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Paleo Hall

Paleontology: It's More Than Just Dinosaur Dig Sites (Though, That's Pretty Cool!)


Blazing summer sun shines high overhead as a couple hikes through the high Colorado desert with their Great Dane, Walter. The dog stops to investigate something lodged in a rock outcropping. The hikers squint at the bony-looking protrusion and conclude it could be an interesting artifact; after all, dinosaur bones aren’t exactly rare in this corner of the world. 

Fortunately, one of the hikers is an instructor at a college just up the road and has a colleague there who is an expert in paleontology. The hiker makes a quick call. The paleontologist is a bit skeptical; she receives reports of bone-sightings on a fairly regular basis. Nevertheless, she agrees to come out and take a look.

Paleo Dig

Sounds like the intro to another dinosaur movie? It isn’t. The paleo expert happens to be Liz Johnson, a science instructor at the Colorado Northwestern Community College (CNCC) and the object in the rocks isn’t just another dinosaur bone in a dinosaur dig site. It’s a piece of the nearly complete fossilized skeletal remains of an approximately 50-foot long creature, pristinely preserved where it died 74 million years ago. And the bones are just 15 miles south of the CNCC Rangely Campus. 

And, the dinosaur specimen is Walter, named for the dog that found it.This find in 2014 would set CNCC on a path to develop its uniquely hands-on, experiential paleontology course of studies, which officially launched in fall, 2019. The program provides 100- and 200-level students with the field, lab, and exhibit experience that many advanced students don’t get until grad school. Today, the CNCC program extends to the community — the college also offers one-of-a-kind learning opportunities for the public. And, as a result of the find, the college houses a federally-operated artifact repository called the Colorado Northwestern Field Museum.

Johnson, who is now the curator of the repository at CNCC, describes paleontology as the ultimate interdisciplinary science. Bones, it turns out, tell a multi-faceted story — if you have the skills to “read” them. “In order to understand the bones in-ground, you have to understand geology. You also have to know anatomy, understand evolution, and what those bones are telling you. You have to know biology and you need expertise in chemistry and microbiology to grasp what happens during the process of decay,” Johnson explains.  

With such a breadth of subject matter and skill development, CNCC’s paleontology studies can open up the door to many career options. Whether your goal is going straight to work, transferring to a university for a bachelor’s in just about any science-related discipline, or pursuing a master’s or doctorate in the field, CNCC’s paleontology courses can lay the appropriate foundation for your next steps. 


A Paleontology Experience Like No Other

Walter's Leg Bone

Many careers within the paleontology field, such as research and teaching, require an advanced degree. Because of the unusually comprehensive and hands-on opportunities offered in the paleontology 

Johnson explains it this way. “At CNCC, we are a two-year institution where students can take their chemistry, biology, and all those basics, but we also add to that a hands-on field paleontology component that students wouldn’t normally get until they are at a master’s or Ph.D. level. Our students can come out and dig for two weeks and we teach them all they need to know, from geology and mapping to techniques you use out in the field. Then they come back and actually prepare the bones in the labs, and they get to see behind-the-scenes museum protocols, procedures, and data tracking. All that culminates at the end of the program when they design and implement their own exhibit within our building.”program at CNCC, students can benefit from the affordable community college tuition while taking paleontology courses as part of an Associate of Science degree at the college. That gives students a considerable head start if they choose to later transfer to a four-year institution to continue their studies in the field or apply the skills they learn to a variety of jobs when they graduate from CNCC.


Paleontology = A Wide Array of Skills

Many of the programs at CNCC are career-focused, designed for students who want to jump into good jobs with a two-year degree. Johnson explains that while the paleontology studies program is not specifically designed to graduate professional paleontologists in two years, it does serve as a springboard for many opportunities. For example, Johnson observes, “If you take the paleontology course of study, you can work as a vet tech, because you’ll have the skills and knowledge in biology to do that. Or you can be a chemistry lab tech, or even work in a more senior position on a firefighter crew because you’ll know all about the geology of the area. Basically, you are a jack-of-all-science-trades. As a result, students can be very versatile in the job market.”

She adds that in today’s quickly changing job market, an ability to think on your feet and come up with innovative ways to tackle challenges is a quality many employers seek more than a background in specific coursework. And when it comes to problem-solving, paleontology fieldwork requires a lot of problem-solving skills.


When Dinosaur Dig Sites Are Your Classroom, Experience Is Your Teacher

Rangely Site Overview

“It’s amazing how just three people can move 650 pounds up a cliff without being bodybuilders,” laughs Johnson. “It’s all about applying physics and problem-solving. Even if you have cell phone service out in the field, there are a lot of challenges you can’t just Google an answer for!” Understandably, many of the problems dig teams encounter are unique and don’t lend themselves to ready-made solutions. And, typically, many solutions need to be implemented manually. “You can’t get a car to these areas. You can’t even get a four-wheeler to these areas. So everything has to be accomplished by hand.”

