An Inside Look at CNCC's National Park Ranger Academy

 

As an Army veteran and former deputy sheriff, Tanner Poindexter wanted to draw on his military and law enforcement experience to work as a park ranger in the National Park Service (NPS). But before he could become a national park ranger, he needed to complete a certification program approved by the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC).

Poindexter enrolled at the National Park Ranger Academy at Colorado Northwestern Community College (CNCC) in Rangely, Colorado. Located in the high desert within close proximity to Dinosaur National Monument, the academy prepares program participants for seasonal employment as a park ranger with the NPS. Graduates of the 16-week law enforcement training are certified as sworn law officers. The 33 academic credits earned in the academy can also be applied towards an associate degree in Park Ranger Studies at CNCC.

 

Training to Become the Police of the National Parks

Park Ranger Academy

According to CNCC academy director Charles Huyck, National Park Service law enforcement rangers are “the police of the national parks.” While there are also interpretive rangers and backcountry rangers, law enforcement rangers carry a gun and a badge. We pretty much do

Law enforcement park rangers deal with everything from domestic violence calls at campgrounds to DUIs. “We also do a lot of traffic control because the national parks are not really designed for the amount of traffic coming through. Then there are a lot of people that want to get out and try to pet the bison in Yellowstone, for example. Park rangers do a lot of crowd control,” Huyck added. “On the other hand, you could be assisting with search and rescue, looking for a lost child in the woods or going and recovering a body.” the whole gamut of law enforcement and assistance. We have a lot of the same criminal activity that is typical in any major city. When the population swells with people, so do the problems,” Huyck says.

Law enforcement rangers also make sure that park visitors aren’t damaging natural resources, such as illegally harvesting trees or poaching wildlife, or defacing archeological sites. Park rangers are first responders, often cooperating with local law enforcement and sheriff’s departments. “We require park rangers to be EMTs so they have to have emergency medical training just because of the nature of the job. They do some wildland fire training, as park rangers need to have knowledge of how to fight a wildfire and not get hurt,” Huyck says.

CNCC’s National Park Ranger Academy is one of only six seasonal law enforcement training programs in the United States that is approved by the NPS and FLETC. The NPS relies on the seasonal academies, most of which are offered at community colleges, to provide national park service training. CNCC’s park ranger academy is a residential program, with on-campus housing for program participants. “The FLETC certificate is what qualifies you to work for the National Park Service,” Huyck says.

 

A Typical Day In the CNCC Park Ranger Academy

National Park Ranger

A typical day in CNCC’s park ranger academy starts at 5 a.m. with physical conditioning, Huyck says. Students have to pass a physical efficiency battery in order to graduate and then pass again every year they are on the job. “That battery basically consists of an upper-body bench press to measure upper body strength. It also includes a 1.5-mile run and an agility run that also measures speed. You have to pass that satisfactorily depending on your gender and age,” Huyck says.

Students have five opportunities to pass the physical battery over the course of the 16-week national park service training. Huyck said that not meeting the physical requirements is the most common reason why students don’t graduate from the academy.

Tess Swiecanski, a former officer in the U.S. Coast Guard who recently graduated from CNCC’s park ranger program, advises prospective students to be prepared for the physical requirements of the academy. Rangely, Colorado has an elevation of over 5,000 feet. “It was a little harder coming from Connecticut to prepare for the elevation,” she said. “That was a rude awakening.”

After physical conditioning, participants start class around 7:30 a.m. Huyck says that academic classes cover topics ranging from U.S. Constitutional law to ethics and conduct. “We have a multitude of 

subjects. Everything from interviewing to surveillance to radio communications, drugs and abuse, control tactics, firearms, that type of thing,” he explains. “We also spend a lot of time on legal issues, Fourth Amendment rights, and all types of legal case precedents such as use of force considerations.”

Poindexter adds that the first two or three weeks of the National Park Ranger Academy are spent on more theoretical topics such as law, and then the training focus moves into patrol tactics, firearm skills and driving. “Patrol tactics are where you're trying to defend yourself or fight off an assailant, using a baton or taser or your weapon if you have to,” he says.

He says that the last month of the law enforcement training is spent on scenarios where participants try to put together everything they learned during the previous 12 weeks. “You go through scenarios that people have actually been through and seasoned law enforcement officers will grade you, give you tips about what you did wrong and try to help you do better when you actually get in that situation,” Poindexter says.

CNCC also offers several other training options as add-on courses for people who want to pursue a career as a park ranger, such as a 40-hour EMT class offered at the end of the academy. “We offer some supplemental classes on the weekends, such as wildland firefighting classes. They're not necessary to become a park ranger, but when you're competing with other people that have the training, then it does become necessary,” Huyck says.

 

 Learning From Law Enforcement Professionals

Like many faculty teaching in the academy, Huyck is a veteran law enforcement officer who has made his career in law enforcement training. He is a former special agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Land Management. In addition to being a certified Federal Law Enforcement Training Center instructor, he also served as the chief of basic training at the FLETC. He retired as the resident agent in charge for the Coast Guard Investigative Service in Miami before joining CNCC in 2015.

