How to Become a Park Ranger
To be a Park Ranger is one of the most envied jobs within the American outdoors community. You get to wear the iconic Smokey the Bear hat, you get to spend your time in the pristine outdoors, and you get to get paid to do it. What else could you want in life? With such an enviable position and so many different titles within that community, we’d like to spend the length of this article explaining the various positions within the national park service rangers community. To expand on that, we’re identifying the different kinds of jobs and expectations you can range, from seasonal to year-round, hourly wage to salaried position.
However, you should know that whatever the position or responsibly of the individual employee, all workers of the national park ranger umbrella hold the tenants of responsibility: to protect park resources for future generations and to protect park visitors. It’s a good gig that requires a lot of teamwork, camaraderie, and understanding of that common group goal. This value can be best highlighted by the fact that all professionals in this industry wear the same uniform, hiding rank and seniority to the visitor. The aesthetic expectations match their morale, all for one and one for all. Plus between departments, there is a lot of flexibility required and excellent intercommunication skills are expected.
Okay, now that we’re established the general guidelines and instructions for all park employees, let’s highlight the various departments. There are three different kinds of rangers: law enforcement, interpretive and trail crew; as well as woodland firefighters and smokejumpers who round out the list of park ranger careers within the park system. Let’s start at the top and work our way down.
Law Enforcement Ranger
Also known as a protection ranger, you can find these government officials in national parks, national forests, state parks, and city parks. They work a variety of tasks that certainly differ from a monotonous 9-5 job, as they’re expected to protect a variety of interests within their jurisdiction. This includes protecting the park’s resources, historic sites, and artifacts, the ecosystem and wildlife, environmental scenery, and last but not least, the visitors within the grounds. Within this list of expectations, some of their responsibilities include making arrests, enforcing park regulations and forest regulations, performing building safety checks, responding to emergency calls, investigations motor vehicle accidents or crimes within the park, and issuing tickets. Basically, as long as it has to do with public safety, it’s their responsibility. However, within the umbrella of law enforcement officers, the range of expectation varies completely. A park ranger in Yosemite is mostly working with travelers, vacationers and tourists, whereas a downtown city park ranger may be more required to enforce rules regarding homeless encampments and enforcing a no-smoking rule to persnickety teens after dark.
If it sounds like you’re basically performing the duties of a cop, that’s true, meaning you’re often dealing with danger and serious crime. Covert marijuana operations, domestic violence, and attempted murder are just a few things you may run across on a weekly or monthly basis. But while they make arrests and issue tickets, a law enforcement ranger is also an educator who has to teach and explain the rules and regulations of our national park system and why they are in place.
There are also some advance field training programs, which you may be expected to complete once within a full-time feat round employment. These pieces of training include emergency medical services, search and rescue operations, incident command, woodland fires, structural fires, and public services and safety topics.
It’s a salaried position, and depending on the state the entry-level position earns between $34,000 and $44,000 a year. This will move up as you gain experience. Expect to work nights and weekends with a great chance for overtime.
To earn federal employment within the National Park Service or Forest Service, you must have a valid Type II commission or higher. The minimal seasonal certification can be earned only at 7 colleges across the nation offering this program, which lasts about 17 weeks and is a little bit over 650 classroom hours. Those colleges we have listed just below. And there’s also a physical exam you have to pass, be between 21-37, and pass a drug test and have a clean background record regarding domestic violence.
There are often additional requirements, including CPR and first aid, oxygen administration, how to use an AED (Automatic external defibrillator) and firearms.
