For outdoor enthusiasts, becoming a National Park Service ranger is often the dream career — who wouldn’t want to move state to state, working at some of the country’s most beautiful and historic places, and also get paid for it?
Lucky for me, I’ve had the chance to hear about this dream career my entire life from my park ranger parents, telling their stories of leading tours inside of New Mexico’s darkest caves or protecting the world’s tallest trees in Northern California. Regardless of my unescapable envy for their experiences, I have also learned some valuable lessons about the environment along the way. And on Earth Day I thought, why not share a little of that wisdom, inspired by two 30-year-long careers working in places as diverse as the country’s deserts to its rainforests.
Wilderness is a human concept
From the moment we drive through the gates of a national park, we often think we’ve entered a place untouched by humans. But the concept of “wilderness” is a human one, introduced to society by the passage of multiple pieces of legislation in the 20th century, like the 1964 Wilderness Act, which defined wilderness “as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Humans have been in contact with the natural world for thousands of years, making the concept of an untouched environment nearly impossible.
Humans choose which ecosystems are important to protect
The protection of certain lands across the country is often established by intentional decisions made by people with money and power. When someone visits a natural space, they need to ask: Whose money made the protection of this land possible, and who or what is missing from it? For example, the establishment of Redwood National and State Parks in Northern California was aided by the buying and donating of redwood forests from environmental organizations like Save the Redwoods League, Sierra Club and National Geographic Society. Before that, however, much of the land was controlled by loggers, and even before that, many Native American tribes managed the region. Although the park’s land is now deemed federal property, it’s important to remember whose land it was first.
Ecosystems are just as culturally diverse as they are biologically
The National Park Service’s mission is “dedicated to conserving unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” This means that the pretty places we love to visit are just as often historically and culturally diverse as they are biologically. When we look into a forest not only are we looking into thousands, if not millions, of biological species, but we are also looking at thousands of years of history. Many natural spaces also represent spiritual values for indigenous communities, teaching us how to sustain and protect these values in the future.
Beauty is something different for everyone
There are 419 national park sites around the country. This means that the millions of people who visit the national parks each year have viewed beauty in the parks a little differently. Whether someone prefers the tall red hoodoos at Bryce Canyon, the endless desert valleys of the Guadalupe Mountains or monumental sites, like the César E. Chávez National Monument, finding beauty in natural and cultural sites cannot be defined by just one place, and the national parks are a testament to this.
Everyone deserves to access a natural space
If growing up near national parks taught me anything, it’s that someone doesn’t have to be as accomplished as professional rock climber Alex Honnold to love Yosemite’s rocks. Everyone deserves to enjoy the natural world, to have a role in it and to protect it for generations to come. Yet, amid executive decisions to open up various national monuments for the growth of the energy sector, the number of protected, natural spaces made accessible to the public is becoming even more threatened than before, making the need for these spaces more important than ever.
Sometimes you have to sit and be quiet … that’s when the outside world comes to you
All too often, we rush with our busy schedules, forgetting to appreciate the natural world around us. But, even when we do get the chance to escape to a park, we are often focused on finishing a hike, or touring every viewpoint, within a short amount of time. Sometimes, we need to just sit down and be quiet. Only then will the outside world come to us, letting us hear the birdsong, spot the seal in the surf or catch sight of the whale’s spout in the sea.