National Park Service (NPS) employees have a wide variety of backgrounds and capabilities and fill a number of different positions. They include law enforcement rangers, interpreters, resource managers, historians, archaeologists, clerical assistants, maintenance workers, and scientists—to name just a few. No matter what their responsibilities, these employees are all dedicated to the mission of the NPS: conserving the natural and cultural resources of America’s national parks for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of the present and future generations.
National Park Service Employee Career History
The National Park System was initiated by the United States Congress in 1872, during the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant, when Yellowstone National Park was created. This landmark act established Yellowstone as “a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of people.”
On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed an act creating the National Park Service as a federal bureau within the Department of the Interior. Its mission is to preserve, protect, and manage the national, cultural, historical, and recreational areas of the National Park System. In 1916, the Park System contained less than 1 million acres. Today the country’s national parks cover more than 83.3 million acres of mountains, plains, deserts, swamps, historic sites, lakeshores, forests, rivers, battlefields, memorials, archaeological properties, and recreation areas.
National Park Service Employee Job Description
Our country’s National Park System spans the country. With only one exception (Delaware), every state and several territories are home to at least one unit of the NPS. Most of these parks and historic sites welcome hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. To keep this amazing organization running, the National Park Service employs more than 9,000 permanent employees. An additional 11,000 seasonal employees help out during peak visitation seasons. Each NPS employee performs an essential function within the system. Here are a few examples:
Maintenance workers remove litter and keep the parks clean and beautiful. They also groom hiking trails, repair potholes, and restore historic buildings. Were it not for these hardworking individuals, our parks would soon deteriorate. Our nation’s precious natural resources would be trampled and millions of park visitors each year would be disappointed.
Scientists, historians, and archaeologists are behind-the-scenes workers within the National Park System. Scientists help us better understand the ecosystems within our parks, so we can manage and use them more wisely. By studying the cultural artifacts within our parks, historians and archaeologists are able to help visitors learn about our country’s past, the momentous events that shaped our nation, and the way our natural resources influenced those events.
The NPS employees who probably have the most contact with visitors are park rangers. Although all rangers are trained to respond to emergency situations, there are actually two distinct kinds of rangers: those who enforce the rules and protect the park resources and those who interpret the resources to the public. (For more information, see the article Park Rangers)
Enforcement rangers patrol the vast expanses of our national parks, helping visitors have safe, enjoyable experiences in the wilderness. They are responsible for visitor protection, resource protection, law enforcement, and overseeing special park uses, such as commercial filming. They also collect park fees, provide emergency medical services, fight fires, and conduct wilderness rescues. In order to perform their responsibilities, they must spend a great deal of time in the field. Fieldwork may involve hiking the park’s trails, patrolling the park’s waters in boats, or interacting with visitors.
Interpretive rangers are responsible for helping visitors understand the cultural and natural resources within our national parks. They try to educate the public about the history and value of the resources. They also try to help visitors learn how to have enriching, enjoyable experiences in the parks without harming the resources. Interpretive rangers give presentations, lead guided tours and hikes, and answer questions. Some conduct orientation sessions for visitors as they first enter the park. Some also give presentations before community groups, professional associations, and schools. “Our job,” explains Carol Spears, chief interpretive ranger at Channel Islands National Park in California, “is to interpret the resources for visitors. We educate people about the value of our resources so that they appreciate them and want to take care of them.”
The primary duty of the U.S. Park Police is to protect lives. Police officers are hired by the National Capital Region and are initially assigned to metropolitan Washington, D.C., where most of the force operates. Park police officers may be assigned to areas in New York City or San Francisco, for example, and may be detailed to any part of the National Park System on a temporary basis, but men and women who are considering careers as park police should expect to work in a large urban area.
The uniformed guard force protects federal property and buildings. Guards may serve at fixed posts or patrol assigned areas to prevent and protect them from hazards of fire, theft, accident, damage, trespass, and terrorism. Most guards are located in the National Capital Region, as a subunit of the U.S. Park Police, of which they are permanent part-time employees. A few are located in other regions and some have full-time positions.
A number of positions are available in the design and construction areas. Most of the engineers, architects, landscape architects, recreational planners, and others performing related services are based in the NPS planning and design facility in Denver, Colorado. Occasionally, such positions are also available in the regional offices and parks. Positions in the biological sciences or physical sciences—geology, hydrology, cartography—generally require advanced degrees.
