Being a National Park Ranger is a tough job. Often, NPS Ranger’s joke that they are “Paid in Sunsets,” as the natural beauty they get to experience is well worth being on the lower end of the pay scale. growing up, I always day-dreamed of what it would be like to be a ranger in a National park, and while that dream didn’t come true for me, I am now in an area where I can interview and live vicariously through the protectors of our natural lands.
Over the next several weeks, and hopefully years, I will be spotlighting rangers from around the country, giving you, as well as myself, a chance to see what life is like for those who serve in America’s best idea. For the very first interview, I was lucky enough to be able to chat with L. Lisa Lawrence, a PNW resident who was a ranger at some of the most popular National Parks in America. Enjoy.
Which National Parks have you been employed at?
I have been employed at Devils Tower National Monument, Canyonlands National Park, SE Utah group including Arches and Natural Bridges, Colorado National Monument and a brief stint at a historic site in Missouri. I have been involved in projects in Kings Canyon-Sequoia National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Grand Teton National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park.
What was your job while there?
I was a “Visitor Protection” ranger; that’s the PC way of saying, “carries a gun”. I did law enforcement, search and rescue, high angle technical rope rescue, firefighting and emergency medical response. Visitor Protection is the “all around ranger” (I think that other jobs are now called “Park Guides”). At Cayonlands National Park I would alternate one week in the front country and one week alone in the backcountry. When n the front country, I ran a Class 1 Air Quality monitoring station. I was a member of inter-agency core rescue groups in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. At dangerous high water levels I used to get to sit at the base of the “Big Drops” in Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River in a Zodiac and wait for the raft trips to come down and rescue those whose boats flipped. We called it the “catch and release” program, because we’d pluck them out of the water and if they were uninjured, we’d dump them on the beach and go back for more. I had a background in environmental education, so in some of my parks I also did evening programs and guided trail walks just to keep my hand in it.
What is your best experience in a National Park?
At Devils Tower, thunderstorms would move in on hot summer evenings. The height and mineral composition of the tower made it a lightning rod of sorts so we had some up close and personal encounters with “light shows” and our power went out on a nightly basis. We used to sit out on the front steps of the employee housing in the evenings watching the storms, explaining to those from the west what lightning bugs were (one who had had too much beer one night couldn’t believe that they were flying bugs whose butts lit up) and we’d take turns reading out loud to each other. We had a lot of good times reading “Tales from Margaritaville” while having a few ourselves.
What is your worst experience in a National Park?
At the “cannonball park” (historic site) in Missouri I worked in on a temp assignment, I dealt with a lot of sexism. I (the only visitor protection ranger in the place trained and commissioned to deal with such things) was told by the superintendent to let the maintenance guys handle any law enforcement/conflicts because they had “been in the military” (and duh, were guys). Also, when we had an actual emergency, a flash flood, I was told to go home and “let the men deal with it”. I couldn’t wait to get out of there and back home to the West and a real park.
My first week back in Colorado, we had a kid fall off of a cliff and I had to rappel 150 feet down, render medical aid and ride back up as a litter attendant; that’s when I knew I was home and wouldn’t venture east of the Rockies for work again.
What is one question that shocks you that it is asked?
It doesn’t take long to become immune to shock in regards to questions; I’ve heard so many, including asking about elevators and escalators on natural rock formations, and one cranky guy asking me if I had seen the condition of the mens’ restroom (“Why no sir, I don’t use the mens’ restroom”) .
My “favorite” weird question was at Devils Tower. Having been the setting of the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” I’d get asked dozens of times every day, “Are there any aliens here?” My favorite answer was, “Why yes, and several are on staff. These are our communicators to the mother ship [points to badge] you get to guess which ones we are.” Almost everyone found that funny; when they didn’t I’d end up I the chief ranger’s office.
What is an environmental issue you feel needs to be addressed?
An? It’s hard to pick just one. We are “loving our parks” to death. Trampling meadows and tundra, trail cutting causing erosion, car exhaust, litter., roads, storm water runoff from development.. In addition to parks being understaffed, we need to find ways to minimize visitor impact as well as the impact of development and roads inside the parks.
Even if you can protect the park its self what goes on outside the park has negative impact. Air quality is a huge concern, as is light pollution. There is no place in the world where the stars are as big and bright at night as the Canyonlands and that’s because the area is free of light pollution; but still, heavy particulates from coal power plants threaten not only air quality but visibility.
Fracking? Don’t get me started. The Glen Canyon Dam? The cultural and archaeological resources that atrocity buried… what it did to the ecosystem of the Grand Canyon below… Criminal! I have been given new hope watching what has been achieved on the Elwah with the dam removal.
What is your favorite hike in the National Park System?
I haven’t done it yet; I still have so many left to do. The Wonderland Trail in Mt Rainier National Park and the Coast Wilderness Trail in Olympic National Park are amazing treasures that people come from all over the world to experience and are right in our back yard.
What should everyone know about the National Park Service?
Aside from the fact that they are underfunded and understaffed? That National Parks are different from all other federal land management areas because of the legislation that creates them. While Forest Service and BLM lands are “multiple use” (or as we like to call it, multiple abuse”) allowing mining, drilling, hunting, livestock grazing, ATVs and more, national parks are created under the organic act of 1916 “to conserve and protect the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” To conserve, protect and allow for enjoyment, without loving the parks to death is a mighty tall order.
Would you recommend becoming a ranger as a career? Why or why not?
As a “career”? Realistically speaking that is getting harder and harder to do because of budget and staffing cuts and the difficulty in getting permanent status as a federal employee. Most jobs are seasonal and seasonals are badly abused by the system.
As an experience? Oh yes! If you ever have a chance to work in a National Park I highly recommend it. Some of the best experiences I’ve had in my life were while working in National Parks and some of my best friends are those I made in National Parks.
L. Lisa Lawrence no longer works for the Park Service but still supports the mission by leading hikes and backbacking trips through a local meetup group. She is also the outdoor writer and columnist for South Sound and 425 Magazines, contributed three sections to the book “South Sound User Guide) and is about to release a book of photographs and poetry inspired by the Cascade and Olympic Mountains titled, “Postcards from the Mountain”
Her website is wildcelticrose.net
Thank you L. Lisa Lawrence for you amazing answers, awesome pictures and fantastic work serving in our National Parks.
We corrected the date for when the National Parks were officially established. It wasn’t 1932, but 1916. Next year in 2016 The National Parks will celebrate their centennial. Thank you Alison Yamato, Park Ranger – NPS Intermountain Region, for pointing that out.