Have you ever driven to your local state park or wilderness preserve and wondered what, exactly, park rangers have to do all day? To many people, they seem like temporary help or unskilled labourers – glorified mall cops of the wilderness. After all, no one likes to be told to get his pickup truck out of the rare orchids, or fill in seemingly useless forms upon entering every park. It’s easier to think of a ranger, in the government-approved matching khaki uniform, as an overgrown Boy Scout instead of a trained professional. However, most rangers have a college education and a year of training, and even then, competition is fierce for a job in national, state or privately owned parks.
So if becoming a ranger isn’t just a matter of taking an 18-hour training course, what does it involve? For one thing, the abovementioned college education, or years of experience in a related field, is a must. There are about a dozen relevant majors listed by the National Park Service, including natural or earth sciences, natural resource management, history, archaeology, anthropology, law enforcement, park and recreation management, and sociology. The government also lists conservation, forestry, forest sciences, and biology. Most of these would be four-year bachelor degrees, such as one might take to become a nurse or a teacher. The National Park Service also maintains a list of related fields, from which a qualified candidate might be accepted without a college degree. These include law enforcement, most natural sciences, and administrative, investigative, or technical work.
However, a college degree in one of these areas, even with honours or from a prestigious university, does not guarantee a career as a park ranger. The field is only expected to grow 6.2% between 2004 and 2014, compared to an average of 13% for other jobs in the nation. These other jobs hire about 7242 workers every year, while only 1000 new park rangers, naturalists, and government foresters are hired. Most college graduates wishing to be rangers know better than to put all their eggs in one nest, and often plan to work in related fields such as zookeeping, pollution containment, law enforcement, or the more “woodsy” jobs listed above.
Though the search for a spot in a private, national or state park can be frustrating, most rangers say it’s well worth any hassles or initial disappointments. Rangers have an exciting, varied job; every day poses new challenges. For instance, in the winter, a ranger might have to plough snow, smooth ski trails, and drill ice, as well as taking care of the normal administrative work such as checking licences and answering visitors’ questions about park hours, local wildlife information, and other important queries. In the summer, tasks may include campsite patrol and other duties associated with increased park visitation. If the park has a museum or visitors’ lodge, there’s a whole new set of responsibilities; giving guided tours and maintaining exhibits are just a few examples.
Rangers, especially rookies on the job, spend a lot of their time outdoors. Weather conditions can be fickle, especially in areas of the country like New England, where locals joke that anyone annoyed at the weather should just wait ten minutes – it’ll change three times by then. Rangers quickly learn to judge the weather in a snap, and always make sure to be prepared. This includes clothing suitable for the season as well as emergency items such as emergency flares, which can be particularly invaluable in large parks.
As a park worker gains more experience, he or she must sometimes move into an office and take on more “corporate” responsibilities. Some rangers do refuse advancement in order to remain outdoors, but as well as the monetary benefits, a managerial job as a ranger has its own rewards. To name just one, administrators have more power to shape the park and make it a fun, safe, educational experience for visitors.
Being a park ranger is an experience-rich, rewarding job. Rangers can be employed by the state or federal government or by a private park. The government pays its rangers GS-5, or government salary 5, to rookie rangers – that’s $20,908 a year. Of course, rangers can advance and earn as high as $31,680 a year, or GS-9. Seasonal workers at a national park are paid $18,687 per year by the government (“Ranger” NPS). Other salaries vary, but generally range from $39,360 to $65,790 per year (“Naturalist” Choices). This figure, however, includes non-ranger individuals such as park naturalists, managers, and other employees associated with national, state or private parks. Choices places the average hourly rate for a ranger at about $25.69.
Because of the steep competition, it takes a lot to be a ranger, and it can be a hard life: starting a morning at four o’clock and spending all day outdoors is not most people’s cup of tea. But this job also has “a very low turnover rate” and one of the highest job-satisfaction rates in the country. Ask anyone working in a national, state or private park – they’ll tell you that’s exactly where they want to be!