The Ranger Project
The stargazers, climbers, paddlers, teachers, naturalists, historians, scientists, rescuers, protectors and dreamers of the National Park Service.
Shelton Johnson grew up in Detroit, a black youth in a poor neighborhood. Out of the cacophony of urban life, he emerged a poet. “I was a stargazer,” he says. “Books would always float me away from a bad place and take me anywhere but Detroit.”
A national park ranger at Yosemite National Park in California, Johnson appeared in several episodes of the PBS series “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” In one memorable interview, he describes coming across a herd of snow-dusted bison on a snowmobile trip through Yellowstone to pick up the mail. In the subzero cold, he says, the huge animals’ breath came out in clouds, falling in a cascade of ice crystals around them.
Watching the show several years ago, I wished I could be there, with Johnson and the bison in the brilliant white of the Wyoming landscape. I thought about the unique and personal relationship rangers share with the landscapes they protect, and how difficult it is for visitors to replicate that intimacy. Convinced that stories like this could be as meaningful to others as Johnson’s was to me, I started to envision a book, and I asked my friend, the photographer Simon Griffiths, to add his creative talents to the project. Together we began traversing the country.
Between October 2015 and August 2017, we interviewed and photographed 21 people who call themselves park rangers, from young employees with temporary positions to career Park Service leaders in charge of major programs or parks. In places from Acadia to Yosemite, we spoke with people who undertake exciting endeavors — diving among shipwrecks and exploring ice caves — but who also struggle with their identities, worry about their children and think about their legacies. We met 97-year-old Betty Reid Soskin, who works at Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park in California and is the oldest ranger in the park system. And we had a chance to talk at length with Johnson, the poet and novelist who started it all.
On the following pages, you’ll find a selection of adapted excerpts from the book project along with Simon’s portraits. The rangers spoke of their work, but also shared stories about the joys and challenges of being human. They talked about love, pain, exhilaration and determination. And they did so in places set aside to reflect America in all its complexity: conflict and freedom, ignorance and beauty, anguish and hope.
“We all look at nature in different ways,” Johnson says. “What do you see? I see God. Our attempt to protect these extraordinary places, to remain connected to this earth, is less about salvation of the planet than it is about salvation of ourselves.”
Do What You Need To Do
Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park, Georgia
Judy Forte fondly remembers growing up along the Chattahoochee River in Phenix City, Alabama, but even as a child, she was acutely aware of the widespread racial tension in the world outside her home. Young men and women were staging sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. News reports showed police attacking civil rights demonstrators with fire hoses and batons.
Forte’s father walked with Martin Luther King Jr. in the Selma-to-Montgomery march. And in 1968, she and her brothers were among the first students to integrate a formerly all-white elementary school. “It seemed like we did more running than walking home from school,” she says. “If you stopped running, someone would say something or hit one of my brothers, and they’d end up in a fight. One time I tried to separate my brothers from some boys and broke my brand-new umbrella across one of those boys’ back.”
Forte became a park ranger at the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area in 1980. At the time, African Americans at the Park Service were scarce, and the agency had started giving women the ranger title only nine years earlier. (Previously, women in those positions were called naturalists or historians or information guides. Even today, less than 40 percent of National Park Service staff is female, and only 9 percent is African American.) As a black woman, Forte had no role models and few mentors, but she overcame these challenges, rising through the ranks to become a protection ranger, a regional chief ranger and superintendent of Horseshoe Bend National Military Park in Daviston, Alabama. In 2012, she returned to the banks of the Chattahoochee to serve as superintendent of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta.
Forte led the restoration of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church where King was pastor during his time in Atlanta. She carried King’s Bible to Washington to put it in the hands of the first black president for his swearing-in ceremony. All throughout, she followed the advice of her beloved paternal grandmother, with whom she spent many hours along the Chattahoochee as a child. “I would play and skip rocks in the river while my grandmother would fish and tell me stories,” Forte says. “She’d tell me things that I remember to this day: Don’t be quick to judge. Learn to turn the other cheek. Not everything is as it appears. Follow your heart and do what you need to do as long as it is for the right reason.” Forte has repeated these messages to the many young African Americans she has recruited to join the Park Service. And she shared similar insights when she was keynote speaker at a graduation ceremony at her alma mater, Tuskegee Institute.
