Lauren Carter’s face is speckled with freckles and tainted red from the sun. Her dirty blonde hair is tied back in a ponytail and tucked away underneath a stiff straw hat. A tattoo around her wrist peeks out from underneath her watch as she puts on her lightweight army green jacket to match her dark green pants and a short sleeve gray green top, both pressed to perfection. Her brown boots stomp on the rocky ground.
Her gold badge shimmers in the sunlight with the words “Park Ranger” on it.
“I knew being a park ranger was something I just really wanted to do. Someone even told me I would make a great ranger,” said Lauren Carter, an interpretation ranger at the Petrified Forest National Park. “It has all the things I wanted: a teamwork aspect, a job where you get to see the results, I can be outside and active, and I get to learn new things every day.”
Carter stops at an overlook that hangs over the Painted Desert, a scene rich in red, orange and purples with faded white stripes cutting across the dry land. She pulls out an iPad from her red backpack and taps onto the Cornell Bird Finder app as a dark brown bird flaps by and dives into the desert. The app allows her to input the color, size, sound and activity of the bird to classify what kind it is.
As a interpretation ranger, Carter’s job is to focus on the educational aspects of the park. She informs people on its archaeology, ecology, geology, history and paleontology by leading programs, answering letters from students or just by walking around and talking to curious visitors. Lauren is spending her last few hours of her nine-hour day for “project time,” a designated time to work on her project Students Phenology for Outdoor Citizens (SPOC), a project she has produced and nurtured from the start.
SPOC is funded through a $9,000 grant from the National Park Foundation’s 2015 field trip grant, which is part of the Every Kid in a Park initiative. The grant pays for school travel, lunches for students and equipment for the program. SPOC focuses on phenology, a study of plant and animal life during different seasons, whereas most programs at the park focus on fossils. Beginning in April, more than 500 fourth-graders will descend on the park on field trips. They will walk a mile-long trail, led by Lauren, each kid with an iPad in hand.
“During the walk on the rim trail, kids will learn about the plants and animals of the park using (four) different apps on the iPads that have been bought using the grant,” Carter said. “They will make observations that go into real research for the park about the phenology of plants or even looking for specific lizards for our park biologist.”
Carter marches along the path, imitating what she will be doing with the kids. Walking is one of her favorite parts of the job, whether it’s wandering through the colorful Painted Desert, strolling past the petroglyphs from a civilization long ago, or getting lost among petrified trees frozen in time. She often stares at the ground, as if searching for something.
“I always keep a look out when I’m walking around the park; you never know what you will find,” said Carter, whose fossil discoveries in the last seven years are now displayed in the park museum. “If I see something interesting, I will take a picture of it and the spot I am at, and I’ll show the park paleontologist later. It is important not to move the piece, though.”
Carter points things out: the hoot of an owl that resides in the same tree every morning, a green brown patch that hosts a family of white bunnies or a path that is nice to run in the early morning. These are observations that only a resident would know, which is exactly what Carter is.
She lives and breathes state parks, and even calls herself a “park nerd.” Carter recently married a law enforcement park ranger at the Petrified Forest. The two got engaged, married and even honeymooned at national parks. They returned to the Petrified Forest, where their house is located on the government property. Their neighbors include wildlife, fossils and 25 other park rangers all living in the small complex.
Carter, who has been a ranger for seven years, lives in a small complex at the park with Nick and their cat. She has the freedom on her off days to explore the park’s wilderness. While she loves being surrounded by nature, she also deals with the inconveniences of living in the park such as poor wi-fi, no cable, a grocery store that is a half-hour away and movie theater two hours’ away. However, the five-minute walking commute to the office seems to outweigh the flaws.
She spends half of her work day in a cubicle covered with thank-you letters from previous visitors with her education programs. She spends the mornings answering letters from students, answering visitors questions at the museum or producing lesson plans.
“I am a part of something bigger here,” Carter said. “Not only am I able to protect the park, but I am also tasked with helping people enjoy their park and learn about this park.”
One of her favorite things is distributing “Junior Park Ranger” badges to visitors of all ages, ranging from little kids to even a 98-year-old. After completing a booklet full of questions pertinent to the park, visitors are sworn in as junior park rangers.
“There are some kids that you can tell are really interested, but they are so shy that they don’t want to say the junior ranger pledge,” Carter said. “I was really shy when I was younger, too, so I like to tell them it’s OK that you’re shy because that means you’re a good listener, and great park rangers listen to people.”
Carter admits that she used to describe herself as timid and shy, but being a ranger has changed her. She has become more confident while talking to people, thanks in part to her education and passion, she said.
“The most rewarding part of my job is every time a kid in the park says I want to be a park ranger,” Carter said. “It reminds me that we are making a difference ,and some day another generation will take the reins and continue on as national park rangers.”
Sara Cline is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.