What Makes a Great National Park Ranger?

The attributes that define a good ranger haven’t changed since the corps was established more than 100 years ago.
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The attributes that define a good ranger haven’t changed since the corps was established more than 100 years ago.
ranger character

The NPS ranger circa 1940. Photo by: National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection

For most people, the task would’ve been impossible: protect the wildlife in Yellowstone’s vast backcountry from poachers. Alone. Harry Yount wasn’t most people. In the 1880s, the proto-ranger dedicated himself to his job, showing strength of character that’s still a model for today’s rangers. We looked to winners of the award named for Yount—ranger’s rangers—to find the five qualities that set the best apart.

DOGGEDNESS

Tom Betts of Bandelier National Monument. 2013 recipient

When the Las Conchas Fire (at the time, the largest in New Mexico’s history) ripped through in 2011, it set off a wild chain of events. Chief Ranger Tom Betts evacuated visitors and staff until the all-clear, then immediately focused on keeping park facilities operational. Days later, the rains came, building into flash floods. Betts was in the helicopter scanning for blockages in the flow when he noticed a marijuana grow field and marshaled local and federal agents in a plant seizure worth millions.
Jason Lott, Superintendent of Bandelier

CONFIDENCE

Lisa Hendy of Yosemite (formerly Grand Canyon). 2011 recipient

I was at Phantom Ranch on a 115°F day—probably the hottest I’ve ever experienced—and a call came in for a cardiac patient on Bright Angel Trail. Lisa sprinted a mile wearing hiking sandals to answer the call. I was then called in to assist as part of the litter team. Relatively new to this, I was thinking, How are we going to get it done? But her calmness and poise directing the rescue not only demonstrated her faith that we would prevail as a team, but I know it also helped save the patient.
Emily Davis, Grand Canyon Ranger

PREPAREDNESS

Brandon Torres of Grand Canyon. 2012 recipient

While we were visiting Zion to attend a training class, a member of the seasonal staff fell on a rappel. The chief ranger asked us to do the rescue so her team wouldn’t have to see one of their own hurt. We both had our gear with us. Being squared away is about taking the time to get beyond good at something. It’s about being able to apply your skills to any situation.
–Lisa Hendy, Branch Chief of Emergency Services at Yosemite

SELFLESSNESS

Bil Vandergraff of Grand Canyon. 2014 recipient

When I was rangering with Bil, I was responsible for the “Bright Angel roves,” where I’d hike into the canyon at 3 p.m. looking for people having trouble. Bil was stationed at Indian Garden a little over 1.5 miles downcanyon from Three-Mile Resthouse. The rove wasn’t his job, but he’d do laps between stations, guiding struggling hikers. For Bil, it was always a question of, How can I make it better for the visitor and my fellow ranger?
–Ellen Brennan, Cultural Resource Program Manager at Grand Canyon

EMPATHY 

Scott Emmerich of Glacier2010 recipient

A trail crew had a fatal accident climbing the north face of Rainbow Peak on a day off. I helped Scott do the body recovery. It was one of the most difficult operations we’d ever done as we weren’t that much older than the victims. After we loaded each victim, Scott let me know he had my back. He never let the emotion escalate in that situation.
–Kyle Johnson, Wilderness Specialist at Glacier