Government Job Profile: National Park Ranger

What Does a National Park Ranger Do?

Park ranger showing tide pool to girl
••• John Lund, Sam Diephuis / Blend Images / Getty Images

What do Mount McKinley, the Grand Canyon, the Florida Everglades and Old Faithful have in common? Besides being national treasures, they all sit within national parks overseen by .

The people on the front lines protecting these and other national treasures are national park rangers. They assist visitors, conduct educational activities, perform emergency medical services and protect the land from those who abuse it. For those with a yearning to work outdoors and a call to public service, a career as a national park ranger might be a fitting option.

About the National Parks Service

Part of the US Department of the Interior, NPS was founded in 1916 when President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation assigning responsibility for protecting the existing 35 national parks and monuments to this newly formed federal agency. According to the enabling statute, "the Service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations … by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

After 100 years in existence, the Service now oversees more than 400 national parks and geographical areas. Some are familiar -- Yellowstone, Yosemite, Denali, Rocky Mountain, and most others you probably haven’t heard much about. National parks exist in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands. This land covers 84 million acres, which is significantly larger than New Mexico but not quite as large as Montana.

More than 20,000 people work for NPS. They work in and around parks across the nation preserving local history and administering recreational areas for their communities. NPS offers full-time jobs, seasonal work, and internship opportunities.

In addition to park ranger jobs, the Service employs many other professionals including scientists, administrative professionals, construction and maintenance professionals, archaeologists, museum curators, historians, public information officers, and information technology professionals. So even if you don’t want to be outdoors all day, you can probably find a job that suits your interests.

When you look for jobs at federal agencies, it is helpful to take a look at the most recent survey results in The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report issued by the Partnership for Public Service. To put it plainly, NPS does not score well. In 2015, it ranked 259th out of 320 federal organizations. On the positive side, employees rate the Service relatively well in the agency’s mission matching employees’ skills. At the other end, employees rate the Service lowest in effectiveness of senior leadership, performance-based rewards/advancement, and empowerment.

Despite, the low scores on the employee engagement survey, NPS is the right fit for some people.

The Selection Process

Like all federal agency jobs, park ranger jobs with NPS are posted on USAJobs. The hiring process is what you’d expect from there with the exception of law enforcement training and certification for park rangers who serve in a protection role.

While park ranger jobs are entry level in terms of education and experience requirements listed on job postings, competition for these jobs is fierce. A few hundred people may apply for any given park ranger position. Experience as a volunteer, intern or seasonal employee with NPS can put you ahead of others in an applicant pool.

Park rangers must pass a drug test prior to employment. They are also subject to random testing at any time once employed.

The Education and Experience You'll Need

When you look at a job posting for a park ranger position, it looks like it is geared toward people just entering the workforce; however, this perception is not accurate. All you need is a bachelor’s degree or two years of relevant work experience with two years of college, so it would seem like a person with a freshly printed bachelor’s degree in parks management, public administration, environmental studies, or earth sciences would be a strong competitor in the hiring process.

Not necessarily. The minimum qualifications are straightforward, but the competition is often much more qualified. Hiring managers have difficult decisions to make. Simply screening applications for minimum qualifications gets them practically nowhere.

If you really want a national park ranger job when you get out of college, you need to begin working in the field while you’re in school. NPS offers internships and part-time seasonal jobs. Landing one of these positions or volunteering at a national park is a great way to get your foot in the door. Once you have this experience, you’ll have a leg up on the competition for full-time jobs once you graduate and are ready for a 40-hour work week.

If you’re unable to land an internship or seasonal job with NPS, other relevant experience can help you. For example, you could work at a state park, municipal parks and recreation department or museum. Though prior employment with NPS is best for gaining an advantage in the hiring process, working in similar organizations is helpful in gaining the needed knowledge, skills and abilities for a job as a national park ranger.

What You'll Do

In the final episode of the American television series Parks and Recreation, former City of Pawnee parks and recreation director and then business owner Ron Swanson accepted a job to run the new national park in Pawnee under the supervision of his former assistant director Leslie Knope. After giving a brief speech to his new staff of park rangers, Ron got into a canoe and paddled out into the lake with a large smile on his face. He would spend his workdays roaming the park.

Ron’s big smile shows his satisfaction in finding a job that matches his passion for the outdoors. Actual park rangers feel this same sense of match between their interests and their professional responsibilities.

Park rangers in national parks have a variety of job duties, but all those individual duties are aimed at helping people enjoy national parks and preserving the natural environment for future generations. Rangers educate visitors about using the park responsibly. When visitors enjoy the park responsibly, they contribute to its preservation.

Rangers in smaller national parks tend to do a little bit of everything from guiding tours, manning the visitors center, collecting scientific data, assisting visitors out in the park, and patrolling remote areas of the parks. Clearly, there is a certain threshold for physical abilities in most park ranger jobs. These general park rangers do whatever is necessary to keep the park operating and preserved.

In larger parks, rangers can specialize in particular sets of responsibilities. Two of the most common specialties are interpretation and protection.

Interpretive Park Rangers

Interpretive park rangers teach people about the parks and how to take care of those environments. They lead hikes, host school field trips, work in visitors centers and provide safety information. They tend to have educational backgrounds in science, ecology or history.

“One of my favorite parts of my job is showing children their first view of the Grand Canyon during school field trips. After walking on a trail through the forest, we arrive at the rim of a huge canyon about 10 miles across and one mile deep. Children are often amazed at the canyon’s size and colors. Sometimes, they think it looks like a painting,” national park ranger Ann Posegate said in a 2013 Washington Post article.

Interpretive rangers show off national parks like they’re their own backyard. And to many visitors, that’s exactly what it seems like. Rangers beam with pride while showcasing the history, beauty and unique features of the parks. They gain satisfaction when visitors make new discoveries and fall in love with the parks just as the rangers once did. After a while on the job, rangers know the parks like the backs of their hands.

Protective Park Rangers

Protective park rangers are trained and certified law enforcement officers who make sure visitors follow the applicable laws and rules of the park. For instance, they make sure people aren’t illegally hunting on the parkland, and they watch for visitors causing environmental damage.

They perform valuable public safety work as well. They rescue stranded hikers, mountain climbers, swimmers, and boaters. When visitors are sick or injured, protective park rangers are the first responders. They provide emergency medical attention until other medical personnel arrives or until visitors are extracted from the park. Protective park rangers also fight wildfires.

What You'll Earn

national park ranger jobs are posted at GS-5 positions in the federal salary scale. Law enforcement rangers can enter as high as a GS-7 pay grade. As of January 2016, the minimum salary for a GS-5 employee is $28,262. The minimum salary at the GS-7 pay grade is $35,009. For areas where the cost of living is higher than the national average, the federal government often offers locality pay in order to equalize employees’ buying power across geographic locations.

Park ranger jobs don’t pay a lot, but you can’t beat the office. Sure, some rangers work in extreme temperatures, and all work in inclement weather from time to time, but fresh air and natural light are rare commodities for most other federal employees. And the employee benefits are hard to beat when you compare them to nonprofits and the private sector.