When park rangers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and across the country clock in to work each day, what their schedule will consist of is a toss-up.
“It really varies based on the time of year, ongoing incidents and what is needed for the day,” Gatlinburg-based National Park Service Ranger Steve Roper told The Daily Times through email. “It could be responding to search and rescues, EMS incidents, basic road and trail patrols.
“One minute you may be managing traffic at a bear jam and the next you are arresting someone for a serious crime. Then, you’re off to a rescue for someone injured up a trail. It can also include maintaining equipment and completing needed reports or case files for incidents.”
Rangers such as Roper roam park areas and other protected areas, serving as both law enforcement officers and guardians of visitors, land and wildlife. They can be responsible for promoting law-and-order in parks, as well as working rescue missions for hurt or missing tourists, plus a myriad of other duties.
It’s a challenging enough job on its own. Ensuring COVID-19 protocols are properly followed is now another box for rangers to check off on the daily schedule. Using gloves, masks and other personal protective equipment to shield from COVID has been a focus for rangers, Roper said.
“Along with the personal stresses of the pandemic, we have added professional stresses as well,” Roper said. “Since we must have close interactions with people for certain things like law enforcement, search and rescue and EMS situations, it has been a challenge to adapt to make these interactions as low risk of exposure as possible.”
Just as law enforcement officers in more traditional areas have adapted to doing their jobs while being mindful of COVID, so too have park rangers.
“Overall, we have prioritized responding to critical safety incidents and have spent less time interacting with the public in casual face-to-face interactions,” Roper said. “The only added duty changes have been to cleaning/sanitizing and virtual platforms for meetings and trainings. We’ve added cleaning routines and best practices to reduce the exposure potential to all aspects of the job.”
Roper, a 20-year veteran in the field, didn’t know he wanted to be a ranger until college. Ironically, it was in a classroom that he learned he wanted to devote his life to the outdoors.
He earned a degree in wildlife management from the University of New Hampshire, where he first discovered his passion for such work.
“One of the classes was about wildlife law, which introduced me to the National Park Service and other outdoor types of law enforcement,” Roper said. “I really liked the idea of this type of law enforcement, and when combined with my other wildlife management types of classes (Forestry, Dendrology, biology, conservation ... etc.), being a ranger really fit what I was looking for.”
When he got boots-down in the workforce, Roper knew the challenging, yet rewarding life of a ranger was for him.
“Once I worked a few seasons and was really introduced to being a law enforcement park ranger, I was hooked,” Roper said.
And the pandemic didn’t stop local rangers like Roper from working plenty of incidents this past year. From September to December, rangers found a bear skin and racist sign at a National Park service entrance and responded to at least three visitor-death incidents; two were cardiac events in which rangers performed CPR on the victims, and in the other, rangers used a rope and pulley system to reach a man who fell 50 feet at the Chimney Tops overlook.
But it’s simply the life of a ranger, who trades in offices and sky rises for a much more rugged, less-regulated workspace. It is their job to be the regulator, and it is what has kept Roper drawn to the job.
“The diversity of hats rangers have to wear (law enforcement, search and rescue, EMS, wildland fire, technical rescue, swift water rescue, structure fire and various instructorships) has kept me with the agency for the past 20 years,” Roper said.