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How to Become a Park Ranger

When you visit a national or state park, you’ll often find park rangers monitoring wildlife, guiding tour groups along trails, searching for missing hikers, or maybe even investigating a crime. That’s because the title covers a wide range of responsibilities, but a single park ranger won’t necessarily have all of those duties. 

A park ranger’s job description depends on the agency that hires them and the professional lane they adopt. For example, they could enter park administration, management, or public safety, to name just a few. In honor of World Ranger Day this week, we’ve compiled what you need to know to become a park ranger.

We reviewed job descriptions on various government and non-profit websites, read through government documents about the profession, and even reached out to the Department of Interior (DOI), which employs the most park rangers at the federal level. Here’s what we found.

What does a park ranger do?

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Image by EF Volart

A park ranger’s responsibilities depend on the agency they work for, as well as their professional field. 

At the state level, for instance, park rangers are primarily employed by state Fish & Wildlife Services or Departments of Natural Resources. They typically serve a law enforcement function. It’s different at the federal level, though. 

The federal agencies that hire park rangers — or the professional series GS-0025 — include the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Forest Service, and the DOI, which consists of the National Park Service (NPS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Bureau of Reclamation (USBR), and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS). 

According to the federal Office of Personnel Management, the job function of a park ranger is categorized into three fields: interpretive services, visitor protection or services, and resource management. 

  • Interpretive services involve interpreting the “natural, historical, archeological, or other features” of the park. Rangers in this field give tours or demonstrations. 
  • Visitor protection or services manages the operation of campgrounds, marinas, picnic areas, and other recreation facilities. They also serve as bodyguards, conduct search-and-rescue operations and other emergency services. Plus, they enforce traffic control and other similar tasks. 
  • Resource management involves protecting, managing, and conserving the “natural, historical, and other characteristics” of the park. They are the scientists and archeologists who maintain the land, animals, and artifacts found within a park’s boundaries. 

In short, what you end up doing as a federal park ranger depends on the field you hire into, the location and season, and your experience. 

According to the DOI, responsibilities also vary depending on your pay grade. In an entry-level position, you’ll primarily interact with visitors, but as you move up the chain, you’ll be expected to do more planning and decision-making for the agency. 

How do you become a park ranger?

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Image by EF Volart

Just like the jobs themselves, the hiring process to become a park ranger depends on the agency and the job description. 

For example, a current listing for a non-law enforcement position at Everglades National Park requires you to apply, take a written assessment as well as a swim test and a foreign language test, and interview with a hiring manager. 

On the other hand, becoming a park ranger with law enforcement duties in Washington state requires that you apply; pass a written, polygraph, and fitness test; interview; and pass a background check. 

Also, depending on the agency, it is possible to become a park ranger without a college degree, but you probably won’t advance through the ranks or have the opportunity to move into other fields of operation. Some fields are highly specialized and require an advanced academic degree.

A park ranger’s training also depends on the job description. Most non-law enforcement park rangers at the federal level undergo on-the-job training, while park rangers with law-enforcement duties attend a training program

Additionally, park rangers at the state level have their own programs, which might be the police academy or the equivalent of one. 

How much does a park ranger make?

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A park ranger’s salary depends on the hiring agency, location, and job description. At the state level, according to ZipRecruiter, park rangers earn somewhere between $31,029 and $46,909. At the federal level, park rangers make more, but with a caveat. 

Federal park rangers earn on average between $48,771 and $79,278, according to the website Federal Pay. The Forest Service, which employs 12 park rangers, is at the low end, while NPS, with about 3,000 park rangers, is at the high end. 

The caveat is that federal jobs are more difficult to obtain. According to Indeed, federal candidates often face a more intensive hiring process than private employees. NPS says it gets thousands of applications for only a handful of openings. 

Plus, those agencies rely on a lot of seasonal workers and volunteers, and their budgets fluctuate depending on the priorities and politics of leaders in power.  

Is being a park ranger worth it?

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The obvious appeal of being a park ranger is that you get to work inside a park. You get to oversee and interact with nature on a daily basis. It’s still a job, though, and all jobs have their pros and cons. 

The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service teamed with the federal government in 2022 to survey federal employees about job satisfaction, and although the DOI ranked as the ninth-best government agency to work for, the agencies within it ranked mediocre to the bottom 15%. 
According to the survey results, USBR, USFWS, and BLM ranked 174, 204, and 348 out of 432 agencies. The NPS ranked the worst out of the four at 371. NPS employees said the biggest issues were pay, work-life balance, and the lack of diversity.

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