Thanks to a summer of posting ranger photos and hashtags, I’ve had quite a few people get in touch to ask about becoming a park ranger. Since I’ve already scrambled this summer’s blog post topics anyway, I decided to take a detour from my usual posts and reflect a little on this season and the many routes to get into the coveted flat hat.
All statements and opinions are my own and are not endorsed or maintained by the National Park Service. All photos are my own.
Read it all after the jump!
So you want to be a park ranger. That’s great! This is an amazing profession full of dedicated, passionate people. I’m going to be talking mostly about the National Park Service, but it’s worth remembering that there are a variety of other organizations to work for—federal institutions like the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and US Fish and Wildlife Service, state institutions like state parks and recreation areas, county and city park units, private organizations, zoos, museums, and environmental education centers. The possibilities are truly endless. But my work is with the National Park Service (NPS), so that’s who I’ll be focusing on.
The NPS was created in 1916 to manage the already-existing national parks throughout the country. There are 61 national parks and many more national park units—419 to be exact, which includes things like national battlefields, historic sites, parkways, wild and scenic riverways, monuments… the list goes on. Despite this spectrum of sites, all rangers wear the standard “green and gray” uniform, the NPS patch, and the iconic Stetson “flat hat.” Our badges change a little with division (explained below), and there are different uniform parts and tools that vary by job and season, but overall we’re supposed to look as cookie-cutter as possible.
Almost everyone you see pictured above is a seasonal ranger, hired just for the summer. The exception is Ranger Annie, our supervisor (far left), who is a year-round permanent ranger. This is the structure for most parks, with temporary hires brought on for peak visitation season and then unhired (fired... terminated...) at the end. The majority of rangers start out working seasonally before landing their first permanent job. Aside from this, probably the most important thing to understand is that there are many different kinds of rangers, and it’s good to know which kind you’re most interested in. Here are the basic categories:
Visitor Services and Interpretation
This is my job—an education ranger. We staff the visitor centers, give guided programs, and act as front-line representatives for the park. In many cases, we’re the only rangers the typical visitor will come in contact with. Customer service is a huge part of this job—if you love working with people, prefer general knowledge over a specialized field, and enjoy transforming factual information into engaging presentations, this is your route!
These are essentially park police, and they require a lot of extra training beyond the other fields (think weapons, EMT, and combat training). They patrol the park, keeping people and the resources safe. They take lead on responding to medical, legal, and resource-based emergencies. If you’re interested in environmental law, justice, or resource protection and want a physical challenge, this is the avenue for you.
These folks work directly with the park resources, whether it’s a bear, a canyon, an archaeological site, a dark night sky, an invasive plant… the list is endless. They’re specialists in their field and are relied upon to make expert decisions on the safety and wellbeing of the stuff inside the park. If you have a deep interest in a specific field and perhaps don’t want to interact with hordes of visitors face-to-face, this is the perfect choice.
One of the larger divisions, these rangers maintain the facilities and resources in the park. Like working with your hands and maybe not dealing directly with people? Maintenance rangers are crucial to a park’s upkeep.
This can be a subset of either maintenance or resource management, depending on the park, but it’s worth noting as a separate group. These are the rugged rangers many people think of—patrolling remote areas of the park on foot, horseback, or boat and doing everything from cleaning campsites to checking trail conditions to enforcing bear safety procedures. Crave that wide open wilderness and a little risk? Check this box.
These are our bosses. They’re the ones who make the big decisions for the park and see that laws and policy are carried out properly. Many of them start out in other divisions before rising through the ranks, though not all. If you’re interested in the politics of running a park and enacting big-picture change, this is the place to be.
There are other categories of rangers, often subsets of the ones above (just in my division, we’re often split based on rangers who work with the general public, and those who do curriculum-based programming with schools). And the joke is that no matter what the division, there are always “other duties as assigned” that fit under no neat job description. But these are good categories to use as a springboard.
Obviously these different divisions involve different routes to get there. Rangers are a diverse breed; some of us have had our sights set on this profession since our first childhood vacations, while others of us stumbled into the green and gray almost accidentally. Every ranger has a different story of how they started working for the NPS, but there are a few common threads that might help aspiring rangers.