Nature has a way of revising lesson plans out in the field as well. “You teach what comes up,” says Johnson. She recounts being part of a dig team that witnessed a flash flood ripping through a ravine. “It was raining and we heard a roar in the background. We thought, ‘Okay, we’re high up on the hill, let’s go up onto the side where we could see the ravine.’ We saw a wall of water coming down and got to see first-hand the power that water has on the landscape.”


Colorado: It’s Littered with Bones

Though paleontologists do much more than uncover buried treasures at dinosaur dig sites, dinosaur bones are not an unusual sight for scientists and students who dig in Colorado. Both CNCC campuses sit on a hotbed — or rather, more like a lakebed — of bones waiting to help scientists tell the Earth’s story. In Colorado, much of that story comes from the chapter of Earth’s history known as the Cretaceous Period. During that time, as Johnson explains it, much of the area was covered by a shallow sea fed by multiple rivers and teeming with life.

The rivers dumped sediment into the river deltas, burying carcasses that were preserved through many millennia, while the inland sea dried up and Colorado was pushed more than a mile up in elevation. “We have areas that are just littered with bones, whether it’s dinosaur or mammal or turtle or crocodile. We often get calls from the public and from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) who are understaffed, asking, ‘There’s a report of a dinosaur bone in the middle of the road, can you go check it out?’” 

Not only did the sedimentary conditions of the Cretaceous set Colorado up as an amazing repository for dinosaur bone diggers, Johnson points out that the wide-open quality of the Colorado landscape also plays a role. “Here in the desert, there are no trees. You can see rocks. You can see formations. You can see the dinosaur bones.”


The Study of Paleontology Is More Than Just Dinosaur Dig Sites

Bones for Study

In the public imagination, dinosaurs are the face, typically a fierce one, of the paleontology profession. But the time of the dinosaurs is just one segment of the larger picture paleontologists work with. 

The dinosaurs we’re familiar with lived their lives in the Mesozoic Era, which encompasses the Triassic period, starting about 252 million years ago; the Jurassic Period, starting about 200 million years ago; and the Cretaceous Period, which started about 145 million years ago and ended about 66 million years ago when an enormous asteroid crashed into what is now the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

Life began on Earth a very long time before dinosaurs showed up, however. Paleontologists trace life back to its very origins between 3.5 and 4 billion years ago, starting with a single-celled, sea-dwelling organism scientists call LUCA — the last universal common ancestor. Paleontologists learn how this organism divided into fungi, plants, and animals, and they work to figure out how early lifeforms evolved to develop into the lifeforms that surround us today.

Unlike in the movies, paleontologists don’t just work in khaki shorts and hats under a merciless sun in dusty landscapes. They also analyze and preserve specimens in labs, conduct research for publication, develop museum and repository exhibits for public education, and interface with a variety of government agencies.

When you study paleontology at CNCC, it will involve working at dinosaur dig sites, but it will also equip you with a knowledge base that spans many scientific disciplines and a skill set that covers the entire research and scientific reporting workflow.


Walter’s Story: Past, Present, and Future

Paleo Hall Leg Bone Display

Back in 2014, finding Walter would prove to be a catalyst for CNCC’s paleontology program. The faculty member whose dog found the dino was Ellis Thompson-Ellis, then an oceanography instructor at 

CNCC. Johnson remembers receiving the call from Ellis and thinking it would turn out to be a minor find or just a rock. “But she convinced me to get out there and there wasn’t just one bone sticking out of the cliff, there were five, and there were preserved skin impressions as well. This was a once-in-a-career specimen and I knew I wouldn’t likely get this chance again.”

CNCC had a few options: hand the dig over to another institution to manage, run the site but then relinquish the specimen for housing at an existing, approved repository, or run the dig site and keep Walter on campus by meeting the requirements to become a federally-approved repository. Only the third option would provide ongoing learning opportunities for CNCC students, and as Johnson puts it, “Everything we do cycles back to how to get our students involved.” CNCC opted to make the building upgrades and meet other various standards that would allow Walter to remain on campus.

The task of getting Walter there was intense and lengthy. In 2015, CNCC launched the Community Dig program and for the next five summers, staff, students, and community members painstakingly revealed the bones and safely encased them in burlap and plaster casts known as jackets. Then, in the summer of 2019, it was time to airlift Walter — tethered to a Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control helicopter — to the Craig campus. “That’s the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life,” Johnson recalls. “Five years of work hanging in the air.”

Johnson says it will take about another five years to finish cleaning Walter and to publish the paper detailing Walter’s species and place in Earth’s history. “We’re pretty sure of the species but I can’t say that publicly until the paper comes out.” She can say that Walter is a species within the Hadrosaur family (Hadrosauridae), the duck-billed herbivores that proliferated on this continent along with well-known dinosaurs such as Triceratops. 

