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. 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 https://www.nps.gov/getinvolved/volunteer.htm.
If you do not live near a national park, contact the Student Conservation Association (SCA), (https://www.thesca.org), 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 or interns within state and national parks and other locales. Programs last anywhere from a few days to three to five weeks.
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.
Our country's National Park System spans the country. Every state and several territories are home to at least one unit of the National Park Service (NPS). Most of these parks and historic sites welcome hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. To keep this amazing organization running, the NPS employs more than 20,000 permanent, temporary, and seasonal employees, and there are about 315,000 NPS volunteers. Each NPS employee performs an essential function within the system. A few examples are described below:
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.
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 educate the public about the history and value of the resources. They also 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.
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.