A College Degree
Probably the most important thing is an undergraduate degree—but this can be a broad brush. I’ve worked with rangers with backgrounds in everything from environmental science to history to theater. So much of it depends on what kind of work you want to do—want to work in one of the big rural parks? Consider the natural sciences, like biology or geology. Prefer a smaller national monument, battlefield, or historic structure? Look at cultural studies, history, or archaeology. Want to work as a front-line interpretive ranger? Try education or even theater. Prefer to work more with the resources than the people? Choose a field tailored to your area of interest—astronomy, marine biology, paleontology, or a thousand other pursuits.
Not sure what exactly you want to do, and prefer a more one-size-fits-all foundation? Go the route I did—get yourself a couple of degrees in Parks and Protected Area Management, or even just Parks and Rec. Yes, it’s a real field of study, and no, I’ve never watched the show. I earned my BS and MS in Parks and Protected Area Management from Clemson University, focusing my Master’s work on the educational programs rangers give and how to make them more effective at boosting stewardship and support for parks. During training week for my first job in the green and gray, I opened my materials and saw my research staring back at me on page one. How cool is that!
Internships or Volunteer Experience
One thing the NPS likes to see is that you, the applicant, know what it means to work for the NPS—how the organization is structured, how different divisions work, and what it means to be a representative of the United States government. To that effect, previous experience as an intern, volunteer, student hire, or concessionaire can go a long way. Each park is different in this regard—at one park I worked, interns did much of the same work as rangers, while at another, we barely saw them at all. Some parks have really robust youth conservation programs, while others don’t have much to speak of. In parks that have concessions (hotels, restaurants, etc.), many rangers start out working for those companies before applying for government positions. So it’s worth looking at a park or park unit close to you and seeing what opportunities they have. Despite the number of units in the NPS, it’s a relatively intimate organization, and a positive reference from a supervisor in one unit can do good things for you when you apply to your dream park.
Personally, I have two semester practicums and one summer internship—working in the office of a previous National Park Service Director (she’s now a reference for me), doing interpretation at a non-NPS site in New Mexico, and interning at Great Smoky Mountains NP.
Something to Stand Out
While some locations have small applicant pools, many parks are in high demand, with hundreds of applicants for just a few positions. So it always helps to have something unique that makes you stand out from the crowd. For me, it’s a Master’s degree in interpretive programming, but my art skills help too—it means I can create materials for use in my programs and throughout the park, like the Solar Eclipse posters I did below in 2017.
Foreign languages are also huge benefits. Parks get a wide swath of visitors, and having someone at the desk who knows French or Mandarin or German is a major asset. One language I’ve personally bumped into multiple times in uniform and wished I knew? Sign language. Along with French, that’s next on my list.
Other resumé boosters include things like military service (the NPS loves hiring vets), summer camp experience, time spent overseas, community activism (particularly if it relates to the resources in the park), and experience with diverse audiences in a variety of settings. If you have something like that in your toolbox, highlight it in your resumé and cover letter.
Seems silly to mention, but to apply for these jobs, you actually have to be really tuned in to when the postings go live. The application process is currently in a state of flux, and last year a cap was introduced to the number of applicants hiring officials would take. So even if a park posting was open for a week, if the 200-person applicant pool was met on day two, that posting closed.
Summer job postings generally start to go live in October, November, and December, and they’re all posted on USAJobs.gov. This is where all federal job announcements are listed, so you’ll want to tailor a search to the NPS positions you’re specifically interested in (during hiring season, I set mine to alert me of new postings every week). Applying generally involves answering a questionnaire about your experience and submitting a resumé and school transcripts, if applicable. Make sure the language in your resumé clearly reflects the questionnaire prompts so hiring officials can see your answers backed up with experience. Cover letters are optional but always a good idea.
When possible, apply the same day postings open, so you don’t get cut off by a cap or posting window. I’ve spent several a Thanksgiving holiday holed away submitting documents to be sure they were sent in time. It makes for a stressful few weeks in the fall, but it’s worth it to get your documents in. Be on time!
The NPS is a large, rigid, complicated organization, which means that rangers who can be flexible on dates and locations are highly prized. You may have a leg up if you can work “shoulder” seasons—that is, the spring and fall on either side of a busy summer season. And even though lots of people want jobs in the big, iconic parks, if you’re willing to work at one of the smaller, less popular sites—and there are many wonderful, less-traveled sites operated by the NPS—you can get your foot in the door and get yourself rehire status at a different park. Rehire status can mean everything for a seasonal ranger—just recently, rehire went from being only valid at a park you’ve worked to being valid for the same level position at any unit in the system. So by working a GS-5 seasonal interpretive position at Yellowstone this summer, I’m qualified for rehire as a GS-5 interp…everywhere. Glacier, Denali, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Hawaii Volcanoes… it’s a pretty good deal. But! This being the federal government, nobody’s sure if this policy will last. So as always, flexibility is a key attribute when taking these jobs.
