trail.  In the mid 1980s the plan was for the property to be managed by AT volunteers.  The trail community did not want park rangers on the lands enforcing regulations.  The idea was that this would be a protected corridor for the Appalachian Trail but free of National Park Service enforcement.  Orders for my staff and I were to stay off this Park Service  property.  Once hikers were confronted by aggressive armed hunters, ATV's running through trout streams and the trail caused damaging erosion, trees were cut along the boundaries to expand yards and for firewood, and trash built up in illegal campsites the volunteers, State Officials in Richmond, Va, and the then Appalachian Trail Conference Office came to me demanding that the park rangers from The Blue Ridge Parkway do something about the threats to visitors and resources on these lands purchased so they would have National Park protection.  We did step in and detailed additional rangers to the area to gain some level of compliance for resource protection.  Today a written agreement provides for the Blue Ridge Parkway's rangers to provide law enforcement, fire, and search and rescue response to this area.

Although this may not have been as dramatic an example as the situations outlined in the original article, it does illustrate what happens in a National Park Service area that is not subject to regulations and enforcement.  Unfortunately, National Park designation does not come with an automatic sense of respect from everyone.  In an ideal world all people would hold sacred a special place that has been set aside for protection and preservation.  In our world this does not happen.  There are always those who do not see the impact of their own actions and are more concerned with their immediate gratification.  Everyday it is a struggle and challenge for park managers to find balance between permitting access and public use of areas and conserving those same resources so they will be around in the future.  In many instances such as with the Piping Plovers at Cape Hatteras, courts step in and order the National Park Service to take stronger steps to protect natural and cultural resources.

I know that I am biased after more than 32 years as a National Park Ranger, but I would rather see my parks over regulated so I know they will be there for my grandchildren and their grandchildren.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Affects of Government Shutdown On National Parks

Contrary to popular caricatures, most Federal agencies employ people dedicated to their job in service to their Country and fellow citizens.  The National Park Service is a prime example where most employees work long hard hours to preserve and protect our natural and cultural resources and those that visit them.
Budget impasses and looming government shutdowns result in high levels of employee frustration and a sense of uncertainty.
It becomes increasing frustrating for National Park managers to work without an approved Federal Budget.  Continuing Resolutions are built of strings and conditions with no guaranteed outcome at the end.  This method of doing business makes it all but impossible to plan for the busy upcoming visitor season.   As an example; if you obligate too many funds for temporary employees who are the backbone of the summer field staffs in parks and then the funds are short in the final budget product, early layoffs result in closing of facilities and lack of protection of delicate resources when the parks are at their maximum visitor capacity.   There were several years when the Blue Ridge Parkway was caught in this situation and seasonal employees had to be laid off in September and October, the most heavily visited times of the year.
Another consequence of a looming government shutdown is the sense of uncertainty of employment.  The vast majority of National Park Service employees are not high level bureaucrats they are people with families that live pay check to pay check like most of their fellow citizens.  When past shutdowns have occurred all but designated essential employees are sent home.  These individuals are left not knowing when they will return to work or be paid again.  Those left working are unsure if they are going to be paid or not for their time.  This all affects employee morale and efficiency.

The ones that really suffer from government shutdowns in National Parks are visitors and the resources that needed the park to be established to protect them.  Visitors who have planned family trips have them disrupted in the least and cancelled in the extreme.  Cultural and natural resources are left unattended and maintained and left open to exploitation and vandalism. 

The current threat of another government shutdown will have a potential impact on the spring opening of National Park facilities such as visitor centers, campgrounds, tour roads, and picnic areas.  As the harsh winter weather starts to break in many parts of the country, now is when park staffs start to prepare parks for the onslaught of visitors to come.  Many infrastructure repairs and maintenance that did not occur in the fall or may have resulted from harsh winter weather need to be evaluated and started within the next month.  A shut down will delay or prevent this work from commencing.  In some cases disrupted or broken water or sewer lines could hide much more serious damage to facilities and resources.  Seasonal employee hiring would be disrupted or discontinued delaying getting the best people in critical jobs for the upcoming spring and summer.

In the eyes of employees government shut downs devalue agency missions and the dedication and efforts of the people trying to do an important job in a trying economic and political climate.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

America's Great Outdoors Report

Go the the attached link below for an interesting story about the President's "America's Great Outdoors" initiative.