“Remember your path is a circle,” she said in her speech. “It connects you not only to where you are going, but also to where you have been. Never be confused about who you are. Never give up on your dream.”
Using Her Story
National Park Service Urban Agenda, Atlanta
Gayle Hazelwood knows that her uniform and badge make some of the black and Latino people she meets nervous. “For many of them it means trouble,” says Hazelwood. “They feel they are different from the people the parks were built for. Never once were the national parks a center of my family’s travel when I was a child.”
The head of the National Park Service’s Urban Agenda program, Hazelwood sees it as her mission to make parks relevant and accessible to all people, especially urban dwellers and minorities. And as a gay, African American woman (who recently discovered she’s 30 percent Native American), she frequently uses her story in her work.
“I am not what most people see as the ‘typical’ park ranger,” she says. “I love celebrating those differences.”
Hazelwood’s Park Service career began at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, near Cleveland, Ohio, where her job involved helping city people connect to nature. “What’s not to like about that?” she asks.
Later, she moved to Atlanta as chief of interpretation at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park, and eventually to New Orleans, as superintendent of the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park. The music and culture in New Orleans reminded her of her parents, who would dance in the kitchen to jazz greats when she was young. She thrived on telling the stories of the wildly diverse musicians, poets and artists in the Big Easy.
I queue up some zydeco music on my phone, and Hazelwood starts dancing — right on the sidewalk in Atlanta. She has an infectious energy when she talks about her work and especially about diversity and inclusion.
“I am basically a human resource person,” she says. “I am trying to cultivate people!”
Gayle Hazelwood retired from the Park Service in 2016, but the work of expanding access to the national parks continues at the Urban Agenda program.
Kevin and Melissa Moses
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
In a glass and wood house in the Virginia foothills, Kevin and Melissa Moses are getting their 2-year-old up and ready to roll off to day care. Gussy is easily distracted, spreading jelly in a number of places, laughing and running. His parents are donning body armor beneath their gray and green National Park Service uniforms. They are both protection rangers at Shenandoah National Park — a land of rough stones, steep cliffs and dark forests.
“For me, we are in this for the adventure,” Kevin says. “We protect the park from the people, the people from the park, and the people from the people. We are mobile all the time as protection rangers … and we are also on call at 2 a.m.”
They moved to this craggy park because of its proximity to both Washington, D.C., and the wilderness. “We used to live in this incredibly beautiful and remote place not too far from Flippin, Arkansas,” says Melissa. “Now we live two and a half hours from the Smithsonian.”
Kevin is a funny storyteller, a dedicated dad and a bit of a wild man — he joined the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division at age 17 because he wanted to jump out of airplanes. Now he is one of the Park Service’s top search and rescue trainers in the country. Melissa, one of the few women to go through the same search and rescue program, is fearless but gentle. She smiles all the time.
Making a park ranger marriage work is not easy. This one is held together by a commitment to their children, including Kevin’s two daughters from a previous marriage, and a strong faith. Melissa sums up their philosophy: “God first, family second. Everything else comes after that.”
Kevin proposed to Melissa while rock climbing in Arkansas. “He was leading, and I was cleaning equipment off the rock behind, untying knots in the rope and removing anchors,” Melissa says. “He attaches a ring to a carabiner and puts it on a length of fishing line, where it was waiting for me as I climbed. It had a note on it: ‘Want to tie the knot?’ I look up there, and he’s down on his knees.”
It was “kind of a metaphor,” says Kevin. “You know, high point in your life … I’d have left her on that ledge if she’d said no.”
