Samuel Merring, a seasonal interpretative ranger at the Stanislaus National Forest in northern California, develops and leads nature programs and guided walks around the forest’s picturesque Lake Alpine reservoir. What makes this all the more impressive is that Merring, who just completed his second summer on the job, is still in college, a senior at Grand Valley State University in Michigan majoring in natural resource management.
How did Merring launch his ranger career so quickly? By getting the best experience he possibly could: working in the park first as an intern with the Student Conservation Association. “The head manager of the park knew who I was, knew my work ethic, and saw that I knew how to do the job,” he recalls. “I was interested in going back to Stanislaus after my internship, so I sent him a letter. And that’s how it all got started.”
Hands-On Instruction in Conservation
Merring’s internship experience at Stanislaus, door-opening as it was, was not his first experience with the SCA. In the summer of 2016, fresh out of high school, he served as a member of an SCA Tuition Crew in Washington State’s Olympic National Park, where he spent three weeks exploring the park’s wilderness coast – considered some of the most primitive natural coastline in the lower 48 – combining conservation work with on-site, experimental learning in marine biology.
“It really opened my eyes to stewardship and why it’s important,” Merring says, recalling the long conversations the group engaged in after each day’s efforts. The conservation work, he pointed out, went beyond mere cleanup. “We had to count every piece of marine debris we picked up, and then forwarded the data to the NOAA for them to use in considering the need for new legislation or regulations,” he says. In a telling sign of how the problem of pollution is truly global, some of the debris they retrieved came from as far away as Japan, either carried by the currents or cast into the sea by passing ocean liners.
“We also had a leave-no-trace policy for ourselves,” he added. “And when you’re carrying out 40 pounds of group-generated garbage on your backs, you truly realize what people leave behind!”
Tuition crews operate somewhat differently than the SCA’s trail crews or internships. In exchange for a tuition fee – for which scholarships are available – participants are equipped with a large pack and research equipment, and are provided extra training in backpacking, wilderness skills, marine ecology, and natural history. Crews receive hands-on instruction in conservation and the outdoors, with an instructor-to-participant ratio that would be the envy of any classroom: in their trek from Shi Shi to Rialto Beaches, Merring’s group of nine was accompanied by two instructors. And if the beauty of the Olympic Coast is not enough of a draw, tuition-crew opportunities are also available in the Chugach National Forest in Alaska, and the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.
Acquiring and Valuing Experience
Merring is not sure where he’ll end up after college, but he very much hopes a full-time ranger position is in his future. To that end, he recently burnished his credentials as an interpretive ranger by earning a certification from the National Association for Interpretation, which required passing a written test and making a sample presentation on a topic of his choice.
Even with the experience under his belt, Merring knows it to be a very competitive environment; this is why he encourages would-be rangers to get their feet wet early on. “Contact your city and state parks and see what there is you can do. Even if you only get a day or two of work a week, put it on your résumé. Don’t minimize any experience you’ve ever had. And don’t be afraid to try something new.” One of the programs he encourages people to try is the SCA, which he considers “the yellow-brick road for careers in parks.”
Interested in pursuing a career as a ranger? For more great tips from park rangers on how to build your career, check out our two-part series “What Does It Take to Be a Park Ranger? Words of Wisdom from SCA Alumni” Part One and Part Two.