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An award-winning park ranger talks about National Park Service changes

By Ed O'Keefe

The National Park Service will honor Ranger Scott Emmerich on Tuesday evening with this year’s Harry Yount Award, the agency’s highest honor for park rangers. The award is named for the man generally regarded as the nation’s first park ranger, hired to protect Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first national park.

Emmerich has worked at Glacier National Park since 1989 and supervises a 250,000-acre region with 170 miles of trail, 39 miles of road, 28 miles of river, 18 miles of the U.S.-Canada border, four campgrounds, four lakes and the Continental Divide. He started his career at Yosemite National Park (where he met his wife, who now also works at Glacier).

Scott Emmerich
Photo courtesy of Scott Emmerich.

The National Park Service lifted gun restrictions in parks back in Feburary. Has it changed your job and affected visitors?
I guess the biggest thing I’m cautious of is to not violate a person’s Second Amendment rights. It’s legal for them to carry a gun. The adjustment for park rangers was that we used to react immediately. Now ... you’re just cautious. ...

There are some people who used to say they would never hike in Glacier National Park, but now they do because they’re packing. They were worried about bears before, but now they can carry guns. ... I would say 90 percent of visitors don’t carry guns into a park, and I’d say about 10 percent do, and if they do, good for you.

The gun issue is controversial, and it’s one that people thought might be blown out of proportion, but it shouldn’t be. It’s not that big a deal. We’ll get used to it, we’ll adapt and it shouldn’t change our lives at all. We’ll just be careful and respect people's rights to carry a handgun or shotgun or rifle.

What is the best part of your job?
It’s the variety that you get on a daily basis, which includes wildlife management. And bear management is huge in Glacier. Search and rescue is a huge part of our job, and we try to do preventive work, too. ... In the winter we shut down the roads and I have to patrol by skis. You have to go in and do track surveys and see what kind of wildlife is in the area. You have to do water surveys to determine if we’ll have floods in the spring.

What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in your 20-plus years?
As a park ranger, I’m moving away from being more of a resource-management type of ranger, and we’re trending more towards being police officers. That’s a hard adjustment for me. I long for the days when I wasn’t required to wear a bulletproof vest and body armor at all times. ...

So I think we’re transitioning from more of what I thought was a park ranger or resource or renaissance ranger. My job still allows me to do that, but new people walking in will be more focused. Some will go into road patrol jobs and won’t have the latitude to be a bear manager or do search and rescue or get into the campgrounds as much or become backcountry rangers as much.

You must have some memorable stories from the field, no?
There was once a research project that had to do with mountain lion management. We went out with the researchers, and they tranquilized a cougar. Sometimes they climb into a tree, and you have to climb up there and bring it down. We’d brought it out of the tree and started measuring it. It takes about 15 minutes to poke and prod this 110-pound cougar. Well, it took us too long, and he was starting to come out of the drug. People were backing off, and he was starting to reach out, and they told me, "Scott, hold onto him."

They eventually got the tranquilizer in, but it took a little while. It was pretty funny watching me hold on to the tail. ...

One of the things you obtain as a park ranger is you become a park medic. I was in Yosemite at the time when we got word of an airplane crash near Tioga Pass on the top of the Sierra Crest. I flew into that. It’s as vivid a memory as you can remember; we landed and we could see that the airplane was on fire, and I could see that there were two people burned and there were four people outside alive screaming "Help!" They had second- and third-degree burns.

It was a family group. The pilot and dad were dead instantly. The mom, two boys and one of the boys’ wife came out of it. It probably took less than an hour for reinforcements to show up, but it felt like a lifetime. ...

If you think working at a national park is fun every day, we get the full gamut of situations thrown at us, and some are more exceptional than others.

By Ed O'Keefe  | June 7, 2010; 4:08 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments, Workplace Issues  
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A bulletproof vest and body armor? Is that a result of the lifted gun restrictions, or is there some other reason? If it's the former, then the new/current law has had a far greater impact than the gun lobby has let on.

I for one am not a fan of guns in national parks. I don't want someone accidentally firing in my direction thinking I was a wild animal about to pounce. Besides, the most dangerous animals (grizzly bears) wouldn't be fazed by even multiple shots.

Thanks for the great interview! Keep it up.

Posted by: DLiu | June 7, 2010 6:12 PM | Report abuse

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