The timeless ranger in Jackson Hole

16 Sep 2023

Protecting and connecting people and place

Summer 2023

Written By: Melissa Thomasma | Images: Courtesy Grand Teton National Park Service

If you spend any time immersed in the unparalleled beauty of Grand Teton National Park, you’re certain to encounter one of the park’s dedicated keepers.

Clad in the iconic green and gray uniform — and sometimes the distinctive, flat-brimmed hat — the rangers of Grand Teton National Park serve in a wide variety of roles throughout the park, protecting the landscape and assisting visitors.

“For decades a park ranger had a very diverse role; they did everything from enforcing laws, to carpentry work to ‘managing’ wildlife,” explains Valerie Gohlke, public affairs officer for Grand Teton National Park. “The same rangers collected fees at entrance gates and patrolled trails on horseback. The national parks saw a big change when automobiles became mass produced and popular, giving the American people an easier way to see the parks and they became busier, and more rangers were needed.

“Today, our jobs are specific in our area of expertise. Visitor and resource protection rangers are now federally commissioned and must go to a federal law enforcement academy. Not all rangers are commissioned law enforcement officers,” Valerie explains.

Shelby Barbay, however, is.

“I think everyone views their role as a law enforcement ranger a bit differently,” Shelby says. “It means something special to us all. In regard to being a visitor and resource protection ranger in our national parks, I think our role is vital. We are the ones who respond to, well, everything: motor vehicle accidents, wildlife issues, medical calls, fires, mental health crises, disorderly individuals. I can’t imagine our national parks without (visitor and resource protection) rangers, especially at a time when nearly every park has seen a skyrocket in visitation over the last few years.

“It is my goal to help visitors understand that we need their help by encouraging them to be stewards of their public lands,” she adds. “I want everyone to visit, but we need people to help us with recognizing and reporting crimes. In order to do so, they have to feel connected, and they have to be aware of park policies. I want to help visitors understand they have just as much responsibility as I do in being a steward for these protected lands.”

She recalls a summer day in 2022 as she was patrolling near Oxbow Bend. “A family was hauling a trailer just ahead of me, and I saw smoke and flames coming from their rear right side of the trailer. I activated my lights and got the vehicle to stop without further damage, then assisted them with contacting roadside assistance,” she explains. “This may seem like a minimal interaction, or a normal day on the job, but the incident ended with the father shaking my hand and stating, ‘Thank you for being a fantastic role model for my daughters.’ It moved me to the point of being speechless. I hope I enhanced their experience and connected them to the park. I certainly felt connected to them. I’ll never forget it.”

Shelby notes that there’s a common misconception that park rangers aren’t cops. “We are. Sure, there are a lot of other aspects to the job — search and rescue, emergency medical services, fire — but our primary role is law enforcement. We see everything that city police departments see but in different environments and varying quantities. Visitors are surprised when they see a park ranger carrying a gun. It can be a stressful job but I love what I do and am honored to wear the uniform.”

Other rangers who wear the uniform across the park fill very different roles than Shelby and her fellow law enforcement officers. “We have education rangers who talk to visitors at the visitor center, lead hikes and talks, and give programs about park-specific subjects,” explains Valerie, highlighting the lengthy list of roles needed to keep the park running smoothly. “Some rangers work at entrance gates and collect fees, so they are the first person you meet as you enter a national park. Some rangers study science and wildlife, some are firefighters, and others are mechanics and plumbers who wear a uniform.”

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