Are rangers hired to talk to the animals, inform park visitors at interpretive centers, enforce laws about not feeding the animals, keeping speeding down, or to protect the park, people, and its resources? Is there a role for armed rangers? The answer is complicated and might depend on the times and the jobs.
Did you grow up with Ranger Rick Magazine reading vicariously about nature? Cartoon character Yogi Bear and his pal Boo Boo lived in Jellystone Park and constantly stole pic-a-nic baskets behind the back of a slightly bumbling and unarmed Ranger Smith. When Yellowstone Park was created in 1872, armed US Calvary were summonsed to protect the national treasures of nature from over hunting, taking timber from the forest, and extracting souvenirs form the geyser basins. Colonial activities in Africa and elsewhere also used this model to set important lands aside for nature conservation. Critics called this exclusionary, or fortress conservation, because persons around the parks and who traditionally used them were forcibly excluded to protect the area from being overexploited for personal gains.
I was recently the outside reviewer for a Ph.D. thesis from Africa that evaluated how “militarization” with a park in Zimbabwe affected park management, biodiversity, and the peoples adjacent to the park who had historically used the area. Initially, colonials excluded locals, heavily enforced new rules, and fenced the park to protect natural resources for national interests. Procedures also protected the neighbors from wildlife leaving the park and causing depredations and other problems. Traditional uses of the area for grazing, collecting plants and bush meat were limited. Nature flourished.
After independence, protections were not enforced well, the fences were breached, and nature was negatively impacted even by the standards of neighbors who were interviewed for the study. Illegal poaching of elephants and rhinoceros for commercial sales of tusks and horns respectively prompted a new era of “militarization” as the Ph.D. student author described it. The bad guys had guns and so did the good guys who were taught to use them.
Parks have become an international symbol for thoughtful decisions to protect natural resources for their merits and for people to enjoy. Rangers protect the environment from people, people from the environment, and people from each other. The impact on locals, although controversial, was a cost of doing what was deemed a greater good for society.
As parks became a more accepted norm in the US, park rangers are asked to fill a variety of roles beyond enforcement of managed spaces and laws. They became friendly hosts and interpreters, with Smoky the Bear Hats who rescue the lost, fight fires, and save wildlife. Rangers with guns were common until After World War II when “Mission 66” prompted the softer line of enforcement and educational work. Guns were in the glove box until the Yosemite Riots in 1970 prompting new roles of law enforcement, training, and actions turned more forceful again.
Not all park visitors are sweet grandparents and young grandchildren seeking peace and solitude. People sometimes use parks for new enjoyment: listen to loud music, form into groups, use alcohol and drugs, tempers flare, and behaviors are not civil toward property, people, wildlife, nature, or themselves. Rangers with guns might be safer and better deterrents than being without guns. Wildlife law enforcement officers work with hunters who carry guns openly when they hunt. Adding alcohol and drugs to that scene also is reason for officers to be well trained and to protect themselves.
Drugs are grown on properties managed by Forest Rangers who must be cautious about encounters with illegal activities. Fugitives hide on public lands and enforcement personnel have experienced lethal encounters since the days of mining claim disputes, bootlegged whiskey stills, Great Depression survivalists, and modern poachers of animals and other products of nature.
New concerns about personal security, national security, food security, and environmental security, were prompted by events of 9/11 when terrorist activities invaded relatively peaceful spaces. Some employees of parks, wildlife agencies, and public lands have little need to be armed, especially when their jobs do not relate to illicit activities and dangerous people. Those who face jeopardy, benefit from exceptional training, proper equipment for the situations, and public support.
“Is that Gun for the Bears?” was the title of a related article by Kelly Pennaz AB, reviewing “The National Park Service Ranger as a Historically Contradictory Figure” in Conservation and Society 2017 [cited 2019 Apr 4];15:243-54. Available from:
Use my thoughts, the author cited, and others on your journey to make up your own mind about the gun you see on belt of the next ranger that you encounter.