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Ranger Confidential, Living, Working, and Dying In the National Parks

Author : Andrea Lankford
Published : 2010-04-02

Television loves to portray park rangers as fit and polite, beaming dazzling smiles, displaying knowledge that knows no bounds, armed with nerves of steel, and with dashing personalities. That was evident in the 1970s series Sierra, and even in Lassie, when the rangers in question worked for the U.S. Forest Service.

And then there are the realities, as Andrea Lankford describes in her latest book, Ranger Confidential: Living, Working, and Dying in the National Parks.

Many of Ms. Lankford's rangers carry many of the attributes that television focused on -- rippling muscles, cute figures, an unquenchable call to duty. But in drawing from her dozen years wearing the gray and green with the National Park Service, she also exposes life in the trenches in ways that cast considerable tarnish on one of the most publicly revered government agencies. Early in their careers rangers must endure at-times squalid living conditions, pitiful pay, demeaning supervisors, and rescues that, if not horrifying in their own right because of the danger rangers must put themselves in, understandably could leave the rangers mentally suffering from the broken bodies of park visitors they must bag up.

"I, too relied on jokes to dismiss the many tragedies we saw," she writes early on. "I was another ranger who had to learn things the hard way. Rule Number 313: Tombstone humor is a Band-Aid placed over what may become a deep and festering wound."

Coming so soon after Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan lifted our spirits about the National Park System and park rangers with their 12-hour mini-series, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, Ms. Lankford's book at times is a pail of cold water tossed at the reader.

It's not so much that the conditions she lays out are unimaginable, for tell-all books on other industries and corporations and even the sports world lay bare shocking insider details we'd also prefer not to know. No, the reason for the shock, and disappointment, is due to the agency involved, the National Park Service.

For instance, Ms. Lankford tells us of:

* Highly placed rangers who, when angered, throw tantrums, throw safety helmets, kick medical kits, smack fellow rangers in the head with paddles, and yet .. "if you found yourself severely injured in an impossible place during impossible conditions, Keith Lober was the kind of asshole ranger you wanted dropping down a rope to see you."

* Sexual harassment within the ranks.

* Pitiful housing conditions for both rangers and concessions employees, of park employees killed on the job, of suicides in the parks.

Four concession worker hangings within four months, three of them fatal. If there was any connection between the 1994 hangings, my research failed to uncover it; but it was a trend that attracted the attention of a government agency on the outside, like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. That year, during an investigation into the living and working conditions of the park's concession employees, a health inspector measured the daytime temperature inside one tent cabin. It was 112 degrees Fahrenheit.

* Of rescues in parks such as Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area that end in both tears of anguish and tears of joy, reminders not only that parks can be dangerous places but that highly skilled rangers can at times make the seemingly impossible possible.

Ranger Confidential is one ranger's 12-year-long diary, a book that both peers inside the heads of rangers and offers a glimpse of National Park Service management styles and care and feeding of its employees. The images are not always flattering, as noted above. And when two Yosemite rangers are honored in one year with two Department of Interior Medals of Valor for going above and beyond the call of duty, we're told "that the government would pay for only one medal for each ranger. Apparently that was all the NPS could afford."

But we also learn of individuals so determined and driven to be park rangers that they suffer beyond what most of us would.

Mary Litell started her career working for a concessionaire in Yosemite, where her first job had her sorting garbage, a rewarding task in that she could glance at Yosemite Fall. "For scenery like that, you'll pick loaded diapers and used condoms out of piles of greasy cans and bottles. You'll sling trash bags into the back of a slimy truck while it spits the backwash from beer-soaked cigarette butts at you."

Not only did Ms. Litell move beyond that menial task to become a distinguished heli-rappel ranger who had more than a few hairy experiences dangling on the end of a rope alongside El Capitan en route to rescuing injured climbers, but these days she's the chief ranger at Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

We also learn of one exemplary ranger, Cale Shaffer, who "was 22 but could pass for fifteen, and the Eagle Scout hadn't rubbed off him yet" when he became a ranger at Grand Canyon National Park in April 1997.

Mr. Shaffer arrived at the canyon in 1996 with a group of 16 at-risk youths pulled from "one of the poorest regions in Arizona." His job was to help supervise them with his boss while teaching park visitors about how to stay safe and to help out on search-and-rescue missions. Two days into this assignment, young Cale Shaffer decided that one day he would be a park ranger in the Grand Canyon. And one day he did in fact achieve that goal, and he quickly won respect for his work ethic and "compassionate demeanor."

Sadly, Ranger Shaffer had little time to mentor others or shed some of his attributes on those around him. In June 2000, while working as mountaineering ranger at Denali National Park and Preserve, he was killed in a plane crash.

