The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.
The WildeBeat edition 102: Ranger Changes, part 1
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Since the beginning of Wilderness protection in the U.S., wilderness ranger's jobs have seen some changes. But it turns out that it's us who've changed the most. This week on The WildeBeat; Ranger Changes, part one.
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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.
This is program number one oh two.
I'm Steve Sergeant.
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STEVE: In nineteen sixty four, the United States enacted a unique and ground-breaking law -- the Wilderness Act. For the first time pretty much anywhere, there was a way to preserve public lands from development, and a clear, legal definition of wilderness.
STEVE: The job of taking care of a wilderness area, and those people who visit it, is typically the responsibility of a wilderness ranger. A lot the of employees of federal land management agencies who were working when their lands were first designated wilderness are still working today. How has their job changed in the years since their land became designated wilderness?
STEVE: I know over my lifetime I've seen significant changes in the rules I'm supposed to follow when I visit a wilderness. I wanted to know how that wilderness ranger job has changed, and how it's likely to change in the future. And more to the point, how does that affects us, the wilderness visitors?
STEVE: Gregg Fauth is the Wilderness Coordinator for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Gregg has been working at the park since the early nineteen eighties. He says that the wilderness ranger job has become more complex.
GREGG FAUTH: ...You know, if we think back historically to backcountry rangers, they would hike trails, talk with people occasionally, but cover a lot of ground and just sort of check on more general kinds of conditions of what's going on in the backcountry or wilderness.
STEVE: Working as a wilderness ranger when the Wilderness Act first took effect required tough, self sufficient people working in challenging conditions. Laurel Boyers was a wilderness ranger in Yosemite in the eighties and nineties.
LAUREL BOYERS: ...I had to learn how to stay safe and be effective, and not hurt myself, and be a good host to the public, because that's what you're doing back there. You're the maintenance staff. You're the house keeper, you're cleaning camp sites, you're picking up toilet paper, you're, ...taking out illegal fire rings. You're the educator, the host, the public servant in your visitor contacts. I'm a law enforcement officer, so I'm having to do, the proper level of law enforcement; the lowest effective level, which ranges from again education to citations. Search and rescue, resource protection, wildlife management, fire. I think it's absolutely the best job in the park. It's what I think people think of when they think of a ranger, they think of sort of that classic person that's out, being nice to people while protecting the resource, you know, that kind of thing.
GREGG FAUTH: Probably the main thing that backcountry rangers do for visitors is education... Anything from trail milage, to pass height, to good day hikes in an area where they might be camping, peaks that folks might want to climb. Sort of recreational based kind of information, as well as how to camp light on the land and utilize leave no trace techniques so that the landscape is preserved, and then beyond that then we start getting into the things like emergency medical assistance, or search and rescue for them and their friends who have made a wrong turn. So probably the first thing they do is educate people, and the second thing they do would be provide assistance in emergencies.
STEVE: A wilderness ranger is usually responsible for a pretty big piece of land.
LAUREL BOYERS: ...Because Yosemite's wilderness is almost the size of the state of Rhode Island it is difficult to patrol, it stakes a strong body and to do it all summer long sounds like a lot of fun, but it actually wears you down... There were times when I came out of the wilderness in tears, because it was so stressful, and there were times when I was full of pride and machisma and, you know, had survived and done all this great work...
GREGG FAUTH: Certainly some real necessary requirements would be obviously in great physical shape, because these folks work really hard under some pretty severe conditions. Here at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, most of our wilderness rangers live at anywhere from nine thousand, five hundred feet up to pretty close to eleven thousand feet, and spending three or four months a summer at that altitude can require a fair amount of stamina just in and of itself, and then when you start putting in the physical components of the job of hiking many miles a day, maybe up to fifteen miles a day at times, that is a real key factor.
STEVE: In the largest national parks and forests, the staffs are large enough that they can have follks designated specifically as wilderness rangers.
GREGG FAUTH: When we put rangers in the field to cover, we do base that on the actual geographic areas that are out there, and certainly utilize visitor statistics to assist us in best placing them, but... I believe the level of support that the public would receive from the backcountry rangers today is very, very similar to what it would have been ten or even twenty years ago. Our staffing levels are quite similar, and they're covering about the same geographic areas.
STEVE: But in some of the smaller, less well known and less visited areas, the rangers have to be even more broadly qualified. John Roth is the chief ranger for Lassen Volcanic National Park.
JOHN ROTH: ...We have all kinds of duties, educational types of duties, protection types of duties, and other biological kinds of responsibilities... We need educators, we need people with biological educational backgrounds, people with technical experiences.
STEVE: When you plan for staffing, when positions come open, do you actually say, OK, we need one biologist, we need one zoologist, we need one geologist, we need one SWAT team member, whatever?
JOHN ROTH: I wish I had the luxury of choosing those specifically. But in this day and age, I have to look for a person that has a number of those skills combined. And I do look for a person who has a law enforcement background. Uh, a person who might have medical experience, search and rescue experience, fire fighting experience, as well as someone who can educate the visitor in various different ways. Someone who can do some handiwork as necessary.
STEVE: ...How frequently does somebody visit any particular trail, let's say.
JOHN ROTH: Well, we try to get out to each and every area of the wilderness at least once a summer. Obviously we get out more often in some areas that are more populated and more accessible... of course, our visitation is primarily in the front country, and the need for us is in the front country quite often. So the backcountry or the wilderness really does get shorted, although we do try to play attention to it as much as possible, try to patrol it and try to maintain the character of the wilderness as much as we can.
STEVE: A lot of people get into the wilderness for the solitude; that's kind of the point. They're probably not looking to meet a ranger unless they have a problem. Gregg Fauth say that his backcountry rangers normally try to remain kind of invisible.
GREGG FAUTH: ...We may check-in with the visitor ourself, but most of our contacts are visitor, sort of, initiated, and if folks don't want to see the ranger they can pretty much just not look for them and that's probably the experience they'll have.
STEVE: So a wilderness ranger was historically, and still is a person with a wide range of physical and academic skills. At the wilderness office in Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite, I talked with experienced hikers and climbers Brian Palmentier and Michelle Minnehan of San Francisco.
STEVE: How often have you encountered the backcountry rangers?
BRIAN PALMENTIER: It's certainly not anywhere near every trip, yeah but I've run into backcountry rangers from time to time, though.
STEVE: So the big question is, do you think that presence is too little, too much, or enough for the safety of the public that spends time in the wilderness?
MICHELLE MINNEHAN: I think the safety of the people that go in there is in large part the responsiblity of the groups themselves.
BRIAN PALMENTIER: I definitely feel the same way, I think that like that one of the great things about being in the backcountry is that the fact that you're sort of out there on your on your own with your group of friends, possibly running into other recreationists, but I think that from a safety perspective, that's up to the group that's going there... Although, I do think it's important for them to be out there to try to make sure that some things are kept in good shape.
STEVE: But other visitors seem to have different expectations. It turns out that the changing needs of the public are driving changes in the job of the wilderness ranger. Find out more in part two of Ranger Changes.
STEVE: What do you expect from wilderness rangers? Have you been helped or had some kind of significant interaction with one? Have you been a backcountry ranger yourself? You can share your experiences and opinions with your fellow listeners anytime using our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373.
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This has been The WildeBeat, program number one oh two. Thank you for listening.
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Next time -- part two of Ranger Changes.