I appreciate the fact that the number one priority of this initiative would be to reconnect children with the outdoors.  In retirement I have taken on this task in my own way serving as a volunteer naturalist at the Boxerwood Nature Center and Woodland Garden in Lexington, Virginia.  Although Boxerwood is serving all the school children from three systems in our area by providing curriculum based environmental education programs, it is fighting for its financial survival with the disappearance of Federal grant funding.  This is a fate befalling most nonprofit organisations.  With todays hurried and paranoid society, it is programs like Boxerwood that serve as many children's first safe and positive experience in the outdoors.  

Should this initiative move forward it could prove of great assistance to such groups across the country and helping to build on an environmentally conscious generation.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Park Rangers and Technology II

The ability to use technology has become an essential skill for the modern National Park Ranger.  A ranger needs to be able to navigate the world of computers and related hardware including GPS units, digital radio systems, audio recording systems, digital video and photo cameras, surveillance equipment, AED (defibrillators), and a myriad of software programs to run them.  Before I retired in 2008 I counted up more than twenty separate software programs that required some level of competency to do my job.  Functions of these programs controlled payroll, employee scheduling, personnel actions, incident reporting, safety management, procurement, inventory, training, email, and more.  The complexity was compounded by the fact that none of these programs functioned the same way, took different passwords, and could not share information.

It was not always this way and the National Park Service has been notorious for being slow to adopt technology.

In 1995 on the Blue Ridge Parkway a permit was issued to BMW to film a commercial for their new 3 Series sedan coming out that year.  It was all very hush hush and they were very sensitive about anyone taking photos of the cars and selling them to car magazines.  One day during the shooting the location director asked if he could go to our office to send a fax.  I had to inform him that our District Office did not have a fax machine since our administrative staff at Headquarters 300 miles away in Asheville, North Carolina did not believe we needed one.  He found it hard to believe that a government office would not have this common form of communication.

Several days later the filming was done and the crew moved on to their next location.  When I returned to the office a service representative was there to install our new fax machine.  As a thank you BMW wanted to donate a fax machine to us and arranged for installation, a one year service contract, and paper supply.  Once the Park’s Administrators found out about this they became very angry and I received a nasty telephone call ordering me to pack the fax machine up and send it to Headquarters since we did not need it and they could use it in their office.  There was also an issue with the rule that the Superintendent was the only person who could accept a donation.

I contacted the location director from the filming project thanked him for the donation and told him of my dilemma.  He then faxed me a letter of donation stating that the machine had been a gift intended to be used in the District Office at Montebello, Virginia.  Based on this statement the machine could only be used in our office and we were able to begrudgingly keep it.

Within a month the same people at Headquarters who did not want us to have a fax machine realized how convenient it was for them to request documents from us and get them quickly making their job easier.  Shortly thereafter all the district offices along the length of the 469 mile long park had fax machines installed.
I felt proud of a bureaucratic victory but often entertained some regrets for the increased requests and shortening of deadlines for documents wanted by Headquarters staff.  The fax machine seemed to increase our paperwork rather than make life easier.

Valentine From A Fan

My wife teaches second grade and one of her students is obviously familiar with the stories from my book A Park Ranger's Life.  It appears that he may have enjoyed the story about the bear known as the Colonel who loved Kentucky Fried Chicken.

When my wife brought home her Valentine Riches and we went through the bag we found this one hand made card addressed to me;

Monday, February 14, 2011

Seasonal Park Ranger Housing

A question came in asking about housing for seasonal employees in parks.

Do I have to live nearby or do most parks have housing for summer help?

Most parks do have some type of housing for summer seasonal employees.  This can range from a tent on a platform to The Ranger Club at Yosemite National Park (  It all depends on what facilities a park have available.  Predominate types of seasonal housing I ran into were mobile homes, cinder block apartments, or if you are lucky a house that has been converted to a dorm.

Generally housing is made available based on the position the employee is in and how important it is that the person be on site followed by the overall availability of space.

Today any type of housing facilities are most likely to be dorm style and it is not uncommon for these to be coed.  You may get a room to yourself or have a roommate. You will have to share bathroom facilities. 

In National Parks you will be charged rent for housing.  This may be different in state parks as I know they generally charge their full time employees a lot less for rent.  As a seasonal in a National Park the rent will be based on a dorm rate and include utilities.  So you need to find out how much this will cost and deduct that from what you are thinking you will be paid for the summer.

A new seasonal employee would also need to find out what household supplies they will need to provide.  As an example, there may or may not be an equipped kitchen and you may have to supply your own dishes, pots, and pans. 