What should be made of Ranger Confidential and the image of the Park Service it casts? In one respect, perhaps it should be realized that for an agency with some 20,000 employees, many who naturally are hard-charging and living on the edge, and whose budget is controlled not only by Congress but by political appointees, perfection cannot exist, no matter how idealistic the Park Service is viewed. And yet, despite the hardships and the inequities that exist in the agency, there is something to be said about wearing the gray and green, as Ms. Lankford seems to imply in her closing words.

After Cale's funeral, I threw all my ranger uniforms in a dumpster. This shocked my more sentimental ranger friends. I told them the act was incredibly therapeutic. I had to cut the cord. I had to move on.

But I kept the Stetson.

Today my Smokey Bear is taking up space in my garage. The leather band embossed with sequoia cones is faded and frayed. The felt is bruised and moldy. Despite these defects, I could get hundreds for my ranger hat on eBay. Yet I can't bring myself to part with it.


It is indeed a thing of personal pride to wear the NPS shield and stetson. For me that pride provides a sense of self-worth I could find no where else in the workplace.

But make no mistake.
As the least funded of all Federal agencies (the NPS operates for an entire year on just a few hours worth of budget for the Department of Defense), the living and working conditions, especially for the seasonal employees that make up the bulk of the NPS workforce, are pathetic to say the least. In many parks the housing and amenities provided for seasonal employees are well below the poverty line. One season I lived without running water in a cabin that had holes in the roof, floor, and walls. This is acceptable?

The danger that SAR and LE workers put themselves in to rescue visitors that willingly ignore safety precautions boggles the mind. Protecting our resources and visitors is indeed a very dangerous job. Last summer at Denali NP&P a concessioner employee required not one but TWO SAR operations. One person, two separate SAR ops to rescue him. How much did that cost?? What dangers did the SAR workers subject themselves to?
Doesn't matter, they would do it again, and again, and again. because that's what the job entails.

So why do we do it?
You can keep your sunsets and smiles, I do it for personal pride, knowing that my uniformed presence makes a positive difference in the lives and experiences of our visitors. But I'll tell you what, I wouldn't mind the Federal government providing me with access to living quarters where the roof doesn't leak, the heater works, hot and cold running water is the norm and not the exception, and having a toilet under the same roof as my bed isn't considered a luxury. And I don't know how many more years I can give my efforts to an agency that devalues my abilities so.

On April 16th, 2010

It is indeed a thing of personal pride to wear the NPS shield and stetson.

Isn't it a "campaign hat", with the current contract from the Stratton Hat Company?

I know they're missing the leather band, but I understand that's stricly NPS issued.

As for devaluing a government worker's abilities, I guess the big deal is that tax is a four letter word these days.

The current Stratton is based on the original Stetson design, isn't it? Forgive me for not giving the current supplier proper credit.

"The current Stratton is based on the original Stetson design, isn't it? Forgive me for not giving the current supplier proper credit."

To give the current supplier any credit at all would be unforgivable, believe me.

Thanks for posting this. I would like to read the book.

I realize that park rangers have a mixed bag--my history teacher in high school had worked as one previously, and regaled us with tales of the life, doing search and rescue (but more often bringing bodies off the mountains) in Rocky Mountain National Park. He also relieved tourists of items of the great outdoors that inadvertently found themselves in their car trunks.

But I admire the species. One of my favorite conversations as a backpacker was with a ranger I encountered near Loveland Pass. She gave me the standard safety lecture, then proceeded to tell me how much she loved the job, so much so that on the days off when her colleagues would dash off to the civilization of Denver, she would hustle off out onto the trails on her own. And give the standard safety lecture. Gotta love'em.

I know for a fact I would not make a good Ranger. I have low, no make that ZERO tolerance, for rude and inconsiderate people! Frequenting the National Parks as much as we do, we see our fair share of stupidity and defiance. It really gets under my skin when people don't obey signs or act carelessly with our wild places. Once after saying something to some European tourists who had climbed over a fence to take pictures next to one of the giant Sequoias (clearly marked to keep out) the guy became beliegerent with me. I later told my husband their behavior was no different then if I went into one of their moldy castles, crossed under a velvet rope and jumped up and down on the furniture! Yeah, if I were ever to be hired buy the NPS, I would be a primne candidate in desperate need of a "people skills makeover"! My hats off to those people who are able to endure not only poor living conditions but the public as well!

Connie, I learned my people management skills not from the NPS, but from working the customer service desk at Wally World. After 5 years of being hit with merchandise, spit on, and cussed at I figured I oculd handle anything! So now even the stupidist person seems like a "walk in the park."

Most of the stupidity I encounter are just people who don't know better. I used to feed the deer in Shenandoah as a child because I was never told that it was killing them. Usually once a person is told of the harm they are doing, they stop. But I do encounter the beliegerent people on occasion. It does make it worthwhile to be able to live and work in the most beautiful places in this country.

I do have to say that the unpleasant part happens to come from within the agency. I have experienced many of the things talked about in this book, but so far it hasn't dimished my love of being a ranger.

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