Low Pay and Changing Roles Thin Ranks of Park Rangers
SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, VA. — DRIVING his pale green patrol car slowly along Skyline Drive, park ranger Reed Johnston surveys wooded mountain beauty and vast valley views. At the head of a trail he notices a hiker romping with a young golden retriever. Ranger Johnston stops to warn the visitor that the dog must be put on a leash. It is one of his few encounters with visitors on this cold spring morning - a respite from the frantic days at the height of the summer camping season or the fall, when thousands of people from all over the nation come to see Shenandoah's spectacular autumn colors.
During those busy times, he may also be called out of bed to track down poachers hunting deer inside park boundaries or summoned to fight a fire.
After earning a college degree in history, Johnston decided to fulfill his childhood dream of becoming a park ranger. He joined the United States National Park Service seven years ago at a salary of $12,000 a year, assigned to give interpretive talks at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park in his native Texas. He eventually became a commissioned law-enforcement ranger, certified in wildfire fighting, search and rescue, and emergency medical services. At 38, he should be in the prime of his earn i
ng capacity and saving toward college educations for his two small children. But his annual salary is only $19,200. Much as Johnston loves his work, he cannot afford to stay, and has given notice to the Park Service. He is leaving this month to work for the United States Forest Service. There he will get higher pay immediately and be able to advance quickly.
Johnston is part of a growing yearly exodus of skilled rangers who leave the Park Service for better salaries and opportunities in other federal or state agencies. They wish they could stay in what most people would consider a desirable and fulfilling career. During a congressional hearing on the problems faced by rangers, Rep. Constance A. Morella (R) of Maryland summed up the dilemma with an old saying, "One cannot feed a family on sunsets."
As hosts to millions of visitors and caretakers of the nation's natural and cultural crown jewels, national park rangers enforce the law, fight fires, and rescue hikers lost in the wilderness or stranded on cliffs. Visitors, especially children, idolize the uniformed rangers who lead nature walks or give campfire talks.
In better days, low salaries were more than compensated for by the satisfying work. Employee housing in beautiful park surroundings was priced within reach of ranger salaries, and the option of transferring to new jobs in other parks opened up plenty of career opportunities.
Today most of those "perks" are gone. For those required to live in the parks, much of the housing is substandard, and rents are keyed to the often-inflated rates charged in communities near the parks, in accord with federal Office of Management and Budget demands.
Rangers working at urban parks often find local rents far beyond their means. In recent years at Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, some rangers had to sleep in their cars until they could find shelter they could afford. Some park units in or close to urban areas have been losing 20 percent or more of their permanent rangers each year, although new cost-of-living provisions for Park Service employees in eight urban areas may help to stem that flow.
Over the past 20 years, Congress has added 107 new areas to the National Park System. But administration policies over that period prohibited creating enough additional positions to staff the new areas adequately. Consequently, some rangers had to be shifted from the older parks to staff the new ones.
The number of visits has risen about 100 million and the acreage to be administered by the Park Service has nearly tripled. But for the last 12 years the ranger force has remained at around 3,200. It's possible for visitors to be in a national park for a day or more without ever seeing a park ranger.
Attracting well-qualified young applicants is difficult. Park Service recruiters at college job fairs recount being laughed at when they tell promising candidates that the starting salary is about $16,000. The candidates are even more turned off when they learn of the limited opportunity for career advancement. Some staffers now may spend most of their careers in one park because of a scarcity of openings at higher grade levels.
"The Park Service is losing its ability to compete, especially for the pool of young, highly qualified recent college graduates," says Park Service Director James M. Ridenour. "More than a third of new hirees lack a four-year college degree, and among those with degrees, only 50 percent held them in subjects related to parks and recreation management, history, and the natural and biological sciences."
As the park system and visitation have grown, rangers have had to pay increasing attention to preventing crime and apprehending lawbreakers. Completion of a three-month law-enforcement course is now required of all rangers with law-enforcement duties, with an annual 40-hour refresher training. Each commissioned protection ranger is required to carry a weapon. Last year, a ranger at Gulf Islands National Seashore in Mississippi was shot to death while on patrol.
Last May, ranger Wayne Westphal was patrolling a remote part of California's Death Valley National Monument, with the nearest help 50 miles away. He narrowly escaped after surprising a heavily armed group of men operating an illegal methamphetamine drug laboratory. He was able to get back to his patrol vehicle, radio for help, and cut off their escape route, resulting in the arrest and conviction of seven persons and the confiscation of drugs worth more than $1 million. The drug dealers received sentenc e
s of 25 to 30 years without parole.
THE majority of rangers spend their time in law-enforcement and visitor services. As a result, their duties as resource managers can suffer. "The natural resource program has relied on rangers in large part to detect developing problems and then carry out solutions devised by resource-management specialists and scientists," says Walt Dabney, chief ranger of the National Park Service. "But with our limited staffs in the parks and the day-to-day visitor demands, rangers often do not have time to work in t h
e back country and do the resource-management work they would like to be involved with. And the parks suffer when the resources aren't adequately managed."
Some rangers, known as interpreters, devote themselves primarily to designing and carrying out educational and informational programs for the public. Traditionally, the Park Service has relied on employees hired just for the busy summer season to help with such interpretive programs. Many seasonal jobs have gone to professors and teachers who looked forward to spending summer vacations working in the parks. But park superintendents, needing to do more with less, have had to cut back sharply on hiring se a
sonals. At the same time, fewer qualified people are willing to do the seasonal jobs.
So the parks are forced to reduce the number of walks and talks, and are turning to volunteers to help fill the gap. Full-time interpretive rangers thus find a large share of their time going into training and organizing volunteers and inexperienced seasonal workers.
Rangers cling to the hope that the hard times will eventually turn around. The Association of National Park Rangers (ANPR) issued a report two years ago based on candid observations and ideas from 500 rangers.
The ANPR report was submitted to the National Park Service director and key congressional and conservation leaders. It outlines five major objectives for improvement: cost-of-living adjustments of at least 25 percent for rangers in major metropolitan areas; housing allowances for employees living outside park boundaries, and free or reduced rents for those who must live in the parks; raising the minimum grade level for rangers; development of a comprehensive personnel-management plan to guide the future
of the ranger profession; and a requirement that all new rangers have a degree in a field associated with natural or cultural sciences, such as history, architecture, and archaeology.
A recent survey of government employees found a significant decline in Park Service employees' attitudes toward their jobs, the agency management, and the rewards for their work. Nevertheless, the survey found job satisfaction was higher in the Park Service than in the government as a whole.
"Despite being battered and beleaguered by economic and other forces for the last decade, national park rangers are still more dedicated and have a higher esprit de corps than almost any other group you can name," says Bill Halainen, editor of Ranger Magazine, the journal of ANPR. "Rangers are a rare breed, each a unique cross of idealist, hardheaded pragmatist, adventurer, and self-sufficient individualist."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert Cahn, a former staff writer for the Monitor, has followed issues affecting national parks in the United States for nearly a quarter century. In 1969 he won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles in the Monitor, "Will Success Spoil the National Parks?"
Mr. Cahn was for many years Washington editor of Audubon magazine. He is now a freelance writer living in Loudon County, Va. In 1988, he was a member of a blue-ribbon commission assessing research in national parks.