New York — The thermometer has not yet broken 25 degrees, and yet there are plenty of stalwarts out in Central Park. Joggers approach and disappear in the sharp morning sunshine. Bundled strollers walk by in pairs, or with a cavorting dog in tow.
Urban Ranger Jennifer Lee, in a uniform that would command attention at any national park, drives through Central Park. She pulls the car over when she spots two women riding horses on a paved walkway.
''Excuse me,'' she calls out the window. ''Please keep your horses on the bridal path on the other side.''
Ranger Lee is one of more than 60 urban rangers, ambassadors to the public in New York City's recreational areas. The city lists among its inventory 572 parks , 900 playgrounds, 104 swimming pools, 535 tennis courts, 6 beaches, 3 zoos, 7 ice rinks, and 709 baseball, football, and soccer fields.
The Urban Rangers are the city's answer to National Park Service rangers. They wear similar uniforms and do similar chores, such as put out forest fires, answer questions about geology or plant life, lead early morning bird walks, and make sure that the public treats this legacy kindly.
They can explain the geology of parks in Brooklyn and Queens where the very edge of the last ice age stopped in its tracks. They know the history of a park in Queens where Indian arrowheads can be found. And they can point out falcons in the Bronx.
They also deal with more urban problems - which may mean chasing muggers, keeping roads clear for marathon racers, and helping root out illegal roulette operations.
But the bread and butter of the urban rangers program is its educational aspect, says Mary McCartney, head of the program.
Through a curriculum developed with the help of the city's Board of Education , the rangers teach schoolchildren about park history and design, geology, plants and trees, lakes and ponds, marine life, and urban animals. The field trips are held in various parks throughout New York's five boroughs.
Today in Belvidere Castle, children from Public School 2 in Manhattan are making masks using the twigs, fir sprigs, fallen leaves, and round seed pods that they have picked up in a walk through the woods. Their pleasure is evident in the giggles, smiles, and intent expressions.
The rangers are often touched at the reaction of children to the parks. Ms. Lee recalls taking some students on a bird walk. A teacher had said one boy, who was a special-education student, could not learn much. Afterward, he came up to Ms. Lee and listed every bird they had seen.
''[The program] makes a difference to these children,'' says Ranger Lee.
Ms. McCartney says she is proudest of a project in Crotona Park in the Bronx. With the help of a federal grant, urban rangers and community leaders have begun to rebuild a long-neglected asset. A ballpark, swimming pool, and lake have been restored. Activities this winter include learning simple ways to predict the weather, finding flowers that bloom in winter, and learning African games during Black History Month in February.
''The park rangers are doing much to restore the use of the parks by the people for whom they were reserved,'' said Bronx borough president Stanley Simon through a spokesman. ''No where has that been more effective than in Crotona Park, one of the largest in the Bronx. Prior to the placement of the rangers in the park last year, the park was underutilized.''
Today the park is used regularly by schoolchildren learning about science and nature, by community residents on weekend walks and tours, and by families during the summer, when they bring picnic lunches for a day outside.
Safety has long been an issue in New York's urban parks. The rangers do not try to take the place of New York City police. The park system does have a Parks Enforcement Patrol (PEP) that has the authority to issue summons in the parks. They are unarmed, but are more involved in ensuring park safety than the rangers.
Crime remains a problem. There are muggings, drug peddling, and violent crimes in New York's parks. Though joggers can be found in Central Park late in the evening, PEP director William Dalton says he wouldn't visit at night.
But crime has decreased in the city's parks, and though Urban Ranger and PEP spokesmen won't take direct credit, they feel their presence often assures visitors and may help discourage crime. There are times when situations have gotten out of hand, such as when gangs of youths attacked people after the Diana Ross concert this year, but those are the exception rather than the rule, she says.
There have been coordinated efforts between the police, the park rangers, and PEP, says Ms. McCartney. She points to the reduction of vandalism in Central Park after the St. Patrick's Day parade.
PEP's William Dalton speaks of the turnaround of Highland Park in the Queens, where illegal vendors sold food and gamblers had set up carnival-like tents with roulette games inside. Today they have been replaced by local, legal vendors and Shakespearean plays.
The Rangers' program has been successful enough to win the attention of other park systems. Boston, Buffalo, N.Y., and a New Jersey county have emulated it in planning similar programs.
New Yorkers are ''very proud'' of their parks, points out William Castro, director of park safety. Usage is up in Central Park, the only one where statistics on visitors are kept.
''I like seeing them [the Rangers] here,'' says one Central Park visitor. ''In its own way, this place is every bit as nice and interesting as a national park. And they've got rangers.''