Everything You Wanted to Know About Park Rangers… But Were Afraid to Ask

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Park Rangers

Park rangers. Unmissable in their iconic hats, the public often knows them as the people in uniforms who monitor trails and hand out maps in parks. But that’s only a tiny part of their roles. In fact, being a park ranger is an extremely diverse job that involves both protecting our state and national parks and the people who visit them. This may include serving as law enforcement officers, environmental experts, historians – or a combination of all three. In today’s post, we’ll set the record straight about our uniformed park friends.

What Do Park Rangers Really Do?

The word that sums up a park ranger’s mission is stewardship – the care and custody of our natural resources. In practice, stewardship takes two different forms: promoting voluntary stewardship through interpretation and education, and enforcing statues and regulations designed to keep our parks safe and accessible. This creates, in turn, two major classifications of rangers:

  • Interpretive rangers provide information to visitors – either practical information such as directions, timetables and weather forecasts, or educational information in the form of guided tours, on-and-offsite talks, demonstrations, and reenactments. In addition to parks, interpretative rangers work at historic trails, national monuments, battlefields, and historic sites in both rural and urban settings.
  • Protection rangers are tasked with keeping park and monument visitors safe through law enforcement, emergency medical services, firefighting, and search and rescue. Commission rangers are federal law enforcement officers who wear a Department of the Interior badge on their uniform, although not all protection rangers are commissioned. Many protection rangers are also certified as wilderness first responders, emergency medical technicians, or paramedics.

Regardless of their primary responsibilities, park rangers are expected to be knowledgeable about the resources in their care, be they natural or cultural.

What Does It Take to Be a Park Ranger?

A combination of education and experience is required to become a park ranger. When it comes to education, people are often surprised to learn that there are a number of different undergraduate and graduate degrees that fit the bill—including many that are not focused on the environment or the hard sciences. The following are all relevant fields of studies for becoming a ranger: natural resource management, natural sciences, earth sciences, history, archeology, anthropology, park and recreation management, law enforcement/police science, social sciences, museum sciences, business administration, public administration, behavioral sciences, sociology, or “other closely related subjects pertinent to the management and protection of natural and cultural resources.”

Education is ideally paired with either general experience in areas of relevance to a park ranger’s duties or, better yet, specialized experience as a guide or in law enforcement, historical or archeological preservation, forestry and fire management in a park or recreation area, or other specialized work related to the protection, conservation, or management of parks or similar areas.

The National Park Service runs its own internship and volunteer program to acquire such experience, and we here at the Student Conservation Association also provide a series of opportunities to prepare participants for a career in the Park Service. Our offerings include park ranger internships, a Ranger Corps in both urban and rural parks, and our National Park Service Academy, an innovative, experiential learning program designed to introduce undergraduate and graduate students to careers in the Park Service. Following a week-long orientation over spring break, participants spend their summers working in fields tailored to NPS career tracks such as visitor services, education, and resource management. Because SCA internships offer the chance to work with and in the National Park Service, many of our alumni go on to become rangers.

Watch This Space! More Park Ranger Stories Coming Up Soon

Want to know more about what it takes to become a ranger? You’re in luck! This post is the first in a series of blog posts and articles about the ins-and-outs of becoming a park ranger. The series will feature Q&As with current park rangers (and SCA alums!) explaining how they got to their positions while filling us on in some tricks of the trade. These will be interspersed with articles on subjects such as starting a career in the National Park Service and navigating the federal and state hiring systems. In the meanwhile, check out our blog post for five initial tips on becoming a park ranger.