Persons with backgrounds in archaeology and history, and to a lesser degree, sociology, geography, and anthropology, conduct programs concerned with the National Park System’s cultural resources. Land acquisition professionals and similar employees work with analysts and administrators in the Washington office and in some parks and regional offices.
The NPS employs a limited number of museum professionals who are involved in exhibit design, collection management, and museum education. Most design work is conducted at Harpers Ferry Center in West Virginia, where plans and designs for exhibits and visitor center exhibit rooms are created. Some museum directors and curators also work at Harpers Ferry, but most work in the parks, caring for their sites’ collections of natural history, archaeological, historical, or ethnographic museum objects.
The employees and functions within each national park are all overseen by one individual. This person, called the park superintendent, is charged with making sure that our parks maintain the delicate balance between welcoming visitors and preserving natural resources. In larger parks, he or she may work with an assistant superintendent. In addition to supervising the various operations within the park, the superintendent handles land acquisitions, works with resource managers and park planners to direct development, and deals with local or national issues that may affect the future of the park.
National Park Service Employee Career Requirements
If you hope to join the National Park Service you should study science and history during high school. You should also focus on developing your communication skills. Because interaction with the public is such a significant part of park careers, you may want to take psychology, education, and sociology courses. Those who plan to become rangers might also concentrate on physical education courses; physical fitness is a definite asset for people who must hike miles of backcountry trails, fight fires, and climb rocks to perform rescues.
Although not currently required for all positions, prospective park employees should obtain a bachelor’s degree. Most rangers currently in the park system are college graduates and many believe that this will soon become a requirement. Any individual who hopes to serve as a scientist, historian, or archaeologist within the parks must have a college degree, with a major in the relevant discipline. Those who plan to become rangers should place particular emphasis on science courses.
Although there is no specific curriculum for people hoping to enter the National Park Service, you should study science, with an emphasis on environmental science. History, public speaking, and business administration courses all are useful for anyone entering this field.
Because there is so much competition for National Park Service jobs—particularly ranger jobs—many people put themselves through additional training programs to distinguish themselves from other candidates. Some, for example, undergo medical technician training programs or attend police academies. Others attend independent ranger academies to learn the fundamentals of law enforcement, emergency procedures, and fire fighting. These training programs can offer an excellent foundation for a prospective ranger.
National Park Service employees need to successfully combine two very different characteristics. They must have a keen appreciation for nature and also enjoy working with the public. Carol Spears explains, “As national park employees, we really have two missions. We must preserve the resources and we must provide for visitor use. Many times these two missions are in conflict with one another. We have to find ways to make them both happen.” It can be difficult to discern what level of visitor use can be accommodated without irreparably harming the environment. Decisions regarding this have to be made by NPS management, then carried out by all employees.
Because most national park employees deal extensively with the public, they need to be friendly, confident, and able to communicate clearly. Since they usually are responsible for a wide variety of tasks, they also must be exceptionally versatile. The fact that they work closely with nature, which can be unpredictable, means that these people must be creative problem solvers.
In addition to these general requirements, each of the positions within the National Park Service also involves a set of characteristics and abilities unique to that position. Superintendents, for instance, must be good administrators and have the vision to make long-term plans for a park. Rangers must be able to react quickly and effectively in crisis situations and convey authority to individuals who are violating park rules. Interpreters must have extensive knowledge about the resources in their parks and should be effective educators.
Exploring National Park Service Employee Career
Hands-on experience can be a distinct advantage if you are interested in entering this competitive field. You can get this experience by getting involved in the Volunteers-in-Parks (VIP) program. In 2004, 140,000 volunteers worked in the VIP program. Park volunteers help park employees in any number of ways, including answering phone calls, welcoming visitors, maintaining trails, building fences, painting buildings, or picking up litter. For more information, visit http://www.nps.gov/getinvolved/volunteer.htm.
If you do not live near a national park, contact the Student Conservation Association (SCA), which provides volunteers to assist federal and state natural resource management agencies. The SCA brings together students from throughout the United States to serve as crew members within the national parks. These students live and work within the parks for four to five weeks at a time.
Both the VIP and SCA experiences can help you prepare for careers in the National Park Service and help you determine whether you would enjoy such careers. You can also gain valuable experience by volunteering to work in various local or state parks on weekends or during the summer months.
