Back to School

The Seasonal Law Enforcement Training Program teaches tomorrow’s rangers how to protect our national treasures.

By Kevin Grange

Harry Yount, a Civil War veteran, was America’s first park ranger. In 1880, “Rocky Mountain Harry” spent 14 months creeping through the flowering meadows and lush valleys of Yellowstone with his single-shot rifle and black powder cartridges, to prevent the poaching of elk and bison. Patrolling a park with over 2 million acres, home to the largest collection of mammals in the lower 48 states, Yount quickly realized his limitations and in his historic Report of a Gamekeeper, championed the idea of a seasonal ranger force. Following Yount’s 14-month tenure, the U.S. Cavalry added its muscle, and finally, just before the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, Yount’s dream of a stand-alone ranger force was realized.

Stephen T. Mather, first director of the Park Service, once said, “If a trail is to be blazed, send a ranger. If an animal is floundering in the snow, send a ranger. If a bear is in a hotel, send a ranger. If a fire threatens a forest, send a ranger and, if someone needs to be saved, send a ranger”—and that was just the short list of duties. Today’s law-enforcement rangers are expected to assist with everything from traffic stops, search and rescue, emergency medical services, incident command, crime-scene management, property protection, drug enforcement, and border patrol. The idea of so many hats tucked beneath the three-inch brim of a ranger’s Stetson might be overwhelming, but the Seasonal Law Enforcement Training Program (SLETP) provides the comprehensive instruction and unique skills that instill confidence for the adventure ahead. If you see law-enforcement rangers in your park travels this summer, there’s a good chance they graduated from one of the training schools scattered around the country.

The programs are like law schools, police academies, and boy-scout camps wrapped into one 334-hour course. During the courses, “ranger trainees” run through a curriculum of 35 subjects that shape them into a combination of Indiana Jones and Sherlock Holmes: officer liability, report writing, constitutional law, courtroom evidence, criminal law, search-and-seizure protocols, high-speed pursuit, arrest control, and firearms training. When the bumps and bruises of these practical exercises become too much, some schools take “field trips” to nearby parks to meet with park superintendents, active law enforcement and interpretive rangers, and even sit in on fire-management meetings.

“Working for the National Park Service isn’t a job—it’s a way of life,” says Deryl Stone, chief academy ranger at Colorado Northwestern Community College, who spent 27 years working for the Park Service. “We don’t teach students to be cops—we teach them to be ambassadors, educators, and protectors.”

The first training program was held at California’s Santa Rosa Junior College in 1977, but has since expanded to eight schools across the country. The curriculum is outlined by the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia, but the formats vary from school to school. Skagit Valley College in Washington State and Hocking College in Pennsylvania blend the SLETP with their standard police-officer training programs. The University of Massachusetts Amherst offers weekend classes. Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania spreads its program over two semesters. Community colleges in Arizona, California, Colorado and North Carolina offer the course as an academy, spread out over 10-13 weeks.

According to Kathy Dodd, program director at Northern Arizona University’s program, rangers from the Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service often serve as guest instructors. “Not only does this ensure students are learning from working professionals who are experts in their field,” says Dodd, also a summer ranger at Glacier, “but it also gives them a good list of contacts to help secure future employment.”

Securing your first position as a law-enforcement ranger is a little different from most professions in that you can’t get hired until you’ve had the training. Aspiring rangers agree to pay between $2,000 to $5,200 for their education and accommodations with no guarantee of future employment. But once they graduate from SLETP and receive a Type II Law Enforcement Commission—allowing them to carry firearms, make arrests, investigate non-felony crimes and assist in the execution of warrants while on duty—they can apply for work with the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Game Department and some state and county parks. With more than 2,200 visitor-protection rangers working for the National Park Service alone—nearly 95 percent of whom graduated from SLETP—there’s a good chance the gown of a new graduate will quickly be replaced with a Park Service uniform.

The students’ backgrounds vary as much as the parks they hope to protect. Last summer, Chief Stone’s class in Colorado graduated men and women of varying ethnicities in their twenties, thirties and forties, whose resumes included everything from bachelors and masters degrees to multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Following his experience as a Marine in Iraq, Jaime Alvarez chose to enroll in SLETP because he found being in nature helped him heal after war, and he believed the work would allow him to use the team skills he learned in the Marines. Keri Nelson, a recent college graduate, sought a career that involved the outdoors, travel, and her degree in geology. C.J. Malcolm, a paramedic, believes work as ranger is the ideal way to combine his interests in leadership, search-and-rescue, and emergency medicine.

Despite the joys of patrolling scenic forests, lakeshores, and national monuments, park enforcement is not without its dangers. The solitary nature of the work and the remoteness of the patrols make law-enforcement rangers the most assaulted of federal officers. “Protecting our parks can be hard,” confesses Heidi Schacht, a Northern Arizona graduate who worked at Grand Teton last summer, but park rangers are a family and we look out for each other. Knowing that a fellow ranger has your back and is on their way to help you—even before you ask for it—is the biggest adrenaline rush and best feeling in the world.”

Kevin Grange is a freelance writer living in Park City, Utah; this is his second article for National Parks magazine.

This article appears in the Summer 2010 issue.

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