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Shelton Johnson Honored As National Park Service's Top Interpreter


Shelton Johnson was the 2009 recipient of the Freeman Tillman award, which honors the National Park Service's best interpreter. PBS photo.

Poet, ranger, author, documentarian. Shelton Johnson has done it all. And now he's been recognized for his excellence as a national park interpreter with the Freeman Tilden Award.

Ranger Johnson, who works as Yosemite National Park, received the award last month during the National Association of Interpretation Conference in Connecticut. The award is the highest given by the National Park Service for excellence in interpretation. Ranger Johnson was one of the seven finalists from regions throughout the country competing for the national award.

The ranger was recognized for his extensive collaboration with Ken Burns during the filming of the landmark documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. Ranger Johnson appeared in the film extensively reflecting on his experiences as a national park ranger. Additionally, he worked on a collaborative project telling the previously untold stories of diverse peoples in national parks. These messages are reaching far beyond Yosemite and have facilitated lasting connections between African Americans and their national parks.

“We are extremely proud of Shelton and couldn’t be happier that he has been recognized by receiving this award. It is even more meaningful that this award was given by his peers. Shelton’s work here in Yosemite and on the Ken Burns film will reach millions of people for generations to come,” said Tom Medema, acting chief of Interpretation and Education at Yosemite.

Shelton Johnson has worked for the National Park Service for more than 20 years. Before settling in at Yosemite, he worked in Yellowstone National Park, Great Basin National Park, and the National Mall in Washington D.C.

Ranger Johnson was selected by a panel of interpretive experts from around the country. As the recipient of the 28th annual National Freeman Tilden Award, he received a sculpted portrait bust of Freeman Tilden and $4,000.

To gain some insights into the ranger's skills, check out this 11-minute video produced by PBS.


Congratulations Mr Johnson!
We thoroughly enjoyed the Ken Burns special on the National Parks and your contributions added greatly to it. I grew up in the inner city as well (St Louis) and had never even heard of a National Park until I was a teenager! That experience wasn't a part of my everyday life growing up. My husband however DID grow up with the National Parks experience, mainly Yellowstone. As a young married couple with children we began taking our own kids to the National Parks and this summer our children and grandchildren joined us in Yellowstone on vacation. Another generation to appreciate the grandeur of theses special places! It just goes to show you that having not grown up with that exposure as you and I did, or with that exposure as my children have, once they get into your blood, they never leave!
Connie Hopkins
Denton, Texas

Sheldon Johnson created a website around his "Letter to dead soldiers" about the almost forgotten black soldiers who served as the first guardians of the Sierra Nevada Parks.

It can be found at

And he collected information on the Buffalo Soldiers at Yosemite and elsewhere at:

Congratulation for your work and the award.

I cannot think of a better person at this time who is most deserving of such a prestigious award. Ranger and naturalist Sheldon Johnson is right up there with Carl Sharsmith as a top flight National Park interpreter. Congratulations Ranger Johnson for a excellent job well done. Many kudos to you!

Apparently he's on the road promoting his book. He'll be in Marin County this Saturday:

Shelton Johnson: Tale of buffalo soldier

I also enjoy his response about the low pay of NPS rangers:

No one is saying, 'God, I feel so deeply for you that you struggle through for month after month - and that salary that you have. And you have El Capitan and Half Dome right there to console you.' I've had a lot of things in my life, but actually sympathy along those lines is not one of them. I feel that I'm very privileged to work as a national park ranger and to live where I live, which I believe is the most beautiful place on the face of the Earth. Now, I'm not saying that I wouldn't mind a raise by any stretch of the imagination, but I have to say I was called to this work, and it had nothing to do with financial recompense of any kind. For me, people bandy about the expression within the parks that we are paid in sunsets. I think with inflation, I need sunrise and I need moonrise as well. But for me, in my purposes, it's been adequate for 22 years. More than adequate.

How do you keep a people down? ‘Never' let them 'know' their history.

Keep telling that history; read some great military history.

The 7th Cavalry got their butts in a sling again after the Little Big Horn Massacre, fourteen years later, the day after the Wounded Knee Massacre. If it wasn't for the 9th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers, there would of been a second massacre of the 7th Cavalry. Read the book, “Rescue at Pine Ridge”, and visit website/great military history,

What an eloquent spokesperson for the parks. I love people who are passionate about their work. Bravo, Mr. Johnson, let you light shine.

While the Ken Burns series was great and Shelton looked amazing in it, my only complaint is that he's the only "Ranger" that was filmed. You'd think Mr. Burns could've found "Rangers" at other parks instead of using Shelton over and over again. Overall great series, but very limited in the parks and staff that were filmed.

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