Those interested in ranger-related issues will do well to read a paper recently posted on the web site of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. Based on a broad sampling of member comments, the document was compiled and distilled by one of the best bosses I ever had, Doug Morris:
Renewal of the Park Ranger Profession (PDF format)
This report contains an excellent brief treatment of The Question That Will Not Die, “Are rangers becoming too specialized in law enforcement?”
Clearly, park rangers assigned to law enforcement duties were becoming more specialized. Technology was advancing, training was expanding and providing higher levels of skill, commercial poaching and looting of cultural artifacts were increasing, and public expectations for safety remained high. Concurrently, opportunities for park rangers to perform other traditional ranger tasks were diminishing, as increasing knowledge inspired more sophisticated and complex management of park resources.
For example, the need to restore fire to natural landscapes was emerging as an important goal in many parks, and park managers were turning to a new set of experts to implement these politically controversial programs in the most effective fashion possible. Over time, many parks established separate park organizations for fire management. Comprehensive protocols for training and experience were established, which further reduced the opportunities for field rangers to continue their long tradition of fire suppression.
Stewardship of natural resources was likewise becoming far more sophisticated, and more and more parks were establishing resources management divisions where specialists for such activities as fisheries and wildlife management, forestry, air quality, and even bear management were assembled. These positions were filled with people who had achieved advanced academic training and who focused almost exclusively on a particular resources management task.
The outcome of increased specialization in the management of fire and resources almost certainly resulted in better stewardship of park resources. However, this steady withdrawal from many of these traditional tasks added to the perception that rangers were becoming little more than specialists in law enforcement and emergency services.
I would only add to the hint that Doug provided: this trend toward specialization among rangers also fostered an unfortunate mirroring effect in the resource management ranks. A full decade before the advent of the Ranger Careers initiative which many criticize for “overemphasis” on law enforcement, the Natural Resource Management Trainee program fostered an unspoken but very clear divorce of natural resource management activities from other park operations. (I have no doubt that this program began in large part as reaction to criticism of the agency by the sensationalist Alston Chase, whose Playing God In Yellowstone was in many ways a Stoneman’s Meadow Riot for the biology set.)
Resource managers coming out of this heavily-promoted cursus honorum instituted programs that seemed ever less connected to those aspects of park operations which implemented the “making available to the public” portion of the NPS mission. The result was that in the early years of the 21st century a National Park Service biologist, paid by taxpayer dollars, could respond to a request for interpretive material explaining her activities by announcing without any sense of embarrassment or shame, “My work is very technical, and I don’t think there’s any way I could dumb it down for the public.”
Yet while there are still those in the NPS who get the vapors when they see a ranger on patrol with a 40-caliber Sig on his hip, few seem concerned by natural resource managers who quite blithely project an air that park visitors are a bit of a hindrance to their ideal of national-park-as-nature-reserve.