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Sunday, March 18, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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National parks: What's it like being a female park ranger?

Los Angeles Times

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Whenever I go to a national park, I decide to become a ranger. I can't think of anything more romantic than working in Yellowstone, Yosemite or the Grand Canyon. But what's the job really like, and how do women fare in the park service?

Although Yellowstone, the first national park, was established in 1872, it wasn't until the 1920s that women got a chance to work in America's great wilderness areas, not as full-fledged rangers with badges but as naturalists who helped show visitors around.

"I didn't 'range'; I talked," Isabel Wasson, one of the early female naturalists in Yellowstone, says in "National Parks and the Woman's Voice: A History" (University of New Mexico Press, 1996), by Polly Welts Kaufman.

"Women could always do the work of a park ranger," Kaufman recently told me. But as she explains in her book, the door closed on them swiftly in the '20s because many male rangers thought women made the job look effeminate.

Outdoorswomen started returning to the park service in the 1960s, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the advent of the women's movement. Still, it took more than another decade for them to be allowed to wear the traditional park ranger green trousers and gray shirts, instead of uniforms with go-go boots that made them look like stewardesses.

Yvette Ruan, chief ranger at Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, recalls that 20 years ago, on her first park service job - as a law enforcement officer at Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego--she was told to wear a skirt because the president was coming to visit. "I refused," she says. "I wasn't going to wear a gun with a skirt."

Ruan, one of the national park service's 1,070 commissioned female rangers (compared with 2,330 men), has chased drug runners while stationed (often by herself) on an island in Florida's Biscayne National Park and has searched for missing persons on lava flows at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Lorenza Fong, superintendent of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site (the Long Island, N.Y., home of Theodore Roosevelt), broke several bones while fighting a fire in New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns National Park. And 15 years ago, Sherrie Collins, head of emergency services at the Grand Canyon, helped save a park visitor who had fallen 60 feet. She hiked three miles into Havasu Creek and cleared a place for a rescue helicopter to land.

Are there any jobs women can't do? "No, no, no," says Marsha Lee, human resources manager for the NPS Pacific West Region in San Francisco. "We have found that women can do everything. They think with their heads, not their muscles."

Lee says there are three types of rangers: generalists, interpreters and law enforcement officers (including emergency rescue and firefighting). Salaries begin at about $22,000 a year and go up to almost $68,000 for chief rangers.

Not great compared with some private industries. Nor, rangers say, are the accommodations, although lucky Sagamore Hill superintendent Fong lives in a 1910 coachman's house surrounded by woods in the tony Long Island neighborhood of Oyster Bay.

The other big problem for career women rangers is what happens if they get married and have children. Many park service women marry park service men. But to advance in the park service, whether you're male or female, you must be willing to move, which isn't always easy to do in tandem. Grand Canyon ranger Collins has been lucky because her husband, Ronnie Gibson, is also a ranger in the canyon.

They've had more than a decade of stability to raise their 10-year-old son, Casey, in the little park service community on the canyon's South Rim, where there's a school. Jennifer Flynn, a young wilderness ranger at the Grand Canyon, started as a seasonal worker at Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts, where she met her husband, Mike, a firefighter. Between the cape and the canyon, she moved many times in her park service career. "The park service has been pretty good about hiring couples together," she says. "But Mike's followed me around. It's kind of his turn now."

The Flynns have a 6-month-old, Connor, day care in Grand Canyon Village and weekends off.

Ruan at Golden Gate says she chose not to marry or have kids so she could pursue her park career. Her rewards have been plentiful, though. As a park service chief ranger, she has reached a career pinnacle. But perhaps more important, her job has given her the chance to live in many remarkable places, including the Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado.

Judy Bartzatt, chief ranger at Joshua Tree National Park, tells her workers that they're paid in "sunshine and sunsets."

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