As promised, those seven colleges throughout the US are:
- Colorado Northwestern Community College (Rangely, CO)
- Northern Arizona University (Flagstaff, AZ)
- Santa Rosa Junior College (Windsor, CA)
- Skagit Valley College (Mount Vernon, WA)
- Southwestern Community College (Franklin, NC)
- Temple University (Philadelphia, PA)
- Vermilion Community College (Ely, MN)
Also known also cultural park rangers, these guys are the walking, talking encyclopedias you’ve learned to love when you’re out at the park. They wear the iconic smokey hat or flat hat, they’re passionate about the environment, and they tend to share loads of facts and information about the flora, fauna and general natural ecosystem and habitat within the area. The main goal of an interpretive ranger is to ensure that all visitors have a meaningful and safe park experience while obeying park rules of course. They can help you deliberate on which hikes to embark on, where to stay within the campgrounds and many more. With all this interpersonal communication and connection they’re required to do, the interpretive ranger has been specifically trained to engage in the emotional and intellectual connection between themselves and the park’s visitors.
If they do their job and you leave happy, this bolsters the public support for preservation and conservation, continuing the experience of the park and protecting their careers in the process. In fact, there’s a fantastic quote that many interpretive rangers strive to live by, from the environmentalist Baba Dioum, “In the end, we will only conserve what we love; we will only love what we understand, and we will only understand what we are taught.” So by being the best, most knowledgeable and present interpretive rangers that they can be, the park’s lasting impact will carry on.
Within the range of teaching, these rangers are expected to lead interpretive hikes and guided walks, staffing the visitor centers, and creating educational content including lectures and multimedia presentations for the public. Also, your workweek expectations aren’t always on-site, as there are often community outreach programs to schools and community groups, and chances to teach educational courses in the form of camps, field trips, and family events. Some national parks even have educational campuses where courses can be held year-round and accommodate large groups.
For the nitty-gritty details of the job, know that initially the pay is between $12.50-$18.25 and with experience can max up to nearly $35.21 at the GS-11 level. Expect to work weekends and holidays, as that’s when most of the tourists have time to come, and a 40 hour a week schedule is commonplace.
Also to have a bachelor’s degree in a related field, be it history, park and recreation management, environmental studies, natural science, earth science, education, resource management or public administration, is preferred but not required. Also, you obviously have to know a lot about the park and be knowledgeable about huge swaths of information regarding the area, its history, and ecological impact, etc. So plan on not being a specialist in any specific field but basically capable of shooting the breeze with a visitor on any topic they may wish to suggest.
To prepare to become a guide, the National Association for Interpretation offers a 32-hour ranger program called the Certified Interpretive Guide Program which teaches the basics of interpretation. Basically, learning how can you make your teaching programs organized, powerful and purposeful so visitors learn to make a connection with your material.
Trail Crew Member
This is a fun job if you like getting down and dirty with the environment and feel rewarded after a long day finished with a couple of laughs and dirtied jeans. These trail management and maintenance crews are always on-task to maintain hiking trails and whatever existing walking infrastructure is around. Additionally, they build new trails when necessary by chopping away trees and debris, controlling local erosion, and butting back brush, making bridges across ravines and even blowing up boulders if they’re in the way. Essentially the role is to help park visitors and hikers enjoy the backcountry of their park with minimal environmental impact and alteration. By maintaining the historical sites and trails of the United States national parks, the job duties here require a lot of hard work, and not necessarily a four-year degree.
It’s preferred to have a college degree, but not essential as long as you have some work experience in this sort of wildlife management. As long as you have a high school degree and experience whether in construction or maintaining natural resources, you will be fine. The hands-on experience of working on a trail crew atmosphere is honestly preferred and can be tough work, so knowing what you’re up against makes you a great candidate.
Typically entry-live crew members make $12-18 an hour, and you’re working all day sometimes with electric or gas-powered tools, sometimes even sleeping overnight in the wild. You receive a small additional stipend for those situations, but competent ability with potentially dangerous power tools is a must. Also, you can be with your team for virtually all-day everyday for upwards of weeks or months at a time when out in the backcountry maintaining trails, so be prepared to be doing some challenging manual labor around some soon-to-be close buddies.
One of the more arduous park ranger jobs, it could certainly open up more park ranger positions once you have experience in the field. With your park management skills and varied job duties, you could soon look across the United States and see what is available at the other parks ranging from Maine to the west coast. Know that eventually, you can cut out a career path while maintaining hiking paths and that all it takes is a little hard work and patience.
