At the age of 13, Nancy Rogers already knew she wanted to be a park ranger. And for upwards of four decades she’s followed that dream, first as an intern in the Student Conservation Association (SCA), then seasonally in the National Park Service, and finally as a permanent ranger in the United States Army Corps of Engineers (ACE). Today, Rogers continues her work as co-director of the Corps Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to promoting the environmental health and recreational enjoyment of all of the lakes and waterways administered by the ACE in some 43 states. We caught up with Rogers to find out how she built a career in conservation at a time when few women thought such a path was possible. Her career has been a fascinating one, and we hope you enjoy her story as much as we did!
Joining One of SCA’s First All-Female Crew
Rogers joined her first SCA crew fresh out of high school in 1971. And not just any crew: one of the very first female crews in the association’s history. Stationed at Mowich Lake in the Mount Rainier National Park – one of only two locations hosting female crews – her team quickly got busy re-roofing the backcountry ranger’s cabin, clearing trees and using the felled logs to delineate parking areas, installing water bars, working on trails, and restoring an historic lean-to built by the CCC during the New Deal era.
“Some of the girls were from very wealthy families and some were from poor families on a scholarship, so there was a real mix of people from all over the United States,” Rogers recalls. “I found it empowering. It was the first time I’d ever done anything like that, certainly with all girls, and we really accomplished a lot – a lot more than I thought we could!”
(First SCA all female crew at Mowich Lake, Mount Rainier National Park in 1969 by Rhoda Capron.)
In fact, Rogers found the experience so rewarding that she returned the following summer as a student supervisor for another all-female group. And it was here, as she read applications, assigned work crews, and supervised workers, that she learned a key lesson about the importance of emotional intelligence and people skills that was to serve her well throughout her ranger career. “It turned out that the workers who complained the most were the ones who, on paper, had looked the best,” she notes.
This “soft skillset” is not something that is immediately associated with park rangers, but Rogers feels it’s essential for the job, which requires frequent interactions with both members of the public and officials from the government and private sector. “Later on in life, when I was hiring, I remembered that,” she says. “It’s nice to have rangers who are experienced and excel at things, but you really need people who can get along with others, who are well-adjusted and have good interpersonal skills.”
Ranger Opportunities Beyond the National Park Service
While completing a Bachelor’s in Resource Conservation at the University of Montana – a unique-for-the-time program she carefully chose with her future in mind – Rogers began doing seasonal ranger work with the National Park Service (NPS) at Mount Rainier, an opportunity that arose directly from her SCA internship there. Destiny, however, had other plans for her: after completing her degree, she landed a ranger job with the Army Corps of Engineers, where she was to remain for 34 years.
A park ranger at the Army Corps of Engineers? Well, yes. The Corps, in fact, is the nation’s largest provider of outdoor recreation, receiving more than 250 million visits annually to 4,485 sites at 423 separate projects, including 383 major lakes and reservoirs – a body of visitation that exceeds that of the National Park Service. In many regions, recreation is actually ACE’s primary mission, including areas in the Midwest that don’t have a large NPS footprint.
(U.S. Army Corps of Engineers park ranger demonstrates proper fit on a life jacket.)
While working for the ACE was not the ranger job she had originally planned for, Rogers found that her role there allowed her wider access to opportunity. “Working for the Corps was a jack-of-all-trades job,” Rogers explains. “As a ranger there, you have an opportunity to engage in a lot of different disciplines.” A case in point was her first post in Missouri, where she worked in everything from recreation to interpretation to resource management to issuing citations. “It was a lot of variety and a good training ground,” Rogers summarizes.
The public is often surprised to hear that ACE rangers are also active in emergency-management response, with many of them volunteering to deploy to areas damaged by hurricanes, fires, or floods. “ACE park rangers have a unique skill set that really helps with that kind of work, including people skills and problem solving on the ground,” Rogers continues. “They bring a lot to the table.”
Unlike NPS, however, which has a narrowly defined mission focusing on parks, Rogers notes that recreation tends to take a back seat at the Corps. The effect of this is dual: the public may not be aware of the leisure opportunities that exist at their sites, while conservation-minded job seekers might overlook park-related career opportunities with ACE. This lack of awareness is one reason why, after retiring from active ranger work, Rogers has dedicated herself to advocacy through the Corps Foundation, whose mission includes raising awareness and creating public and private partnerships for the management and stewardship of its recreation sites.
Career-Building Inside Government Service
Rogers never wanted a stagnant career, and she made the most of every opportunity that presented itself – often breaking glass ceilings as she did so. Shortly after NPS was given police authority in the 1970’s, for example, Rogers, while still a seasonal employee at Mount Rainier, paid her own tuition to participate in a four-week program in law enforcement at a training academy in Sonoma County – unusual for women rangers at the time. Later, when working as the only female law-enforcement ranger at the Badlands National Park, she was sent for an additional two weeks of training.
(Sunrise at Badlands National Park in South Dakota by Matthew Paulson.)
“While law enforcement wasn’t the kind of work I wanted to do for a whole career, it was experience that served me well,” Roger notes. Sometimes, that meant going up against gender stereotypes. While patrolling hunting camps for the Corps in Northern Missouri, Rogers recalls running into a hunter who could not get over the fact of her being a woman ranger. “He went on so long that his friend finally had to tell him to stop talking because he was trying to ask me a question!” Rogers laughs.
Career building, for Rogers, has also meant getting out of the parks and onto a national stage. This involved joining committees and task forces, serving as a trainer, and presenting professional papers on interpretation, partnerships, and cooperating associations at regional and national conferences. “I enjoyed meeting people and having a large network, sharing what I know and learning from other people,” she says. Aware of the difficulties the younger generation face in building their own careers today, Rogers also made herself available as a mentor, both informally and through a formal program of supervising young rangers on three-month assignments.
A Ranger Who Has Done It All
Over the course of her career, Rogers is one park ranger who has truly done it all: budgeting, interpretation, designing visitors’ centers and exhibits, law enforcement, and developing partnerships – now topped off by her current work in outreach and advocacy for the Corps Foundation. What was the most satisfying part of her career? “It’s a face-to-the-public kind of job,” she says. “And that’s the part I liked the most. I think it’s a great career for women. There’s nothing to hold them back. There are a lot more women in leadership than there used to be, so they’ll find a lot more support.” The future of female rangers is bright – thanks to trailblazing rangers like Nancy Rogers.
Want to learn more about obtaining a career as a park ranger? Check out our helpful guide, 10 Insider Tips and Tricks for Navigating the Federal System.