Preserving Our Parks

Photos by Rich Smith, Emily Long, & Sheree Varnes.

Tennessee is home to stunning scenery and diverse wildlife protected by state and national parks. Passion-driven individuals in park services look after this land and educate visitors on its significance. Read on to learn the stories and efforts of five individuals who work at parks in Eastern Tennessee. From historic council grounds and battlefields to scenic rivers and forests, these sites are taken care of by women and men dedicated to protecting and preserving the wildlife, history, and safety of the parks they love.

Gillian Robertsgillian roberts

Park Ranger II at Hiwassee | Ocoee Scenic Rivers State Park

 

“Be persistent and passionate. Never give up on your dreams.”

 

How long have you been working in park services?

Five years.

How did you get into this field of work?

I visited many state parks, national parks, and national battlefields when I was a kid. Camping was a summertime tradition with my family. I have always enjoyed being in the great outdoors and learning more about our natural world.

Describe the park that you work at. What led you there?

The Hiwassee/Ocoee Scenic Rivers State Park has two beautiful rivers to raft and kayak. The history of the area is rich, and there are many places to see and learn about. I grew up in the area, and it has always been a special place to me. I love that I have the opportunity to protect beautiful places for generations to come.

What are your favorite aspects of this position?

I really enjoy the search and rescue aspect of being a park ranger. I also enjoy educating others on the flora and fauna of our area. The community aspect and serving others is important to me as well.

What are the challenges?

Every day is different. State park rangers are law enforcement officers, EMTs/EMRs, educators, search and rescuers, and many other roles. The challenge is switching modes – one minute we could be doing a bird of prey program for a school group, and the next, we could be making an arrest or conducting a search and rescue.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in parks?

Be persistent and passionate. This is a competitive career field to be hired into. Never give up on your dreams if it is something you really want to do.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

We park rangers are a resource for you. If you don’t know where to begin when it comes to the outdoors, get in touch with a park ranger at one of your local state parks. See you out there!

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Joshua Grayjoshua gray

Resource Education Ranger at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

 

“I am forever glad to have a job that I immensely enjoy.”

 

How long have you been working in park services?

Over four years.

Describe the park that you work at. What led you there?

My current position is a resource education ranger in Cades Cove, a scenic and historic site in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Smokies is America’s most visited national park, eclipsing 14 million visits last year. It is home to some of the greatest biodiversity of any site in our nation. The park also presents an extensive collection of 90 historic structures, including houses, barns, mills, churches, and schools.

What are your favorite aspects of this position?

Getting to interact with the public, including you, the reader! I love being able to provide educational programs. For example, my Creek Critters program takes place within our picnic area in Cades Cove. Multiple times a week, I’m able to scrounge and find aquatic insects, salamanders, crayfish, and other creatures with the help of visitors. Learning with our senses and physically being able to find these critters can help provide a bond with our natural resources. More times than not, the kids and adults are finding more species than I can keep up with!

What are the challenges?

There are many people who like to approach, and sometimes harass, our wildlife. Within the Smokies, it is a federal regulation to stay 50 yards or further from wildlife. When a ‘bear jam’ develops, I arrive to facilitate the movement of traffic, while providing education to anyone that is viewing wildlife.

Any memorable experiences you’d like to share?

I proposed to my wife within the park. I stopped by the Sugarlands Visitor Center to ask about a nice trail nearby. The ranger I found at the desk is now my current supervisor at Cades Cove. My wife and I were able to enjoy a moment that will forever be in our hearts and minds because of the informative advice from a helpful ranger.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in parks?

Chase your passion! There are many professions and positions at the local, state, and federal levels for you to have a career within a park. I am forever glad to have a job that I immensely enjoy.

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Erin Medleyerin medley

Park Manager at Red Clay State Historic Park

 

“Being a park ranger means you get to wear many hats. If you like variety in your job, then this is the career for you.”

 

How long have you been working in park services?

23 years.

How did you get into this field of work?

A good friend, who also became a park ranger, told me about this career path in college. In 1999, I started at Harrison Bay State Park as a seasonal recreator/ranger’s aid. I became a park ranger at Booker T. Washington State Park in 2002.

Describe the park that you work at. What led you there?