While the National Park Service is the only employer for people who would like to pursue this particular career, there are many, radically different national parks. People who pursue this career may work in mountainous parks, such as Grand Teton in Wyoming, or Guadalupe Mountains in Texas; forested parks, such as Yellowstone, which spans three western states; or marine parks, such as California’s Channel Islands.
The skills necessary for many positions within the National Park Service are also highly transferable. Interpretive rangers, for instance, may pursue careers as botanists, educators, or naturalists. Law enforcement rangers may consider careers as police officers, firefighters, or emergency medical personnel. The scientists who study our parks’ resources may move into private research or, like the historians and archaeologists, they may consider becoming educators.
Almost no one enters the National Park Service in the position they would ultimately like to hold. Individuals who hope to one day serve as a ranger or an interpreter, for instance, must begin by getting a foot in the door. Most people begin as seasonal employees, working for three to four months a year in parks that receive more visitors during either the summer or winter seasons. This seasonal experience enables people to gain an understanding of the National Park Service mission and to help determine whether they would enjoy a career in the park system.
Those who choose to continue usually try to get experience in a variety of entry-level positions or in several different parks. This process helps individuals become familiar with the complex park system. It also allows park managers to gauge their strengths and abilities. When a person has gained experience through seasonal positions, he or she may be considered for a permanent position when one becomes available. Once an individual has gained permanent employment within the park system, he or she will receive extensive on-the-job training.
If you are pursuing your first federal government position, a good starting place is the national or a regional Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Procedures for application vary from position to position. Some positions may be applied for directly to the NPS, while others require the applicant to get on an OPM List of Eligibles and/or take and pass an examination.
As is true of most professions, advancement within the National Park Service usually means assuming managerial and administrative responsibilities. Rangers, for instance, may become subdistrict rangers, district rangers, and then chief rangers. Chief rangers may one day become park superintendents. Superintendents, in turn, may assume regional or national responsibilities.
While this is the traditional path to advancement, it is not one that anyone treads very quickly. The opportunities for upward mobility within the National Park Service are limited because the turnover rates at upper levels tend to be quite low. While this may hinder an ambitious employee’s advancement, it is indicative of a high level of job satisfaction.
The salaries for National Park Service employees are based on their levels of responsibility and experience. Employees are assigned salary grade levels. As they gain more experience, they are promoted to higher grade levels or to higher salary steps within their grade levels.
The NPS uses two categories of levels. The first, called the General Schedule (GS), applies to professional, administrative, clerical, and technical employees and is fairly standard throughout the country. Firefighters and law enforcement are included in the General Schedule. The other, called the Wage Grade (WG), applies to employees who perform trades, crafts, or manual labor and is based on local pay scales.
Most rangers, for instance, begin at or below the GS-5 level, which, in 2004, translated to earning between $24,075 and $31,302 annually. The average ranger is generally at about the second step of the GS-7 level, which translates to a salary of $30,815. The most experienced rangers can earn $38,767, the highest salary step in the G-7 level.
To move beyond this level, most rangers must become supervisors, subdistrict rangers, district rangers, or division chiefs. At these higher levels, people can earn more than $80,000 per year. These positions are difficult to obtain, however, because the turnover rate for positions above the GS-7 level is exceptionally low.
To say there is a wide variety of work environments within the National Park Service is an understatement. For instance, National Park Service employees might work mainly outdoors at sites like Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona or Denali National Park in Alaska; or mainly indoors at a historical site, such as the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Illinois; or at Independence Hall at Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia. They might work at George Washington Birthplace National Monument, in Virginia, where unique breeds of farm animals are raised; or at Isle Royale National Park in Michigan, located on the largest island in Lake Superior and noted for its wilderness area and wildlife.
Because of these vast differences in work environment, people interested in working for the National Park Service should carefully consider their preferences before applying for a job with the NPS. For example, an aspiring National Park Service employee who likes working outdoors should think twice about taking a clerical or administrative job with the service. On the other hand, a desk job or some other position may be a good way to break into the field, gain experience, and eventually serve as a launching pad to other careers in the National Park Service.
National Park Service Employee Career Outlook
Although it covers a lot of ground, the National Park Service is really a very small government agency. Because the agency is small, job opportunities are limited and, although they are not highly lucrative, they are considered very desirable among individuals who love outdoor work and nature. Consequently, competition for National Park Service jobs is very intense. This is not a situation that is likely to improve, since turnover rates are low and new parks are seldom created. Students who are interested in working for the NPS should not be discouraged, though. The National Park Service is always looking for dedicated people who are willing to work their way up.