In most cases there will not be housing for employees less than 18 years of age unless they are a Youth Conservation Corp or Student Conservation Association participant.  These jobs place you with a group of people your own age with adult oversight.

Those who have never worked and lived in parks should not entertain any romantic dreams of what type of housing they will be provided.  Most housing is old, not well maintained or cleaned.  Mold, insects, and mice are common roommates.  The setting of most housing is not on some mountaintop with spectacular views.  Although there are some exceptions, it is more likely that you will be viewing a fenced and paved maintenance area, a busy campground, or a sewage lagoon.

It is really the excitement and fulfillment of the job and comradeship that you are hoping for rather than pristine housing.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

High School Student Wants To Be A Park Ranger

I received an email request from a high school freshman interested in becoming a park ranger.  He posed several good questions.  So here is his email and I will address his questions individually.

I am a freshman in high school and love the outdoors. I'm a boy scout working on my Life rank and then on to Eagle! I love to camp, hike and go white water rafting. In high school, we have to choose a career track. Unfortunately, I love drawing, brochure design and photography as much as I enjoy the horticulture classes. My mom says that parks need rangers with those skills as well as the other skills. I have a few questions for you since I am considering being a park ranger when I graduate. 

Can you give me some suggestions as to what courses I should take in high school?

Communications is essential for a park ranger to be successful.  So the public speaking would be important in addition to courses that help to improve on writing skills.  You will need to go on to college (more on that below) so look at what you would be interested in majoring in and direct your course choices in that direction.  Parks have different needs depending on the purpose of the area when established.  Some look for people with a background in history and others natural sciences.  As an example I would look at your strengths and consider courses in that area.  If your goal is to work at a park like Yellowstone you might want to think about a college program in natural sciences.

    Will achieving Eagle rank in Boy Scouts help me get a job as a ranger?

 Yes, attaining the rank of Eagle Scout will definitely help you in getting a park ranger job.  I am an Eagle Scout and one of the reasons I was considered for my first seasonal job was this factor.  During my career I worked with quite a few other fellow Eagle Scouts in addition to quite a few Girl Scouts.   Being an Eagle Scout shows any considering employer or college that you are a person that can follow through and stick with hard work over a long period of time.  Many think that this is a quality that is all too rare these days.  Eagle Scout status also puts you ahead of others with experience in leadership, outdoor skills, technical abilities, and communications skills.  I know at your age there are so many distractions and other activities to get involved in.  I would recommend finding time to make it to Eagle.

       Is a 4-year college degree required, or can I attend a tech school to get a degree that would qualify me for a park ranger position?

For a permanent National Park Ranger job a four year degree is required.  There is no specific degree that you need to have.  There are some colleges that offer programs in Resource Protection and park ranger oriented studies.  I worked with rangers with degrees in fields of all kinds including nuclear physics, Russian studies, biology, public administration, English, etc.  You can work as a seasonal or temporary employee without a full degree.  In fact most people start out this way working summers during college.  If you go to the search window in the right column on my blog and type in “jobs” you can learn more about this.   You can also consider starting at a two year college and then transfer to a four year institution to finish off your education.

       How old do I have to be before a state park will hire me for the summer? Do I have to live nearby or do most parks have housing for summer help?

 The National Park Service and most like agencies do not hire regular paid temporary or permanent employees under the age of 18.  For some jobs such as law enforcement the age limit is 21.  There are other options to get started earlier in developing experience.  Many National Park areas and State Parks are work with the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC).  These are high school students that are hired for 6 to 8 weeks during the summer to work in parks.  Many times they do trail maintenance or other resource oriented projects along with some education components.  You can ask your high school counselor to look into this for you or contact any parks that may be near you to see if they use this program.  Another organization called the Student Conservation Association places people to work in parks.  Most of their programs are for college students, but they do run special programs for high school students.  Most parks also have volunteer opportunities where you can gain experience.  You may want to plan your Eagle community service project to be done in a park.

Thanks for your time and helping others with their dreams of becoming a ranger one day.
I really appreciate it,

I recommend you checking out several books on this topic.
Of course there is the book I have written A Park Ranger’s Life: Thirty Two Years Protecting Our National Parks.  This book is being used by several universities as required reading for students that want to be rangers.  You can find it at and several additional on line sources.

