How Do you Become a National Park Ranger and What is it like?
Updated: Mar 13, 2019
Over the years during my many adventures into Yellowstone National Park I have often wondered about the behind the scenes work that must be done for all of us park visitors to enjoy the wonders and experiences of Yellowstone. And, because part of my Yellowstone enjoyment is talking with folks in the park, I took advantage to chat with a park ranger about his work. That lead to an ongoing correspondence where he was kind enough to relate his experiences and share his knowledge with me so I could share it with you.
His name is Peter Mangolds, (@grizzlymanchild) and for him, being a National Park Ranger is much more than a job, it is a way of life, a lifestyle in which there is no “typical” day and one in which he truly loves. With a profound statement he kind of summed up his overall thoughts of his work as a Park Ranger. “There hasn’t been a single day that I’ve woken up in Yellowstone and wished I didn’t have to go to work.” Peter has been a Park Ranger for 3 years. He lives in the interior of the park, so he lives with very limited cell service, little or no mobile Internet, no cable, and the nearest grocery store is an hour and a half away. It’s obvious he enjoys nature, wildlife, being outdoors, and chatting with folks who come to the park to themselves enjoy the wonders of Yellowstone.
Peter’s responsibilities are many and diverse, including firefighting and EMS duties. The latter means that he can be called upon at any time of day or night to respond to such emergencies, and the former means he can be doing any number of a myriad of tasks that fall within the scope of a Ranger’s duties. And as we have corresponded it is obvious that he also handles many unexpected, and certainly not listed in the ranger’s handbook, events and situations that simply emerge when working with people and animals.
What follows are some of the other questions I posed to Peter, and my summary his responses. I hope they give you a little bit of a view into the life of a National Park Ranger, the duties they perform, the challenges they face, and how to go about becoming a ranger should you determine this could be the life and experiences you are seeking.
What was the process you took to become a Park Ranger?
Preparation work included building a portfolio of skills and knowledge that are applicable to the job description. Peter has a degree in forestry and a significant amount of outdoor experience. He had to research the parks’ rules and regulations, unique situations, and offerings by individual national park. So, his experience and training is different than an interpretative park ranger who are educated in different aspects related to answering the questions of park visitors or conducting educational tours. Government guidelines mandate that to qualify as a park ranger for the National Park Service, a person must possess at least a two-year degree (some positions require a bachelor’s degree), have one year of work experience in a park, or possibly a combination of both.
Peter built a profile on USAjobs.com that allowed him to apply for different jobs at different pay levels in the national park system. He acknowledges that your application – knowledge, degree, skills, past experiences, etc. – needs to be such that you are competitive with the many others who are applying for the positions you are seeking. Each different position requires special skills and trains separately.
Peter also had to pass an enforcement and investigation examination that helps the National Park Service assess your knowledge and skills to determine if you are currently qualified to become a ranger and to match the applicant’s skills with the best position for his or her skill set.
Peter strongly suggests that if a person is seriously interested in becoming a park ranger, they should take the time to invest in doing their due diligence. Reach out to those in the field, ask the questions, learn all you can before pulling the trigger to pursue the profession. Learning from those in the trenches of the career on a day-in and day-out basis will provide you with answers to the deeper down questions and intricacies of the work you are truly investigating.
If someone were interested in becoming a Park Ranger, what would you tell them?
I would tell them to learn to become as comfortable as you can with yourself, by yourself. It can be lonely at times and depending on the situation, making friends can be difficult, or it can come easy. Know that those you work with are coming from somewhere and going somewhere. Some enjoy more social interaction, and some enjoy more a solitary experience. You can make good friends during one season and then never see them again in subsequent seasons. It’s the nature of the beast when working seasonally in a national park. Also, you can meet hundreds or even thousands of park visitors in a day and never see them again.