A Wish To Live Deliberately
Obed Wild and Scenic River, Tennessee
Matt Hudson is climbing — maybe better described as hanging — from a massive horizontal shelf of East Tennessee sandstone some 50 feet above a cluster of sixth-graders. The students crane their necks as they follow his Spiderman-like movements up the sheer rock face and out underneath it. Below the group, the rushing Clear Creek works its way through a deep gorge carved into this hemlock forest on the Cumberland Plateau.
“Ready?” Hudson asks of his belayer. “Falling.” And fall he does, releasing his hold on the rock and dropping toward the group of wide-eyed middle schoolers. The rope Hudson is attached to stretches out until it’s taut, suspending him, as he bounces lightly, about 10 feet above the heads of his incredulous audience. He has their attention.
As a boy in central Tennessee, Hudson remembers looking east and gazing at the Cumberland Plateau. “My heart has always been on the Plateau,” he says. An admittedly poor high school student, Hudson collected himself enough to gain admittance to a college near his home. After graduation, he decided to take the LSAT just to see how he’d do. Pretty well, it turned out. Hudson earned a law degree from Harvard University, where he spent his spare time in nearby Walden Woods and immersed himself in the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Merton. During and immediately after law school, he traveled widely, including a 40-day solo canoe journey down the Yukon River. Eventually, he moved to Nashville and worked for a law firm, but after a short time, he left. To explain why, he recites this passage from Thoreau’s “Walden: or, Life In The Woods”: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Today Hudson is the chief ranger at Obed Wild and Scenic River, a series of deep gorges cut into the Cumberland Plateau. At the bottom, framed by sheer sandstone bluffs that attract serious rock climbers, lies what some paddlers describe as the finest white water in the East. An expert climber and paddler himself, Hudson brings all the sixth-graders in this rural county into the gorge each year for a rock climbing and river paddling experience. He wants to instill in them some of what drew him away from a career in the skyscraper canyons of Nashville back to his beloved Plateau. Hudson hopes they will understand and appreciate the remote, extraordinary place where they live. “It’s an intimate beauty,” Hudson says. “The Obed is full of hidden places — things you would not expect. You discover things here, close up.”
Straddling the Line
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, Louisiana
In high school In Memphis, Tennessee, Alyssa Arnell felt she had to decide whether she was black like her father or white like her mother. She longed to go someplace where she could define her identity however she wanted.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Arnell volunteered in New Orleans, and finally, she found what she was looking for. It was the music, the food and mostly, the city’s collective shrug about labels. “I felt, for once, that straddling the line between white and black society was a pretty accepted thing here,” she says. “New Orleans is a city where you can be who you are.”
Arnell moved to the city in 2013. She is a part-time lecturer in history at a traditionally black college and works for the Park Service at the Chalmette Battlefield, part of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve and the site of Andrew Jackson’s victory at the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. The battle came after the war had technically ended, and it was won in true New Orleans style by an eclectic assemblage of Creole militia groups, American militia, free men of color, Choctaw snipers, slaves, New Orleans businessmen and pirates.
But Jackson’s story is not the only one Chalmette holds. Arnell tells park visitors a lesser-known story about Fazendeville, a vibrant community that free blacks formed just after the Civil War on land that’s now part of the park. In the 1960s, the Park Service took the land under eminent domain, and the community was disbanded. Many of the families that were forced to leave ended up in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward, where they and their descendants were again uprooted in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The displacement of the community is still a divisive topic, but Arnell has taken steps toward reconciliation by organizing conversations at the park site between former Fazendeville residents and their children and the white New Orleans families that advocated for expansion of the park.
Arnell is still not exactly certain where she fits in. “It’s not an easy world unless you are in a camp,” she says. One of the first things I ask people who come for a meeting or lecture is ‘Who are you? What group do you associate yourself with? Are you white, black, suburbanite, environmentalist, political activist?’ I’m not sure I can completely answer that myself. I feel strongly that the history of this place is a lesson — not everything is as it appears to be. People come from more complex backgrounds than you think.”
