Interview with field Ranger Mike West

When people think of historians they picture someone working in a museum or a classroom or an archive.  Not many think of the Grand Canyon, Little Big Horn, or Gettysburg.  The National Park Service, knowing that much of history has occurred outside, has a huge number of historians working to educate the public about the events that have often shaped the country.  Those who are lucky enough and tough enough to work as park rangers interpret the past for all visitors who come to a national historic site.  For those working in the Park Service, history is not enclosed within a building, rather it resides wherever man has managed to interact with nature.

Park rangers are not just the people who wear funny uniforms and tell you how to get around Yellowstone.  They are historical interpreters who bring to life significant sites.     For those who love history and education but have no interest in working a typical 9-5 job behind a desk, the Park Service is the perfect answer.

Rangers come into the job in many different ways.  Some enter knowing that this is what they want to do and some, like Mike West, fall into it by accident.  Mike, a 32 year veteran in park management, earned a degree in human resources with a minor in film studies.  After his job evaporated Mike found himself looking for temporary employment.  He wanted something that he could do in the short term to earn money while he attempted to find another professional position.  The National Park Service was hiring for the summer season and Mike accepted what he thought was a six month job and saw it as an opportunity for further training in his chosen profession.  He discovered a passion for the work and when he was offered a full time position, accepted it and never looked back.

Mike said that the Park Service is highly competitive but that there are still opportunities if someone is dedicated.  Field rangers are generally hired as temporary, seasonal employees and seldom stay in one location for very long.  The frequent transfers were a part of the fun for Mike in the beginning.  He said that making the yearly move from park to park can be draining and many rangers give up the life after a few years.  “Knowing that you can fit everything you own in a car can suck”, but for those who stick it out, the opportunity for full time employment does eventually occur.  He recommended that anyone interested in being a field ranger get training in multi media or films.  Mike found that his education in those areas has served him well as he is responsible for creating documentaries and interactive media shows for visitors.

Rangers have the monumental task of keeping tabs on all the people that visit the national parks across the nation.  Because of the uncontrollable nature of the parks and their visitors, there is not a typical day.  Mike said that rangers have to be prepared for anything.  One of his most memorable visitors was a man who argued with him regarding the use of a metal detector at Little Big Horn.  Guess who won that argument.

According to Mike the most difficult part of the job is the overly needy people who want their hands held and who take no responsibility for creating their own dream vacation.  Rangers love to teach, but they don’t like to parent.  Ironically, people are also the best part of the job, according to Mike.  He loves interacting with those who come with a passion for learning about the site and an interest in the environment.

Mike stated that his path was not a typical one and did not recommend it for others.  “I got lucky,” he said.  “I thought I wanted to work in human resources.  Looking back the best thing that ever happened to me was getting laid off.”  Mike has turned down several promotions in order to continue being hands on.  A field ranger is not an administrator and had no paperwork, a job bonus as far as Mike is concerned.  Administration is not for him.  He likes to be in the field, teaching people about the history of sites like Little Big Horn and the Grand Canyon.

Mike laughed when I asked him what advice he has for people who want to work as historical interpreters for the Park Service.  “Bring a lot of patience and humor.  Being a ranger means having a plan for the day but knowing that your plan is subject to sudden and drastic changes.”  He laughed again then added, “For example, I didn’t expect to spend an hour talking to a history student today, but this kind of stuff is the best part of my day.”

Mike also said that interpretative field rangers have a lot of leeway in how they impart information regarding the history of the parks.  “Some monuments have a pretty bloody history and you learn to tone some of that down when you have a group of kids.  You get pretty good at reading a crowd and tailoring your talk to the group.”

Mike said the single most important factor in working with the park service is enjoying people.  “So much of our job is about interacting with the public.  Liking the outdoors is another vital part of the job.  People get excited when you’re excited.  If you dislike hiking and going out in all kinds of nasty weather then this is probably not the job for you.”

According to Mike working for the park service means that you are an educator, conservationist, nature expert, camp counselor, and guide.  He ended with this thought.  “No matter what else happens during the day, I get to watch the sun set over the Grand Canyon.  How can you not love that?”