If you’re looking for a criminal justice career that allows you to spend lots of time outside, educate visitors on park safety and wildlife, and maintain safety in a state or national park, you may be interested in becoming a park ranger. Park rangers may be employed by the National Park Service or a local parks and recreation department.
Park Ranger Job Description
Park rangers spend much of their time outdoors, which means sometimes working in conditions of extreme heat, cold, snow, or rain. Park rangers may serve a number of purposes in their community, particularly in small communities that only have one or two rangers. You may have to spend much of your time teaching children and adults about animals in the park, park safety, and the types of flora and fauna found in the park. You may also collect data on animals or plants in the park to measure how populations are growing or changing. Since some parks are in remote locations, you may also play a law enforcement role. While rangers still defer to police officers in many situations, they may be expected to enforce laws and maintain park security while waiting for backup.
An education in law enforcement, environmental science, or ecology may pave the way to a park ranger career. Most park and recreation departments require at least an associate degree, while other employers may insist on a bachelor’s degree.
How to Become a Park Ranger
Earning an associate or bachelor’s degree is the first step to becoming a park ranger. The National Park Service requires a bachelor’s degree for park rangers or a combination of education and experience. You may want to focus on a field that includes wildlife, environment, and ecology education.
Degrees & Courses
If you opt to complete a degree in wildlife ecology, you may take courses like Fundamentals of Chemistry, Ecological Statistics, Wildlife Population Dynamics, and Wildlife Policy & Administration. The learning outcomes of this degree line up well with a park ranger career. In addition to learning about local wildlife and fauna, you may learn about how to assess population growth and encourage ecological balance in your park. Policy and administration courses can give you a strong background in environmental law, which may play a big role in your new career. Other common degree choices include environmental science, environmental policy and administration, and ecological sciences.
Many police departments or park and recreation departments require park rangers to become sworn officers. For example, the California State Department of Parks and Recreation notes that park rangers must start out as State Park Ranger Cadets. After attending a basic law enforcement academy as well as a Peace Officer Standards program, park rangers may begin to work under the supervision of a sworn-in supervising ranger.
Park rangers must be educated in law experience, customer service, budgeting, and administration. Park and recreation departments often have courses that are specifically designed for potential park rangers. As you prove yourself at each step of the hiring and training process, you may be required to complete courses in first aid, CPR, visitor services, resource management, and park operations. These courses, combined with a relevant associate or bachelor’s degree, can provide you the knowledge you need to work independently as a ranger.
Park Ranger Salary and Career Outlook
According to O*Net, the job outlook for park rangers and park naturalists is expected to grow at the average rate for all jobs, about 5-9%, in the U.S. between 2016 – 2026. The outlook is greater in states with large natural areas; for example, the demand for park rangers is expected to increase 15% during the same time frame in Colorado. As a result, you may need to move to a state with lots of parks and natural areas to find the greatest range of job opportunities.
The specialized knowledge needed for this career may allow you to earn a rewarding salary. Across the country, the average salary for a park ranger in 2017 was $61,480 per year. In many states, park rangers may earn higher average salaries. O*Net indicates that California park rangers earn an average annual income of $72,470 in 2017. Similarly, Illinois rangers earn an average of $69,840 per year. Texas park rangers earn an average salary of $55,620 each year.
To really thrive in a career as a park ranger, it’s important to have strong people skills. Working with people of all ages and backgrounds is a big part of this job. You may spend much of your day running educational events, teaching people about the safe use of park resources, and answering visitors’ questions.
Ensuring the welfare of animals and people is another responsibility that belongs to park rangers. Accidents aren’t uncommon in national parks; National Geographic interviewed park rangers and come up with a list of the most common accidents in natural parks. As you patrol your park, you may come across animals or humans that are wounded or in need of medical care. While waiting for the appropriate transportation to arrive, you’ll likely need to comfort the hurt animal or human and wait with them. If you are passionate about wildlife and serving people, this career can change your life.
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