Arnell misses working for the Park Service but has left to pursue her academic career. She is chair of the Global Interdisciplinary Studies program at a community college in Massachusetts.
The Land of the Blue Smoke
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee
NPCA at 100
Parks need rangers. NPCA has known this since its earliest days, and over the decades, the organization has continuously advocated for funding to ensure that parks are fully staffed and rangers have the resources they need to do their jobs.
“We bring to the attention of decision-makers and media the important role that rangers play and the work and the public services that don’t get done whenever there aren’t enough rangers in parks,” said John Garder, NPCA’s senior director of budget and appropriations. When funding is inadequate, rangers have to focus only on visitor safety and other basic services and are forced to abandon important jobs such as education, wildlife monitoring, cultural resource protection and trail maintenance, Garder said. Rangers end up fixing pipes, for example, instead of leading nature walks, or they direct traffic instead of updating park signage.
This has been a major problem lately as the number of park employees has dipped and the number of park visitors continues to climb. Between 2011 and 2017, the park system saw a 19 percent growth in visitation, while the Park Service faced an 11 percent reduction in staff. Parks are making do with a bare-bones workforce, and rangers are “constantly in triage mode,” Garder said.
Recently, NPCA staff have also expressed concern about Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has publicly questioned the loyalty of some Park Service staff, told employees that diversity isn’t important and led a staff reorganization that could undermine the role of career park staff. “There’s a lack of transparency about that effort,” Garder said. “It’s worrisome.”
From any point in the forests of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a visitor might see hundreds of species of vascular plants, more than 50 types of trees, and an untold number of animals, including rattlesnakes, black bears and elk. Called “Shaconage” (shah-con-ah-jey), place of blue smoke, by the Cherokee because of the misty haze that hangs over these mountains, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most ecologically diverse protected areas in the world.
Jim Renfro, a park scientist, tells us this as we stand inside the Look Rock Air Quality Station in the park, amid dials and tubes, pumps and pipes. Wearing cool shades and a Park Service ball cap, he is describing what a nephelometer does, and how sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide conspire to make the Smokies disappear. In the 1990s, air pollution from energy plants in the Tennessee and Ohio River valleys caused a dramatic reduction in visibility across the Appalachian range from Georgia to Virginia. The air became so dirty that park staff issued air quality warnings to visitors, and Renfro determined it was unhealthy to bring his young son to the park to hike.
He began collecting and analyzing air quality data. With the help and support of local agencies and conservation groups, Renfro negotiated with state regulators and power companies to reduce the pollution that he had proved was degrading air quality in the park. (NPCA played a significant role in the campaign to reduce air pollution in the region and helped broker a historic agreement with the country’s largest power utility, which ultimately retrofitted or retired 54 of its 59 coal-fired boilers.) The impact has been remarkable: Over 20 years, pollutant levels from smokestack emissions in the Southern Appalachians dropped by 98 percent, and the ridgelines are visible once again in one of America’s most visited national parks.
“All the cities in the Southeast U.S. reap the benefit from this, because we didn’t want to walk away from the problem,” Renfro says.
Now, Renfro is turning his attention to climate change. “That’s our next scientific challenge,” he says. “But unlike air pollution, climate science requires 30 to 100 years of data before you can accurately begin to measure trends.”
In late 2016, the effects of climate change took a personal toll on the Renfro household. After a severe drought that scientists attributed, in part, to climate change, wildfires whipped out of control by hurricane-force winds devastated the town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and parts of the park. The fires destroyed $500 million in property and left 14 people dead. Renfro sent a note out to friends in the aftermath of the fire. “Quick update,” he wrote. “Renfro family safe. Home burned down.”
Jim Renfro and his family moved into their rebuilt home in May 2018. “It’s great, and we’re happy,” he says.