Sometimes a fire erupts in the national parks, either deliberately or due to human error or natural park build-up, and someone has to put it out and fast. These wildland fighters are employed by the various state of federal agencies, like the National Park Service or NPS, the US Forest Service, as well as CalFire or private companies like Firestorm Wildland Suppression.
There are a few specialties in this field, including fire preparedness, prescribed burning, wildfire suppression, and rescue operations. To specialize in one of these fields can really advance your career and improve your understanding of the tactics in managing and protecting lands from a conflagration. Additionally, It’s critical to be able to communicate effectively with others and to rise up the ranks, it’s helpful if you’ve had experience working on an engine crew or a hand crew.
The starting pay is around $14-19 per hour, with loads of overtime and hazard pay, especially during fire season. The official job is listed at 40 hours a week, you can expect to work up to 16 hour days for 14-21 consecutive days when dispatched to an area’s forest fires.
Of course, there are some pretty stringent training requirements and physical expectations of a firefighter. Starting with their official work capacity test, where you have to walk 3 miles in 45 minutes with 45 pounds strapped onto you. Additionally, you must complete basic firefighting training before becoming eligible to combat the first line of fire. You also need to pass courses on woodland fire behavior, knowing human factors in the woodland fire service as well as pass an annual wireline safety refresher. We think it’s refreshing knowing they aren’t going to send you to fight the great blazes until you are ready, so be sure to back a couple of notebooks on your way to learning how to stop these damaging blazes.
A smokejumper is like a super-soldier for fighting fires. They parachute from planes to attack wildfires in remote, inaccessible areas. Leading the charge against the country’s largest and most dangerous fires is a job that’s both scary and highly competitive to earn. There’s often hundreds of applicants each year for only a handful of positions. In total there are about 400 smokejumpers across the United States between just a handful of crews.
The U.S. Forest Service department employs crews in a few limited locations, which we’ve listed below:
- McCall, Idaho
- Grangeville, Idaho
- Redding, California
- West Yellowstone, Montana
- Missoula, Montana
- Winthrop, Washington
- Redmond, Oregon
There are also smokejumpers at two bases supported by the Bureau of Land Management, one in Boise, Idaho and the other in Fairbanks, Alaska.
On average, expect to make $18-21 an hour initially, though obviously, this job comes with tons of opportunity for overtime and hazard day bonuses. During a fire, you will work upwards of 16 hours a day for weeks at a time, without days off.
The only requirements beforehand are to have at least one year of experience on a wildfire or engine or hand crew, as we mentioned before. And despite the fact that you’ll be jumping out of airplanes to fight fires, they actually don’t expect you to have this skill trained beforehand.
Naturally, there are athletic components as well. You must be able to hike 5 miles in 90 minutes or less while carrying 110 pounds of gear. Other athletic expectations are 6 pull-ups, 30 pushups and to run a mile and a half in under 10:47 minutes. And to work for the two BLM agencies we mentioned, the athletic expectations are even more stringent: 60 sit-ups, 10 pull-ups, 35 push-ups, plus a 3-mile hike in 55 minutes or less with the same 110 pounds of gear. You have to be in tip-top shape to earn this job title, but knowing what you’re going to be up against and with your life on the line each shift, it’s probably a good idea to keep in shape.
There are some really great jobs within the park ranger community, but it’s not all fun and games. Before you apply, make sure you know the expectations and requirements of each position, and be adequately athletically prepared beforehand. While you may think that to work at a national park would feel like a vacation every day of the year, this is people’s jobs and should be taken seriously and with the utmost respect. With a diligent appreciation of knowledge and athletic composure, and an empathetic relationship to the great outdoors and the awesome views our national parks provide, you too can become a park ranger.
Bonus tip: Check out this awesome video on what it’s like to be a wilderness ranger in the Yosemite Valley!