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.
“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
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 yo