The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat editions 102& 103: Ranger Changes

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

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 edition of The WildeBeat: Ranger Changes.

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is a combined version of program numbers one oh two and one oh three.

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. Today, they still do that, but there are sort of a wide variety of other duties that have kind of been plugged into their daily routine that they have to obtain more in-depth knowledges and skills about.

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 it's generally based on a budgetary on how many folks are available and what kind of geographic areas we want to cover. 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... And to fill all those roles, we need people of various backgrounds. We need educators, we need people with biological educational backgrounds, people with technical experiences, and that helps us really manage this park.

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: Gregg Fauth talked about the balance between the naturalist roles and the public safety roles of a wilderness ranger.

GREGG FAUTH: I don't really think the balance has changed too much. I think sort of the expectations of what we might want a backcountry ranger to do -- certainly they need to be able to fulfill the interpretive role or the education role, and the National Park Service, we tend to want to educate visitors before we punish them for any transgression... and it may escalate to a law enforcement situation where a ticket is issued, but generally we do still need to hit hard on that education. So that's kind of changed, and the stewardship role, you speak about it, is still there but I think it's sort of changed a little bit. You know, in the old days it might just simply involve cleaning up camps and rerouting a trail maybe that's ...had some erosion in a bad area. These days though it might involve going out and actually surveying campsites, utilizing G-P-S, doing surveys of particular wildlife in a scientific manner. So some of the same things are there but we're just doing them in a more involved manner, and maybe a bit more scientific which then requires some additional training and additional skills and knowledges.

STEVE: Laurel Boyers at Yosemite says that the rangers these days are managing places that aren't quite as isolated and wild as they were a few decades earlier.

LAUREL BOYERS: We do have to be aware that, for instance, ...if we get into the habit of using helicopters all the time, if we get into not being aware of the cumulative effects of installations that we put in for, for instance, research or whatever, that we may loose that value of wildness. And it's all for a very good reason, you know... Wildernesses are the great laboratories of the world, really, because they have been mandated to be unchanged. But every time we put in a device that measures the change to, you know, water quality, or P-H, or whatever it is that we're measuring back there, we take a bite out of the wildness. And if we're not careful, all of a sudden, it's not going to be wild back there. That you can already go into some of the ...most remote parts of this park and run into some sort of scientific instrument that's there for a very good reason, but it's still a scientific instrument that's back there.

STEVE: But the greatest changes, from the ranger's point of view, might not be to the wilderness itself. Don Mason is a backcountry patrol ranger for the Lassen National Forest.

DON MASON: What I'm seeing, at least in our particular wilderness, is that we're getting a lot more clientele that come in that are less experienced, but with the suggestions, and by my influence of discussing no trace, fire safety, and so forth, they seem to be coming away with a much more positive experience.

STEVE: But if wilderness visitors are having better experiences, sometimes, at least, it's because they're more dependent on the rangers. Don thinks the average person is going into the wilderness with less training and fewer wilderness travel and survival skills.

DON MASON: Last year my boss came across two teenagers from the Burney area that were totally unprepared for a wilderness experience. They had no water, no sleeping bags, and the parents just dropped them off at the trailhead and were going to pick them up the next day... A lot of people do not realize that you're in a wilderness area and there are not a lot of support services available.

GREGG FAUTH: I think people, especially from the emergency standpoint, they have a stronger expectation that that service is back there. You know, folks bring their cell phones and if they can get coverage they may dial nine one one for some relatively minor problems, and they tend to want that assistance. You know, this is somewhat just my personal feeling, but twenty five years ago folks tended to be a little more ready to assist themselves in getting out of the wilderness if there was a problem. I think folks now tend to sort of look a bit quicker toward the ranger to provide them some level of assistance for what ever problems they're having.

LAUREL BOYERS: They're spending less time back there, and so they are having a sort of a quicker more comfortable tour thanks to improvements in technology. I think that ...they are more dependent on their technology to get them out of a scrape. In other words, they have better tents, so they don't have to watch the weather as closely. They don't have to watch, for instance, their route as closely on the ground because they can always dial-up their satellite and find their location from that. So they're prepared in a different way. They're certainly not as prepared if they were -- [laughs] If they were stuck out there naked, they're probably be less prepared, because I think they're morer dependent on their equipment than people used to be. People used to be tougher. Clearly the mountain men were way tougher than I am.

STEVE: Steve Zachary is the education specialist for Lassen Volcanic National Park.

STEVE ZACHARY: They think with their GPS device and their cell phone that everything will be fine, no matter what situation they get themselves into. And also, they think that their gear can take them anywhere and do anything... And we see this where people, they have a lot of good equipment, they don't necessarily have the knowledge to use that equipment in circumstances of say, bad weather, or if they get lost, or, you know, to really understand that they're going into a place that can be a gentle wilderness, but overnight it can turn into a situation where it can be a survival wilderness.

STEVE: And that brings us to some of the latest of devices, like the personal locator beacons that sort of give you an instant nine one one back there.

LAUREL BOYERS: Which I think is really sad. I think that takes much of the wildness out of it. And I'm very sorry for that... When you talk to peple about -- you ask somebody to tell you their best wilderness experience, what was the coolest trip you ever took, invariably, they'll tell you a story of surviving something. Of something that really stretched them out, that really tested their mettle, you know, tested who they were, and made them really proud and got the endorphins going, and got them all pumped up. It's not the time that you look down at your thing and said, you know, "come get me, I just twisted my ankle", or whatever. It's, "I toughed it out and I made it off the hill and I had to drag myself on my injured ankle," ...or, "it poured and I had this horrendous creek crossing." Or, you know, whatever is was, it was something that really tested them, and that is so key to why wilderness is important to our heart and soul and spirit, because it provides a place where we're really more at one with nature... Now we're living in boxes, we drive around in boxes, we stay in boxes, we're very insulated from the natural world. And the more we use technology to insulate ourselves while we're out there, the more we loose in my opinion.

STEVE: What do you expect from wilderness rangers? Do you think today's wilderness visitors are less skilled? What skills do you think we should expect today's wilderness visitors to have? And what skills do you think we at the WildeBeat should be encouraging people to learn? You can let us know what you think anytime, by calling our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373.

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Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. We need your help to bring you future editions of this free service; please just click on our support link and become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Insitute.

This has been The WildeBeat, program numbers one oh two and one oh three. Thank you for listening.

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Next time -- It's Soup.

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