Walking in the Milk Jug
Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
Peter Ellis works in a landscape of snow. On the day we meet him in early September, it is sleeting sideways as we climb. The mountain is enveloped in a cloud; visibility is no more than 30 feet. Peter apologizes that we need to “walk in the milk jug.” To get to his work station at either Camp Muir (10,080 feet in elevation), or Camp Schurman (9,440 feet) in Mount Rainier National Park, he has to cross a permanent snowfield and climb to the edge of a glacier.
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Ellis, a climbing ranger, specializes in supporting technical, high-altitude experiences on Mount Rainier for people with the preparation, equipment and courage to seek them out. Conditions on the 14,410-foot snow-capped volcano are fierce. The average wind chill in the warmest month is 5 to 10 degrees below zero. Part of Ellis’ job is to rescue climbers caught in sudden weather changes or injured while attempting to reach the summit. Each year, around 10,000 people set off to summit the mountain. Roughly half of them succeed, and a few do not survive the attempt. “Rainier is deceptive,” Ellis says. “People underestimate how big the mountain is.”
During a particularly tricky helicopter rescue in 2012, Ellis saw a fellow climbing ranger and friend, Nick Hall, slip and fall on a steeply sloped sheet of ice. “I watched him sliding out of control,” Ellis says. “He started cartwheeling and then disappeared over the edge of the mountain.” When a ranger found him about 3,000 feet below, he radioed back that “he’s not urgent.” They all knew what that meant, but in their shock and grief, they had to pull themselves together, focus on the injured climbers they had come to assist and complete the rescue.
“I definitely questioned my career at that point,” Ellis says. “There was a lot of reflection, thinking, ‘What would Nick do if one of us died?’ Well, he’d keep on keeping on. He’d use it as an opportunity to get better. We decided that’s what we are going to do — to honor him.”
Ellis left the Park Service in early 2018. “As much as I absolutely loved the job,” he said in a recent message, “I decided that I was needed more near home with my wife and our newborn son.”
Es Como Familia
Biscayne National Park, Florida
Maria Beotegui’s family moved to the United States from Buenos Aires when she was 2 years old. After settling in the U.S., her parents divorced, and Beotegui’s mother found herself on her own with two children, limited English and no money. Beotegui’s grandparents moved to Florida to help out, but even so, Beotegui ended up caring for the household from a young age while her mother worked several jobs.
Gradually, the family adjusted to an American life in South Florida. Her mother worked hard to improve her English and landed a temporary job at Everglades National Park. Eventually, Beotegui also found a place in the Park Service, as did her brother. All three are now full-time Park Service employees.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Simon Griffiths describes himself as a visual storyteller. Born in England but a resident of Raleigh, North Carolina, since age 11, Griffiths is an award-winning photographer whose work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Smithsonian and National Geographic. His current aspiration is to captain a sailboat.
To learn more about this project or to suggest rangers to include in the book, visit ranger-stories.com.
As an interpretive ranger at Biscayne National Park, Beotegui teaches visitors — including many children of immigrants from across the Miami area — about the sea, the shipwrecks and the complex ecosystem of Biscayne Bay and the Florida Keys. On the day we visit, Beotegui shows a group of school children how to dissect a lionfish. “Look, a baby fish!” she says, pointing to what the lionfish had recently eaten. The students gleefully exclaim and chatter in French, Creole, Spanish and English.
“I really don’t feel out of place or uncomfortable anywhere in nature,” says Beotegui, the mother of two young girls. “It’s like being a people person. If you are that way, you can enjoy people anywhere. But if you are with your family, it’s different. That’s how I feel at Biscayne. I am with my family. The salt water here, it flows through my veins. I swim in it. I’ve looked under the rocks and shells. It’s a big part of me, of who I am, and I can’t imagine being too far away from it for too long … like family.”
About the author
Daniel Howe is a writer, consultant and part-time professor in the Landscape Architecture Department in the College of Design at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. His many national park experiences include thru-hiking the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail and cycling the length of the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway. Howe currently serves on the board of directors of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.