CONFLUENCE, Pa. – A day in the life of a park ranger is not like working any ordinary job.
“No day is ever the same. I can’t predict what is going to happen from one day to the next,” said Matt Balas, a park ranger for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District at Youghiogheny River Lake.
Park rangers are constantly moving, patrolling federal waters and lands on boats and trucks. On the lake, they might inspect a dock one minute and the next stop a motorboat for blazing through a no-wake zone at an unsafe speed. On the road, they help visitors, sometimes settle disputes among campers, help tortoises and other critters cross the road, give presentations about wildlife to schoolchildren and adults, and sometimes rescue abandoned pets left behind by neglectful owners.
Park rangers thrive in this kind of work environment, Balas said.
“We have a very, very solid team. We welcome the challenge of that variability. We can successfully handle anything that comes our way,” Balas said, who said he enjoys the excitement of each day and the occasional surprise.
Corps rangers rely on their people and technical skills to solve problems, just like a Swiss Army knife offers a different tool for each job. For example, park rangers are resource specialists, which means they help preserve wildlife and natural habitats around the lake. Depending on which reservoir they work, rangers assist in managing the dam and its flows downstream to meet river flow requirements. Additionally, they perform general maintenance and cleanup of recreational sites, and they enforce rules on the water, at campgrounds, and across hiking or biking trails around the lake.
“I like to consider ourselves as the ‘fun’ park rangers. We just make sure people are being safe and having fun,” said Shaylin Dresher, a summer park ranger at Youghiogheny.
The Pittsburgh District operates 16 reservoirs throughout western Pennsylvania and in a few neighboring states. The reservoirs’ purpose is to reduce flood damage downstream by holding water back during heavy rains.
Each reservoir has park rangers – among other staff or labor positions – offering job opportunities within an hour from most hometowns in the district. Rangers are especially busy during the summer when recreation increases. To meet the demand, the Pittsburgh District hires summer rangers. These temporary positions alleviate the load for full-time rangers and offer an entryway into long-term employment in the corps.
“I wanted to work state or federally for the benefits,” said Dresher, a recent college graduate who said she wanted to find a job that married her love for the outdoors with financial stability.
Working for the corps also offers low-cost healthcare plans, paid vacation and sick leave that accumulates, and career-growth opportunities. Park rangers can advance into management positions or switch career paths entirely to pursue other specialties within the corps.
“There are so many developmental opportunities everywhere. You would have never known until you joined,” said Julie Miller, a former park ranger at Crooked Creek Lake who now works in the real estate department for the district.
Full-time rangers require a bachelor’s degree in either biology, environmental science, or wildlife management. Rangers must also pass a security screening, physical, and background check. Although most rangers patrol the waters, they don’t need a boat license to apply for the job.
“That’s another cool component of this job,” said Balas. “Before I was a ranger, I had never driven a boat. I had no boat experience. Within a year of being hired, I received quite an extensive training.”
Rangers receive a 40-hour course on boat operation, maintenance and safety. Separately, they complete a training course on federal regulations, self-defense, conflict resolution, and proper pepper spray use. Once they graduate from the ‘Visitor Assistance’ training, rangers wear a badge and receive citation authority to enforce Title 36 laws to protect federal lands and waters.
Yet, with such diverse training and need for various skills, one thing unifies almost all park rangers: Their love for the outdoors.
“I love it!” said Sam Phillips, a summer ranger at Youghiogheny. “It’s outdoors. You’re with the public. You’re on a boat. You’re going to campgrounds. This job takes you all over the place. It’s not an office job: you’re not going to get this experience anywhere else.”