Also check out these:

National Park Ranger: An American Icon and  Off the Wall: Death In Yosemite both by Charles R. Butch Farabee

Ranger Confidential: Living, Working, and Dying in the National Parks , by Andrea Lankford

Ranger Up!:True Stories of National Park Protection Rangers, by Richard E. Brown
You can find all these at

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Brody Young - A Survivor

Those of you who have followed this blog for some time have seen the posts and links describing the story of Brody Young, a Utah State Park Ranger who on November 19th was shot nine times by a suspect he thought needed assistance.
The suspect, Lance Leeroy Arellano, has still not been located and is either at large or succumbed to his injuries and still in the immediate area.

This link will take you to a televised interview with Brody Young, his first since the incident.

Young’s description of his initial contact with the suspect sounds like a scenario faced by park rangers hundreds of times a day across the country.  A vehicle parked where it should not be that time of night at a trail head.  As a park ranger Young’s first thoughts were that someone needed help.  Was someone injured or lost on the trail?  Even when Young found Arellano sleeping in the back seat his intent was to direct him to somewhere he could camp legally.  It was when Young walked back toward his vehicle that Arellano opened fire with a rifle eventually hitting Young nine times.  Brody returned fire with his pistol and judging from blood left at the scene and in the suspect’s car (later found eight miles away) seriously wounded his attacker.  The suspect, Lance Leeroy Arellano, has still not been located and is either at large or succumbed to his injuries and still in the immediate area.

The other part of this story is the one of Brody Young’s will to survive.  I remember during officer survival training learning that retaining a positive attitude and emotional need to live can be critical to the ability of a wounded person to survive.  In the interview you will hear how Brody’s thoughts of his family and will to live kept him going.

Young also talks about his “training kicking in” once his life was on the line.  This lesson should bring home the importance of defensive and firearms training in addition to mental preparation to confront a life threatening situation.  Park Rangers always need to stay aware and remember that they initially never really know who they are talking to.

The story of Brody Young’s brush with death is an inspiring one that we can all learn from.  His and his family’s positive attitude facing such adversity is an additional example to us all.  I have to say that Brody sounds like one hell of a man.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Park Rangers and Stake Outs Part III

The key to running an affective stake out operation is the intelligence and patterns of criminal activity you can develop and then utilize in predicting when your suspects will most likely show up.  This involves field observations, collection of evidence, interviewing victims, and gathering information from informants.  The better you can forecast specific time periods or days that the criminal activity is occurring the higher the probability that you will be successful in making an apprehension and putting a stop to the threat to persons or resources.  Of course even though we would spend hours planning and adjusting schedules and writing up operational plans, the bad guys were not governed by any such constraints and operated more on their own whims.  The weather did not suit, they did not have any cash that night for gas, their spouse or girl friend would not let them go out, their hunting dog was sick, they did not drink enough or they drank too much, or any other of a myriad of factors could determine whether your suspects will be where you want them that particular night.

There were many mornings during thirty two years when I had sat in the woods or in a car all night in unproductive efforts to save the world.  After fighting fatigue for hours at the first peaking of the false dawn I would shake my body in a last attempt to stay alert and my psyche would tell me that it is just not natural for a human to witness such a spectacle and power of nature.  The sun was once again arriving quietly into the world to warm it to wakefulness.  We are not meant to stay stirring all night fighting boredom and sleep only to be surprised when we have made it to another new day.  On those mornings I would then chase those thoughts from my mind, swat away the bugs again or pull my coat tighter around me to ward off the morning frost and try to decide how much longer I needed to stay out there.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Park Rangers and Stake Outs Part II

Stake outs are always unpredictable.  Once we were trying to catch a group of poachers who were spotlighting and killing deer leaving the carcasses at different locations in the park. We ended up sitting right on top of a major cocaine deal.  The poachers showed up the next night and killed two deer leaving them along the road shoulder for us to find.

The limited number of park rangers within most parks makes it challenging to safely mount such operations without neglecting other duties and responsibilities.  A supervisor has to make a decision whether the potential danger imposed by the criminal activity warrants reducing staff during the day when the park is full of visitors.  Plans are often thrown out the window when another incident takes priority.  Some examples would be a missing hiker resulting in a search, a visitor injury, a fire, or as when one of my staff had not completed their online Information Technology Training and we were ordered to cancel a stake out so the required computer exercise could be completed on time.  The next day we found evidence that the criminals we were attempting to apprehend had indeed been in the park.

In many instances park rangers need to coordinated resources with other agencies such as the US Forest Service or the State Game Commission so they will have enough personnel to conduct a stake out safely.  These multiagency efforts were rewarding for team building purposes, but often took much more time planning, obtaining management approval, and scheduling.

More later: