Park rangers are some of the hardest working people you will ever meet. Day in and day out, these stewards of the land ensure that experiences in America’s protected lands are incredible, informative and inspiring. Over my travels to 30+ National parks in the US, I have had the pleasure of chatting with hundreds of park rangers about their jobs, their lives and the passions. In a continuing attempt to share their stories, the Outdoor Society has put together our Ask A Ranger Series. Today we talk to Ranger Hayley Edmonston.
Ranger Hayley Edmonston has spent the majority of her career at Mount Rainier National Park. Sadly for the Pacific Northwest, she is heading to Glacier National Park in the summer of 2015, but was kind enough to talk to use and tell us a bit about herself, as well as what it was like to grow up as a child of National Park Rangers. To connect with Ranger Hayley, give her Instagram a follow! Hayley is an awesome person, a fantastic Ranger and we wish her the best as she helps a new generation of nature lovers discover the joys of our National Parks.
I’ve worked at Mount Rainier National Park for three summers and will be moving to Glacier National Park this summer.
I work in interpretation, which is a Park Service jargon for “connecting visitors with the park.” The most fun part of my job is leading educational programs – I do one or two per day, ranging from wildflower hikes to kids’ programs to campfire presentations on geology. I spend about half my work day answering questions in the visitor center. I also get out to hike for an hour or two each day where I chat with people, give directions, identify what they’re seeing, make sure they’re following the rules (ie staying on trail), and get help and provide first aid if I come across anyone who’s in trouble.
Working as a park ranger has been really special to me because my parents are rangers too. I grew up moving around country’s national parks – it’s like being an army brat but we’re called “park brats.” I was born at Craters of the Moon National Monument and lived in parks from Shenandoah to historic sites in New York before we settled at Mount Rainier. I’ll never forget the day I got my badge, put on my Smokey the Bear hat, and went to work at the park where I spent most of my childhood. There’s something so iconic and almost timeless about being a park ranger – I wear the uniform with a lot of pride, and I’m continually inspired by the dedication of my coworkers and the incredible legacy that we as Americans have inherited.
The hardest part of working at Mount Rainier is seeing the damage done to the park by visitors. On a summer day at Paradise we have literally thousands of people on 13 miles of trails through wildflower meadows, one of the most fragile ecosystems on the continent. Despite the 2,000 signs and miles of ropes we place on the trails people stray out into the meadows, where each footstep kills 20 flowers that won’t grow back for 5 years. It‘s dispiriting to see that some people just don’t care about preserving these places, or they don’t think before they act. But I remind myself that the vast majority of our visitors are leaving a minimal trace. To do my job I have to believe that the inspiration people get from visiting parks outweighs the damage done to the environment.
A lot of people are out of their element on a glacier-clad 14,411’ volcano that’s one of the snowiest places on earth. Visitors are surprised to find 5 feet of snow on the ground in June and that the wildflowers don’t bloom until nearly August. They often don’t anticipate that they won’t see Mount Rainier on cloudy days. Some of the rangers’ favorite “dumb questions” are where the road/gondola to the top is, and unprepared people in tennis shoes who are curious about how long it takes to ”hike” to the top (it’s a 3 day technical glacial expedition).
I think climate change and overpopulation are the issues that will define my lifetime. We have too many people living unsustainably on this planet, and there need to be structural changes to our societies and lifestyles for humans to continue to survive. I’m thankful that we have national parks and other preserved land for wildlife and plants to live in, but the environmental crisis we’re facing goes so much beyond what national parks can provide. I’m actually optimistic though – studies say we’ll run out of fossil fuels in 40 years and I think when that happens we’ll be forced to develop viable renewable energy sources and live more sustainably.
It’s not a hike, but by far my favorite adventure in a national park was climbing Mount Rainier. It took me three tries and six months of training. Finally the stars aligned – we had great weather, everyone felt strong, and we even saw the Northern Lights around 12,000 feet. I knew it would be a powerful experience but I was absolutely overcome when we reached the crater rim. It’s the hardest, most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I felt such a connection with my parents (who also worked at and climbed Rainier), my upbringing, and why these beautiful places are so important. It felt like the perfect way to express my gratitude for the crazy ways this mound of ice and rock has shaped my life.
I have never been to Southern Utah so I’m dying to do a road trip through the parks there! I’m fascinated by red rock country because it’s so different from the Northwest. I’m also itching to explore the Sierra Nevada more, especially Kings Canyon National Park. And of course Alaska!
I wish more people realized what a small budget we operate on (a tenth of a percent of our national budget) and how much value these parks have – inspirational value that can’t be measured, ecosystem services that give us clean air and water, and economic value for tourism in local communities. Our budget has been steadily shrinking over the last few decades and parks could really use more money from Congress to fulfill our mission of preserving these places and helping people enjoy them. I also hope people feel thankful that earlier generations set aside these places for us, and motivated to keep them pristine for our grandchildren.
It is very hard to make a career of being a park ranger. You’ll be seasonal with limited benefits and low pay for your first 5-10 years, you’ll move every few years, you’ll live in some remote or undesirable places, and when you get hired as a permanent ranger you’ll work in an office. Growing up with ranger parents I saw what a strain the lifestyle can be on a family. I have no ranger career plans, but it’s been the most fun way I can imagine to spend the transient years of my twenties. This will be my last summer as a ranger before I start a master’s program in environmental policy. I would absolutely recommend it for outdoor lovers who don’t mind a lot of change and not a lot of money, but perhaps not as a long term life plan.