Red Clay State Historic Park was the seat of Cherokee government from 1832 until their forced removal in 1838. By 1832, the state of Georgia had banned the Cherokee from all political activity. As a result, the Cherokee capital was moved from New Echota, Georgia, to Red Clay, Tennessee. Here, at Red Clay, the Trail of Tears really began, for it was at the Red Clay Council Grounds that the Cherokee learned that they had lost their mountains, streams, and valleys. Red Clay is in my hometown of Cleveland. I decided to transfer here because I was familiar with our community, and I knew I could get them involved with interpreting this aspect of our town’s history.

What are your favorite aspects of this position?

Working directly with the Cherokee People to tell their story. It has been an honor to work with them over the years and for them to be involved with the park’s interpretive programming.

Any memorable experiences you’d like to share?

The most memorable experiences are when the Cherokee People come back to Red Clay and celebrate their culture. It’s amazing to witness the love and connection they feel with the land, especially the Council Spring.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in parks?

Be prepared to work when everyone else is off, such as nights, weekends, and holidays. Being a park ranger means you get to wear many hats. If you like variety in your job, then this is the career for you.

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Robert Thomasrobert thomas

Park Ranger II at Booker T. Washington State Park

 

“Go and get the education that you will need to become a park ranger; it might be the best job that you could have.”

 

How long have you been working in park services?

Eight years full-time.

How did you get into this field of work?

The park manager came to me and asked if I wanted to make some extra money by doing programs for families at the park.

Describe the park that you work at. What led you there?

Booker T. Washington State Park is one of Tennessee’s hidden gems. It sits on the Chickamauga Reservoir and is a day-use recreational park, with over seven miles of hiking and biking trails, along with canoeing and many more activities. We offer opportunities such as the birds of prey and honeybee programs, and specialized hiking tours, from Hike for Health to ranger-led hikes identifying trees, invasive plant species, and Tennessee state symbols. We now have a full-service bait and tackle shop, so our visitors can just come straight to the park and get whatever they need to have an enjoyable day of fishing. There are also two overnight facilities that guests can rent out for the weekend. We are a family-friendly park that encourages all to come out and see what we have to offer.

What are your favorite aspects of this position?

Meeting the visitors that come to the park and doing programs with them, helping them to learn more about Tennessee plants and wildlife.

Any memorable experiences you’d like to share?

The best part of being a Tennessee State Park Ranger is getting to know new people and doing programs like the Junior Ranger Camp. The program I like the most is the End of the Summer Outdoor Celebration program, where we bring together 20-30 different parks and organizations to help teach kids that the outdoors has a lot to offer them if they just come out and see.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in parks?

Go and get the education that you will need to become a park ranger; it might be the best job that you could have. You have to enjoy meeting people and getting to know them to give them the best experience when they come to the park.

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James “Jim” Ogden, IIIJames “Jim” Ogden, III

Staff Historian at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park

 

“Learning more of the history can put you in a position to work as a ranger at a historic park.”

 

How long have you been working in park services?

40 years.

How did you get into this field of work?

I got interested in United States Civil War history as a kid, and from visits to historic sites on family vacations with my educator parents I got the idea that I could work for the National Park Service at one of its Civil War battlefield sites. I majored in United States history through the Civil War era in college and began looking for a park ranger job upon graduation.

Describe the park that you work at. What led you there?

The Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park preserves and interprets aspects of our nation’s terrible, tragic, but utterly transformative Civil War. It preserves parts of the battlefields of and the history of the Campaign for Chattanooga in 1863. I first came here in 1982 because there was a job open, but I came back in 1988 because I had become intrigued by the story of the Campaign for Chattanooga and other regional Civil War battlefields.

What are your favorite aspects of this position?

Working with the groups of military personnel who come here for a program the Army calls a Staff Ride. It is an analytical look at the campaign and battle from the leadership, principles of war, and timeless tenets of military art and science perspectives.

Any memorable experiences you’d like to share?

Playing a role in getting a couple dozen monuments, markers, and tablets back to their original locations, seeing additional parts of the Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge battlefields protected, and having interactions with military officers that have been here on Staff Rides with me. The latter can make me feel old, but it also helps make me think that I’ve contributed at least a little to their professional development.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in parks?

You might have to start out volunteering or with a temporary or summer job. Learning more of the history, as well as some of the seemingly mundane but important tasks like basic maintenance or keeping the inventory of the photocopy machine paper, can put you in a position to work as a ranger at a historic park.

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