Alumni Profile: The Grand Canyon’s Best-Kept Secrets

What's it like to be a Grand Canyon National Park Ranger?

Todd Nelson is the volunteer coordinator at Grand Canyon National Park. We asked him about his career, the National Park Service centennial, and the future of America’s Best Idea.

Why do you like working with volunteers?

What solidified it for me was working with college students on alternative [service] spring breaks. The students represent a variety of majors and I inform them that whatever they are studying, there is a position for them in the National Park Service, that we’re more than the different “-ologists.”

What role do volunteers fill at the Grand Canyon?

[The equivalent of] forty full time positions or ten percent of our staff.  We were fourteenth in overall volunteer hours (86,541) among all national park units last year.

Where would you be without them?

Oh, the impact would be noticeable. Our non-native fish removal project would be reduced. Wildland fire; there’d be fewer acres treated. Less preventive search and rescue, where we check to see that hikers are dressed appropriately and prepared for trails below the rim. Less information provided in the visitor center. It wouldn’t be pretty.

You started as a volunteer, right?

With SCA back in ’96, a three-month internship at Saguaro National Park. I received all fives (top scores) on my SCA evaluation; still have it.  Soon after that they hired me and for the seven years, I was Saguaro’s group volunteer coordinator. I’ve been at Grand Canyon since 2008. I’ve also worked at Yosemite, Zion and Ocmulgee National Monument.

When did you know you wanted to be a park ranger?

At age 14, when I visited my first national park, Theodore Roosevelt in North Dakota – I thought how cool to be a park ranger. I later earned an undergrad degree in Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Management and wanted to work with a park concessionaire. When I considered a second career in community recycling and met with a professor for advice, he suggested I get some experience, and I walked out of his office and straight into an SCA poster on a hallway bulletin board. 

Sounds like a date with fate…

I thought to myself, here is my chance to do what I’ve wanted to do since I was 14!  In 2006, I earned my Master’s in Education with an emphasis in Environmental Education and my thesis was “Working with Volunteer Groups in the National Park Service,” so you might say I have found my niche.

How many other SCA alumni are at Grand Canyon?

Forty as of last year. We have a fire ecologist who was an SCA in 2000, an ‘02 alum who is now a wildlife biologist, and interpretive ranger from ’04. Our chief of cultural resources goes all the way back to ‘78, we have a deputy chief who was an SCA, and our chief of concessions started with SCA in ’86. They’re all over this place.

Why is SCA an effective route to a career?

You folks started with NPS in 1957, so you’re well established. [SCA Founder] Liz [Putnam]’s vision of getting youth out into parks is also a big part of it. SCA was one of the early nonprofit youth corps, and the Park Service is small family, so once you get a foot in, it’s easy to make connections.

What do you hope results from the NPS centennial campaign?

That the public “rediscovers,” if you want to call it that, their national parks. You keep reading and hearing that youth today spend less and less time outdoors, so you hope the centennial push gets more families to national parks so that next generation can take root.

The Park Service mission is to preserve these lands “unimpaired…for this and future generations.” As we look to the next one hundred years of national parks, are you optimistic we can keep our parks as-is?

Some will be hard to keep in their current condition if only because of the global issues underway. Glacier National Park may not have glaciers in twenty years, so I don’t know if we can keep them the same. But here we include an educational component in each day of service so our volunteers get a better understanding of why they are doing that project. That’s how I see my mission.

What’s the best-kept secret about the Grand Canyon?

(Pauses) Oh, there are so many. You wouldn’t think we have an extensive cave network. There’s lots of cultural history that most people don’t think of as they look out over the edge. We have a museum collection with over 1.5 million archival artifacts covering centuries of human interaction with the canyon. And the night sky, especially for people from the East Coast, is amazing.

What’s been your most memorable moment in the park?

It actually happened when I wasn’t working here. I was camping on the South Rim in March of ‘97, and this snowstorm came in from the West. I watched as the clouds poured in from my left and the snow fell into canyon, while on the right you could still see from rim to rim.

Do you ever become blind to it?

No, it never wears off. But my office is 90 miles away in Flagstaff. For my first couple of years here, I always made it a point to go to the [South] Rim whenever I got to the park. I don’t always do that now but, trust me, I still appreciate it.