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In the United States, what is a Park Ranger?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A park ranger is a member of law enforcement who works in an American National or State Park. Park rangers are employed either by the National Parks System (NPS) or by the State Park System for the state in which they work. This career is incredibly varied, and it's a great choice for someone who enjoys working with people, experiencing the outdoors, and conserving natural and cultural resources. Civilians should also remember that in the United States, park rangers are treated just like other law enforcement personnel such as police, with the authority to cite, ticket, or arrest lawbreakers, and offenses against park rangers are taken very seriously.

A working park ranger can work in a number of branches of the Parks Service. Rangers contribute to park maintenance, emergency services, law enforcement, and park education on a daily basis. Some rangers may specialize in something like guarding parks as law enforcement officers, while others make themselves more generally available to assist park visitors with a range of needs. In order to become a park ranger, someone must typically hold a bachelor's degree and attend ranger training.

In terms of park maintenance, rangers help to cut and clear trails, maintain park roads, and work on park structures. A park ranger can oversee a work team or work independently, depending on the type of maintenance involved. Specially trained rangers also respond to forest and structure fires in parks. A park ranger who works in emergency services for the park can respond to emergencies ranging from broken bones to missing hikers.

Since parks are designed to conserve cultural and environmental resources for Americans, a big part of a park ranger's job is conservation and education. Many parks have educational areas where park rangers can educate the public and conduct demonstrations which encompass everything from fire response to traditional crafts. Park rangers also protect the parks they work in by citing people for things like littering and damaging the grounds and buildings of a park. They may also work with game wardens to crack down on poaching and illegal harvesting of animal species.

Some people may refer to park rangers as park or forest wardens, rather than rangers. In most of the United States, wardens are not the same thing as park rangers, although park rangers and game wardens may work together on occasion. Like other law enforcement agencies, the ranger service has a training academy and a ranking system to keep its members organized.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon350937 — On Oct 09, 2013

Rangers are overpaid, unnecessary government employees. They receive all the training of law enforcement, but guess what? Whenever a real law enforcement problems arises, they call the local sheriff, highway patrol or Department of Wildlife. I see them as overpaid tourist guides who check the restrooms for toilet paper and block our public roads at the behest of our leader. Rangers are unnecessary!

By anon239822 — On Jan 11, 2012

Park ranger work, whether as fully commissioned law enforcement, or as park ranger generalists is very rewarding, yet difficult work.

Like the article states, it's a lot of little jobs on a daily basis, the pay is rather low, and the work can be pretty remote in some cases.

Next time you see a ranger, a pat on the back or a hug is something they deserve. Or just a friendly "Good work out there."

By Misscoco — On Oct 06, 2011

I didn't realize that a park ranger needed a bachelor's degree plus some specialized training. Then they have to learn so much about the particular park that they work in.

If you like the great outdoors and you like to meet and talk to all kinds of people, this would be a very satisfying job.

I do wonder how it would work if the rangers were married and had a family. You could probably find housing nearby, but schools and other conveniences might be a long ways away.

By PinkLady4 — On Oct 06, 2011

Thinking about some of the big national parks that I have visited, it must take a lot of park rangers to man the whole park. They would need law enforcement park rangers, education, maintenance and emergency services. Probably some of the tasks are combined.

In some of the large parks, the rangers ride horses. Wouldn't that be fun!

When my family camped in National Parks, a ranger always came around. He/she was always friendly and reminded us about camp rules and especially about garbage and bears.

By SZapper — On Oct 05, 2011

@strawCake - That's crazy that your friend was never able to find a national park job. That's a pretty specialized degree she got too!

I think it must be pretty exciting to work as a park ranger. Every day would present new challenges, that's for sure.

Although, I think it could be dangerous too. A lot of national parks have rough terrain, and there are wild animals to contend with. And serial killers, according to some horror movies.

By strawCake — On Oct 04, 2011

I had no idea park rangers had the same kind of authority a police officer does. That's very interesting.

I do know, however, that it's actually not very easy to get a job working at our national parks. A friend of mine wanted to do this, and she got a master's degree in recreation and park management. she graduated with honor's but she was never able to find a job!

Apparently there aren't too many of these jobs to go around, and a lot of people want them. So if you're considering this as a future career, I'd at least try to get some kind of degree that can be used for something else too.

By bagley79 — On Oct 03, 2011

My nephew works at a large national historical park. He was always interested in conservation and being outdoors. This job is a perfect fit for him and he absolutely loves it.

A big part of his job is educating the public about the history of the park and surrounding area. He loves sharing his knowledge with interested visitors who come to the park every day.

He isn't quite as busy in the winter, but uses this time to focus on other duties that are required for his job. In the summer, most of his days are spent leading education classes and tours.

By LisaLou — On Oct 03, 2011

One summer I worked at one of our state parks. It was a great summer job, but I enjoyed working the weekends the best. This is when we would check in the campers and make sure they paid and followed the rules.

I worked closely with the park ranger. He lived with his wife in a small cabin on the campgrounds. He lived and worked there all year round, but I don't know how busy they were in the winter.

During the summer we were busy during the week keeping up with the grounds, painting and maintenance projects.

I don't know what a park rangers salary is, but I don't think they make much money. This would be a job for someone who loved being outdoors. Depending on how big the park was where you were working, most of your interaction with people would be on the weekends.

During the week you would spend your time outside making sure the park was clean, opening and closing times were enforced and the rules were obeyed.

This was a small state park and I don't even think they have a full time ranger position there anymore.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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