A breed apart
Wilderness rangers need special skills to meet challenges of solitary duty
When Congress passed the Wilderness Act in September of 1964, laying the groundwork to “secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness,” a job description of sorts was also created. Lands of such a unique nature would need stewards of a unique character to guard the legacy of wild places.
And wilderness rangers were born.
Tasked with monitoring and managing the wilderness areas created by Congress, wilderness rangers spend much of their time deep in the isolated and untamed lands across the country. For 10-day stretches, the rangers travel into the backcountry, carrying everything they need and relying on a unique set of skills to survive and stay productive in the wilderness.
One June 5, 65 neophyte wilderness rangers gathered at Mesa Verde National Park for the annual Rocky Mountain and Southwest Region Wilderness Ranger Academy. A six-day academy designed to arm rangers with the distinctive skills necessary for wilderness management, the event focused on past, present and future stewardship of wild lands.
“We come together at these academies to provide (the rangers) with the skills they need to do their jobs for the summer,” said Ralph Swain, wilderness program manager for the Rocky Mountain region. “Their jobs are different because the lands on which they work are different.”
The annual academy is an interagency partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
Wilderness rangers, like visitors to wild lands, are bound by the constraints of the Wilderness Act, which defines wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
As a result, wilderness rangers must learn how to do their job without the motorized and mechanized conveniences offered to rangers on other public lands.
“These people have to have backcountry skills that other rangers don’t have to rely on,” Swain said. “Knots and weeds and crosscut saw skills and skills for public contacts, they need all these things and we have to give them the skills to be safe and professional.”
A combination of classroom and field work, the academy sent rangers through a series of discussions on the value of wilderness, the legal backing of wilderness, wildlife conflicts and numerous interactions with agencies and nonprofit organizations intent on protecting wilderness areas.
Through it all was the common thread of trust in and respect for the distinctive character of the rangers who walk into wild places alone and unafraid.
“It is a calling these people have and a passion and commitment to taking care of public lands,” Swain said.
The rangers themselves all share similar reasons for pursuing a career in the wilderness, whether it be seeking isolation, a desire to protect wild lands, or an urge to push beyond limitations.
“To a lot of people in the world, we’re insane,” said Bill Dickson, a wilderness ranger with the Columbine Ranger District, based in Bayfield. “We carry 60 pounds on our backs rather than hopping on (all-terrain vehicles).
“We’re the kind of people who appreciate traditional skills. The wild crowd is different.”
Steve Chesterton, a wilderness manager with the Arapahoe National Forest near Boulder, said his love for public wild spaces developed from a hobby and now is a full-blown passion.
“I like the idea of being basically a trustee for these great natural landscapes on public lands,” Chesterton said. “It is our job to preserve them in accordance with the Wilderness Act, and it is quite a calling.”
All those who work in the backcountry agree the wild places of America allow people an opportunity to escape from the modern world and to seek, in their own way, the tranquility of the wild.
“The wilderness is not there for our convenience” said Ros Wu, with the Pagosa Ranger District. “People go to the wilderness to seek the divine.”
“As you leave the front country, something is being shed away,” said Brian White, a member of the San Juan National Forest recreation staff. “The trappings of the modern world are gone and you are faced with self reliance and challenge and risk. Henry David Thoreau said it best, ‘In wildness is the preservation of the world.’”
Reach Kimberly Benedict at firstname.lastname@example.org.