To do this job, you have to love it. That sounds romantic, but in many cases, it’s a frustrating reality of working for a massive, underfunded government organization. Rangers are expected to put up with a lot of human resource complications that private corporations could never get away with—but the NPS can because they know we love these jobs. That’s not a dig at the NPS, it’s just a reality, voiced by plenty of other rangers besides myself. Priorities change when the federal administration changes. Policies that are touted as park law one year are scrapped the next. Paperwork reaches sky-high. To be a ranger, you have to love being a ranger.
Obviously nobody loves anything all the time, and there are definitely times when the job becomes—well, a job. But that’s why it’s so wonderful to be surrounded by passionate colleagues—burn out is real, but so is your coworker flying into the office screaming about the sandhill cranes they saw on their guided hike, or the relief of hearing about a successful search and rescue on the radio, or the sweetness of watching parents tear up as you swear their kids in as Junior Rangers. I’ve found that it’s at my lowest points that I’m caught off-guard by the beauty of this profession.
Rangers Lindsey and David changing lives, and me swearing my daughters in as Junior Rangers. (Yellowstone, 2019)
Being a ranger isn’t all wilderness and looking great (though man, it feels good to wear that hat). There’s a lot of repetition, tedium, and problem-solving involved. But overall, it’s a rewarding and enviable job, acting as caretakers for America’s most special places and helping visitors make emotional connections to their public lands. So you want to be ranger? Excellent. Hop on board. I’ll see you in the flat hat.
Because some of the inquiries I’ve gotten have been requests for class project interviews, here are a few more personal thoughts on my experience in the flat hat:
What parks have you worked in?
Great Smoky Mountains National Park (2010, 2016, 2017), and Yellowstone National Park (2015, 2019), plus a summer of conducting research in twelve more units including Grand Canyon, Bryce, Wind Cave, Jewel Cave, Navajo, Chaco Canyon, and several historic sites.
What is your favorite part of the job?
I love the privilege of working in some of our country’s greatest natural spaces for whole summers, but the thing that really drives me is the effort to create new stewards. If I can deliver a program that makes a person want to explore something new in the park, or question their assumptions, or make a commitment to a greener, kinder world—that’s success for me. That’s what gets me fired up.
What is your least favorite?
The complex funhouse tunnel that is park service bureaucracy. The way policies shift with the administration and seasonal workers are asked to put up with indignities that wouldn’t be tolerated elsewhere. I’m also at a disadvantage because I have a family, and many parks don’t have family housing. Housing, not programming or staff, has been the biggest factor in where I’ve ended up from summer to summer.
What is your dream park?
I have a top three—Olympic, Denali, and Glacier, plus a score of others like North Cascades, Glacier Bay, Sequoia-Kings Canyon, Grand Teton, and Yosemite. Unfortunately, I’ve been hired at several of them but had to turn them down because they didn’t have family housing.
What is your favorite program topic?
In Great Smokies, it’s the small-scale biodiversity, like the incredible firefly species, salamanders, macroinvertebrates, and traditional herbs and medicines (this should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone who has read Woodwalker). In Yellowstone, it’s the walks through the geyser basins, where I can draw people in to the unique personalities of each bizarre feature and spin a holistic image of park preservation.
How does your work as an author/illustrator intersect with being a ranger?
I can’t possibly separate the three. My time as a ranger fuels my artwork by giving me tons of material for plein air painting, and it fuels my books by inspiring new settings, new adventures, and new characters. But it works in reverse, too—my penchant for storytelling often funnels into how I write my park programs. I always want my programs to have an arc to them, often called the “so what?” in ranger speak. No matter what factual information I’m presenting, I want there ultimately to be a story underneath.
If you have more questions about rangering, please feel free to get in touch, or take a look at the National Park Service website. And next time you’re in a park—thank a ranger!
August Art Round-Up
Lots of plein air watercolors from Yellowstone, a pen and ink sketch, a coloring page I designed for Founders Day 2019, and staff gifts---watercolor wildlife for each ranger I worked with this summer, and a poster of the Grant Village team.
Emily B. Martin
Author and Illustrator