The instructors in CNCC’s National Park Service training program are all experienced park rangers and law enforcement professionals. Huyck says they bring in experts in topics such as firearms, physical techniques, and defensive tactics. “We have an attorney that teaches our law classes, a former FLETC instructor. We have a lot of former military, we have a lot of local police who also engage with us. We have a lot of NPS rangers and special agents that come in as adjuncts,” Huyck says. “Our instructors have a very broad range of skills.”

Swiecanski says she enjoyed hearing from current and former park rangers, including some from the nearby Dinosaur National Monument. “It was interesting to hear about their experiences and the day-to-day things that they do,” she says.

 

What It Takes to Become a National Park Ranger

PRLEA

Students enrolling in the National Park Service training at CNCC need to be 21 years of age or over by the time they graduate in order to be able to carry a firearm. They also need to have a valid driver’s license and no felony convictions. Many students come from military or law enforcement backgrounds, and a lot of participants already have four-year bachelor’s degrees.

Huyck says that law enforcement park rangers typically need people skills, a love of the outdoors and an independent mindset. “A lot of times you're working on your own. You need to be able to be a self initiator. When you're out doing patrols in the park, you have to keep a keen eye out for things that are not in place and things that might need attention,” he says.

Huyck says that one of the most important things that students learn in order to successfully perform the duties of a law enforcement park ranger are interpersonal skills and communication.

“A lot of what you're dealing with is people-related. So we stress interviewing, fact-finding, dealing with how to diffuse a confrontational situation, and dealing with crowds that are becoming unruly,” he says.

Because the job is different every day, Huyck adds that a sense of adventure and independence is also important. “One day the job can be going down a river, checking on permits with a river ranger and writing citations for people not having proper sanitary equipment. The next day you could be on a search and rescue or pulling someone over for DUI,” he says.

Huyck advises prospective students who are considering enrolling in CNCC’s program that it is first and foremost a law enforcement job. “I try to stress right up front that you are basically a police officer in a green uniform,” he says. “It’s not a job for everyone, but we've had retired police officers come here later in life, in their 50s and 60s, and come to the National Park Ranger Academy just because they want to do seasonal work.”

Swiecanski highly recommends CNCC’s National Park Ranger Academy. “I think it's definitely worth doing the program. I really enjoyed it. I saw a lot of personal growth in my classmates,” she says.

For her part, Swiecanski decided to enroll in the park ranger academy because she wanted to learn more about how park rangers work. “I really liked the foundational aspect of it,” she says. “It really made me realize what I can do as a person. And it made me feel like I have a little bit more of a different skill set now that I didn't have beforehand.”

For Poindexter, the best part of being a seasonal park ranger is the ability to travel. He was recently preparing for a temporary assignment at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a reserve in southern Arizona along the Mexico border. “I’m going to go down there and work for 21 days straight on the border. And there are details like that across the entire country,” he said. “You can get on a fire detail, you can get on a security detail. You can travel across the country. Or if you want to go park hopping, just work park to park, and you go through the United States that way.”

 

Seasonal Job Prospects with the NPS

National Park Service

Once students earn the FLETC certification, they are eligible for a law enforcement commission and can apply for a seasonal position with the National Park Service. Summer seasons generally run 

between March and September, and winter seasons between October and February. There are opportunities at 419 individual locations covering more than 85 million acres in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories. There are 83 national monuments and 61 national parks in the United States, as well as a range of other sites including national historic sites and national seashores.

Seasonal vacancies are posted on USAJobs. The NPS accepts applications for summer positions between October and February and for winter positions between July and August. For applicants 

interested in a seasonal position, the NPS advises applying to smaller parks to improve the chances of selection. Some of the larger national parks receive hundreds of applications for just a few openings

While CNCC’s National Park Ranger Academy prepares its graduates to work in the NPS, Huyck says that there are some state park systems, such as Washington state, that also accept a national park service training program as equivalent to their basic training. “It just depends on the state,” Huyck says. for seasonal park rangers. According to the NPS, most new hires spend two to three years as a seasonal employee before they receive a permanent position.

Huyck says completing the FLETC certification for seasonal employment is a gateway to get a foot in the door with the NPS. “Actually, there are more jobs than the National Park Service can fill every year. A lot of the seasonal rangers are picked up as permanent park rangers. If you do a good job and you have a good track record, you are probably going to be asked at some point to come on permanently in a year-round position,” he explains. “There are a lot of seasonal park ranger jobs out there and it's just a matter of how flexible you are. If you're willing to go anywhere from the Virgin Islands to Alaska, your chances are really good at getting a seasonal position.”

For more information on the National Park Ranger Academy at Colorado Northwestern Community College (CNCC) and how to obtain the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center certification required to become a park ranger for the NPS, please visit our program page.

 Published March 17, 2020