Andrea Willingham is a former park ranger with the U.S. National Park Service. In this piece, she reflects on what it means to be a female park ranger in the NPS and the importance it holds for women in outdoor spaces.

Park ranger Andrea Willingham

Photo: Wesley Lucas; words + all other photos by Andrea Willingham ::

“I’m now officially a park ranger. Uniform arrived yesterday in all its oddly-proportioned glory. Apparently female park rangers are expected to have ginormous butts and three-inch waists, according to the size of the trousers I received, but it’ll have to work for the summer. Go ahead, have your laughs.”
– Blog entry, June 20, 2013

My cheeky post was accompanied by a blurry Instagram photo of my coworker and me. The two of us were standing awkwardly in the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve visitor center.

My uniform was still creased from the packaging, billowing out at awful angles, and my enormous flat hat shadowed my face.

I looked especially tiny.

It’s a wonder anyone ever takes me seriously in this getup.

It’s the beginning of my first three seasons as a ranger with the United States National Park Service (NPS) in Alaska. It’s also the beginning of some of the most incredible, yet challenging, experiences of my life.

Not every ranger is made the same

There are many types of park rangers: law enforcement, wildlife rangers, cultural resources, maintenance, etc. For the next three years, I would work as an interpretive ranger across three different parks in Alaska: Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, Sitka National Historical Park, and Denali National Park and Preserve.

My job is providing public education that connects visitors to the parks. As an interpreter, I guide hikes and tours, give public talks, host campground programs, and work the front desk in park visitor centers. The latter are where I help visitors plan trips and learn about natural and cultural resources.

The best part about the job? I can immerse myself in some of the most incredible public lands in the United States. I’m in areas that preserve our history, culture, ecosystems, and wildlife.

Experiencing the three parks

A woman hikes through wildflowers in an Alaska national park.

Located just below the Arctic Circle, Bering Land Bridge National Preserve protects over two million acres of remote tundra. This area is accessible only by bush plane, on foot, or by dog sled or snow machine in the winter.

Sitka National Historical Park tells the history of the indigenous Tlingit and early Russian-American colonialism on Alaska’s southeast coast.

And home to North America’s tallest mountain, Denali National Park and Preserve protects over six million acres of wilderness in interior Alaska. It also houses myriad megafauna including caribou, grizzlies, wolves, moose, and Dall sheep.

I live in, or near, each of the parks where I work, and spend my weekends exploring these places. Because of this, I get the opportunity to backpack through the Denali backcountry, fish for salmon on the Seward Peninsula, and watch whales spout right out the window in Sitka.

Less than 40% of rangers are female

As I progress in my work, I realize that, while being a ranger is great, it isn’t without challenges. Part of me is always aware that, as a female, I am regarded a little differently. I’m not what people expect to see when they think of a park ranger.

Rangering is still a male-dominated industry. With around 20,000 park rangers in the NPS workforce, less than 40% are female. Though I often work on teams with a greater ratio of female staff, as a small, young woman in uniform, it is still hard not to stand out. At times, I think being a female ranger makes me more approachable. At other times, I attract unwanted attention.

All are welcomed (supposedly)

“She’s cute in a flat hat,” one man leered to his friend during my first season, right in front of me. 

At another park, an older woman said to me, “It’s so interesting they’re letting women do this now. I met another young female park ranger this year, and I just couldn’t believe it!” Unsure of how to respond, I said something to the effect of “Yeah, there are a lot of us doing this now.”

I’ve also been told I “look like a little girl,” asked if I’m married, and “complimented” in some very uncomfortable ways about my uniform.

Our public lands are supposed to be open and welcoming to all. With all the recent attention given to sexual harassment and discrimination in U.S. media today — including fingers pointed at the NPS — it’s important for women to be present in outdoor spaces.

National parks and public lands represent opportunity for both people today and future generations. By excluding or undervaluing certain populations in the stewardship and enjoyment of these places, we are doing a disservice to our public lands and the people who should be a part of them.

A park ranger is a protector

I prefer to confront these challenges and work to solve them in a field that I love. It does us no good to succumb to either what others think or to their stereotypes.

Author Kurt Caswell writes:

“A park ranger is a protector. You protect the land from the people, the people from the land, the people from each other, and the people from themselves. It’s what you’re trained to do without even thinking, a reflexive and unconditional act. If you’re lucky, you get assigned to people who seem worth saving and land and waters whose situation is not hopeless. If not, you save them anyway. And maybe in time, saving them will make them worth it.”

It’s worth it

I try to keep Caswell’s words close at heart in my work with the park service — and beyond. His words remind me that compassion lies at the heart of what I do and who I am.

Despite the challenges of being a female park ranger, it’s more than worth it. Working in the service of North America’s wild lands give me a rare growth opportunity. I hope to keep experiencing our public lands while creating safer spaces for all women to experience.  

Girl standing on mountain summit in the Alaska Range

. . .

About the author

Andrea Willingham is a park ranger-turned-environmental communication specialist. She uses writing, film, photography, and multimedia storytelling to explore the human relationship with the natural environment.

Hailing from Florida, Andrea now lives in Oregon and volunteers as a Grassroots Program Manager for Outdoor Women’s Alliance’s California and Oregon Teams. She enjoys hiking in the Cascades, playing in the snow, and exploring the Pacific Northwest. She hopes to inspire others with her writing and visual storytelling, to seek out their own grand adventures in this world.

Find her online

Facebook: @TrailMixed
Twitter: @TrailMixed
Instagram: @TrailMixedMedia