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Becoming a Park Ranger

Online forums and search engines are filled with queries like: “park ranger vs. game warden,” “can park rangers make arrests,” “how much do park rangers make,” and “do park rangers carry guns.”  

That tells us that there are plenty of folks out there who want to know how to become a park ranger but don’t know what the job actually entails. But before we get into the details, let’s set the record straight on a few things: Park rangers are sworn peace officers whose jurisdiction is the state or national park in which they work. As peace officers, they are authorized to carry weapons, make arrests, and defend themselves against perceived threats.

But the “enforcement” part of a park rangers’ duties makes up only a small fraction of their day-to-day responsibilities. We dug into research from the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) and the National Recreation & Park Association (NRPA) to paint a full picture of the park ranger job description so, when the time comes, you can decide if this is the right career for you.
how to become a park ranger at unity college

What do park rangers do?

Park ranger duties are a rare combination of wildlife conservation officer, outdoor enthusiast, environmental police, public relations professional, and administrative aficionado. Park rangers who spend most of their time in the field are hands-on when it comes to dealing with wildlife, the environment, and public safety. Those who spend their time in administrative roles are the office professionals who keep the parks operating efficiently and keep the public safe and well informed.

A distinction that also needs to be made before we get too far into job descriptions is the one between a national park ranger and a state park ranger. Rangers of all types share a multitude of similar duties but, generally speaking, national park rangers focus more on law enforcement, while state park rangers focus more on wildlife and public relations.

Here’s some additional information on the roles and responsibilities of a park ranger career that we gathered from the U.S. Department of Labor and

Administrative Duties

  • Provide visitor services, such as explaining regulations, answering visitor requests, needs and complaints, and providing information about the park and surrounding areas;
  • Develop environmental education programs and curricula for schools;
  • Assist with operations of general facilities, such as visitor centers;
  • Construct historical, scientific, and nature visitor-center displays;
  • Interview specialists in desired fields to obtain and develop data for park information programs.

Field Duties

  • Conduct field trips to point out scientific, historic, and natural features of parks, forests, historic sites, or other attractions;
  • Take photographs and motion pictures for use in lectures and publications and to develop displays;
  • Perform emergency duties to protect human life, government property, and the natural features of the park;
  • Prepare and present illustrated lectures and interpretive talks about park features;
  • Survey park to determine forest conditions and distribution and abundance of fauna and flora.

Public Safety Duties

  • Enforcing park regulations and laws—even those that do not pertain to parks;
  • Write citations, issue fines, confiscate hunting/fishing licenses, and make arrests;
  • Investigate criminal cases that take place in national or state parks;
  • Collect evidence and provide testimony;
  • Evacuating and closing the Park in the event of a forest fire, tornado, flooding, or other natural disaster and, when necessary, search and rescue for victims lost in a park.

Park Ranger Salary & Career Outlook

The median annual park ranger salary is $61,310, but it’s important to note this is a nationwide median that includes workers at all levels of education and experience. So how much park rangers can make can vary significantly based on geography and employer and shouldn’t be considered a starting salary.

There were 22,000 park ranger jobs across the United States in 2016 and another 2,000 new jobs are projected to become available due to growth and retirement through 2026. This equates to 5-9 percent growth, which the labor department considers “average.”

Top-Line Base Salaries for Park & Recreation Professionals

Though, not everyone will start as a park ranger and spend their entire career in the position. For that reason, we looked at the annual salary survey from the National Recreation & Park Association from 2018. This will give you a better idea of the path one might take after earning a bachelor’s degree in a conservation- or environment-related field.

Park and Recreation Salary Guide
Source: National Recreation & Park Association, Annual Salary Survey, January 2018. 

Park Ranger Education Requirements

State governments and the National Park Service recognize several major/areas of study as appropriate to prepare future park rangers. That means, there is no single best way to pursue this particular career. Given the fact that a park ranger career can include enforcement, patrol, conservation, public relations, and administrative duties, the career paths are plentiful but they all include at least a bachelor’s degree.

Ninety-five percent of respondents to a labor department survey of conservation professionals (including park rangers) reported having possessed a bachelor’s degree. And, because the field is projected to at only 5-9 percent through 2026, the more education, internships, and hands-on experience you have between now and the time you apply, the better your chances are of landing one of these coveted roles.

The NRPA published a limited list of college majors that would be appropriate to pursue if your end goal is becoming a park ranger. Just note, this is not an exhaustive list. It’s designed to illustrate the breadth of educational paths that can lead to becoming a park ranger.

Undergraduate majors include (but not limited to):

  • Park and Resource Management
  • Recreation and Park Administration – Recreation Management
  • Recreation and Park Administration – Therapeutic Recreation
  • Community Sports Management
  • Tourism Development and Management
  • Nonprofit Leadership and Management
  • Wildlife and Outdoor Enterprise Management

Graduate degrees include (but not limited to):

  • Masters in Recreation and Tourism
  • Park and Resource Management
  • Environmental Education
  • Master of Advanced Study in Sustainable Tourism
  • Master of Science in Community Resources and Development

The bottom line

Becoming a park ranger is not a straightforward career path with an easy set of academic or experiential boxes to check. From what we found in the research, the more hands-on experience you have, the better, so make sure you get involved in as many internships, externships, or volunteer opportunities you can.

A park ranger’s job comes with a lot of autonomy and, sometimes, a lot of time alone. Depending on what you encounter in the park, you need to be able to think quickly, assess situations objectively, and execute plans of action swiftly. It takes a special person to handle the unpredictability of the park ranger role, but if you’re up for the challenge, we’re here for you.

Check out Unity’s bachelor of science in parks and forest resources or bachelor of science in conservation law enforcement if the information contained above appeals to you. If you’re still unsure if this is the right path for you, check out these six reasons why a park ranger is a fantastic job


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