You must learn to be prepared for ANYTHING, always have a backup plan and another way out. You may need to pick up and leave at a moment’s notice being evacuated due to a wildfire. You could be stranded in one location due to snow fall on a mountain pass blocking traffic and not have access to food or other necessities for an extended period. There is always the possibility of running into a grizzly bear while out performing trail work (it has happened quite a bit in this line of work). You can find yourself interacting with friendly and sometimes not so friendly park visitors. You might wind up going without a paycheck due to a government shutdown, and deal with any number of other unique and challenging circumstances. The list goes on and on. These types of situations of a necessity require that you be prepared, forward thinking, flexible, creative, and enjoy the art of problem solving and making things work, one way or another. Peter’s vehicle is always prepared for a quick take off and packed to sustain him with the essentials he may need to survive alone for an unexpected event for an extended period of time.
Anyone considering a career as a park ranger should also understand the potential downsides of being a ranger. I say “potential” downsides because to one person a downside is actually a positive aspect of the work. Nonetheless, work as a park ranger often requires that you work in cold, hot, and wet conditions. Those rangers whose job description includes law enforcement can face dangerous conditions as well as emotionally difficult situations as mishaps, injuries, and death can occur to colleagues and park visitors.
Enjoy becoming an expert in one of more areas. This increases the opportunity for leadership and growth in the profession. Know that you will be required to continue learning and gaining experience that qualifies you to continue contributing to the work of a national park ranger.
What do you do on your days off?
Peter works four 10-hour days giving him the enjoyment and convenience of a 3-day weekend. One of those days is for various chores and tasks (definitely food shopping). The other two days are dedicated to taking advantage of being in Yellowstone. Peter loves to go fishing, hike the backcountry trails of Yellowstone, of which there are approximately 1,000, and take photos of the bounteous wildlife throughout the park. In fact, Peter has become quite a photographer. He says that the process and skills needed to get quality photographs has greatly increased his understanding and appreciation of the animals and helps him to be a better ranger. The adventures of the quest for the perfect shot - watching the animals, studying their behavior and movement patterns, trying to anticipate their next move, etc. He states that all of these enjoyments are great motivators for living and working in a national park.
What is something you wish park visitors would more fully understand and appreciate when they are in the park?
First, I would say the wildlife in the park. This is their home, their territory, and we are the visitors. A greater respect for them, their need to not be harassed, and even and good understanding of their ability to kill or afflict harm upon you under certain circumstances. Yellowstone can be a dangerous place and deserving of that respect. The rules for keeping a safe distance between you and the animals is for the protection of both animal and human.
Second, I would say the park ranger. The typical park ranger does his or her job in a setting where they are under staffed and underfunded, and yet tasked with the responsibility to accomplish much and to do so often under difficult circumstances. To the ranger, the park is their home, their sanctuary, their place of work. Just as you would not want anyone to harass your pets, throw garbage onto your yard, harm their neighborhood, or treat any aspect of it with disrespect, so we should be able to receive that same respect and consideration in our home.
What is the funniest thing that you have experienced as a ranger?
I see funny things in the park all the time. The degree of how funny something is really depends on your sense of humor. There was the time when a park ranger had just completed giving a “what to do in case you encounter a bear” instruction and a sow grizzly and her cub ran past him in close proximity. His reaction was hilarious and probably not in complete harmony with the instructions just delivered. An observed interaction between two different park visitors was memorable as one park visitor was lecturing the other visitor on the dangers of smoking in the park as it could start a forest fire, and it was currently snowing, and 2 inches of snow was covering the ground everywhere. Peter says he has a multitude of comical stories he could tell but insists it all depends on a person’s sense of humor.
What is the most frustrating thing that you have experienced as a ranger?
While there are more than a few, I would have to say that observing people disrespecting the wildlife is a top one. Seeing park visitors be disrespectful to other park visitors is also a leading candidate for most frustrating. It’s important that park visitors don’t stop in the middle of the road to watch or photograph animals when there is a 5-mile long line of cars behind them. When a ranger then instructs them to move on and stop blocking the road, it should be seen as a desire to help others enjoy the park and to ensure safety and to keep things working as best as possible.
I would like to thank Ranger Peter Mangolds for spending some time with me to help me gain a better understanding and appreciation for the workers who make our trips to our national parks possible and more enjoyable.
I hope this information will prove helpful to any person simply wanting to know more about the hard work and logistics of those who are our National Park Rangers. I also hope that if you are sincerely interested in the profession of a park ranger that it will help you to focus your efforts to get your questions asked and your thoughts organized to make the decisions that could affect your future.