The name Hadrosaur means bulky lizard. Some Hadrosaur species had crested heads, others didn’t. Walter is one that didn’t. Hadrosaurus, Triceratops, and other herbivores enjoyed abundant vegetation and relatively safe conditions. “It’s the wrong time-frame for T. Rex, but his ancestor, Plesiosaurus, a very similar meat-eater, was around. But there weren’t a lot of those big meat-eaters so that’s why we have a lot of fossils of these duck-billed dinosaurs haphazardly scattered out here. The reason Walter is so unique is that it’s almost a complete specimen.”

Even though Walter and the animals with whom he shared the land and sea died out, the descendants of the dinosaurs who once ruled the air managed to weather the asteroid aftermath and are still with us. As Johnson explains, “Technically, dinosaurs did survive — birds.” There is a wide consensus among paleontologists that birds are directly descended from flying dinosaurs. Johnson has been involved with research in which proteins from dinosaur bones have been sequenced and shown to be very similar to that of modern birds.  

While we don’t know exactly what Walter experienced 70 million years ago, today he is a storyteller; his bones are helping CNCC staff and students piece together and understand the history of the planet and the land we live on.


The People’s Land, the People’s Artifacts

For Johnson and CNCC, involving the public in the process of paleo discovery is paramount. It’s a way of allowing people to be part of one of science’s most captivating pursuits. “Almost every kid wants to be a paleontologist at some point when they are growing up,” Johnson points out. 

Members of the community around Craig, as well as anyone who wants to take a two-week trip to Craig, can enroll either for credit or not-for-credit in the two-week digs during the summer. The sessions include Community Days, where CNCC students are tasked with teaching science to the public, using exhibits they have designed themselves. By teaching others, students demonstrate their mastery of the subject matter and communication skills.

Johnson sees this circle of education as serving a larger purpose. It helps people respect public lands and develop a sense of participation in discovering the artifacts hidden in Colorado’s landscape. “They’re not CNCC’s bones, they’re not Craig’s bones, they’re not Rangely’s bones,” Johnson says. “They belong to all of us. Everything we do is for education and for people to see and learn about.”

For more information on CNCC’s one-of-a-kind paleontology course of studies, and the Summer Dig programs and Community Days, visit the CNCC paleontology studies program web page.

Published May 13, 2020


Nursing at CNCC

Health Care Jobs in Focus: Nursing at CNCC


Few careers are as versatile or rewarding as a career in nursing. In Colorado, and around the nation, there is a growing demand for this health care career. Nationwide, nursing is expected to grow at a rate of 12% through 2028, which is much higher than the average job outlook. In Colorado, these numbers are expected to be even higher as many current nurses are nearing retirement age.

Colorado Northwestern Community College’s (CNCC) nursing programs are helping fill this health care demand by preparing students to become nursing professionals, ready to deliver the full spectrum of nursing care to diverse populations in an ever-changing health care environment. Erica Yantzer, the director of Nursing at CNCC, is responsible for making sure the programs run smoothly to help all of their students succeed. Yantzer says one reason nursing is such a great career is its versatility. “You can pick any sort of profession and there's probably a nursing component that would fit in somewhere,” Yantzer says. “Even Hollywood has pediatric nurses on sets!”


The Role of Nurses


If you have ever been a patient in almost any kind of health care setting, one thing quickly becomes clear: Nurses are some of the most engaged health care professionals when it comes to patient care.

“I think that we are the glue that holds it all together because we're the ones on the front line taking care of the patients, and it's up to us to communicate and relay what's going on with our patients to all of the various departments,” says Yantzer.

Nursing also offers flexibility in choosing which specialty or patient group to work with, either at the start of your career or in finding a new opportunity later.

“Your degree already enables you to be in a variety of settings. You can choose to do pretty much anything under the sun,” says Yantzer. “And you’re not stuck. If you get bored in one area, you can switch. And I've done that; I've worked in public health, pediatrics, obstetrics, medical-surgical, long-term care, and education. Now, I'm a director.”

Historically, nursing has been a female-dominated profession. In recent years, though, that picture of the profession has been evolving. As of 2018, males make up 13% of nurses in the U.S., up from just 2% in 1960. Yantzer says she isn’t sure why this trend started, but she’s happy to see it. “Men seem to be more into the emergency side of nursing; at least from what I've witnessed, they tend to gravitate toward the adrenaline-filled positions. But I think overall, the diversity is a wonderful change for the profession,” she says.

Like many people, Yantzer’s journey to choosing her career took a few detours. She always had an interest in the medical field, but when she was younger, her heart was set on becoming a veterinarian. But practical experience would eventually shift her focus.

“I worked for a vet for a while and did not enjoy some of the procedures that we had to do on animals. I realized that was probably not for me,” she says. But she recalled volunteering at a nursing home when she was a kid. “I loved it. And so I decided maybe nursing was where I wanted to go.”

Yantzer also considered becoming a pediatrician but then realized that doctors don’t spend as much time with patients. And in that respect, nursing definitely held an edge. “I didn't want to be sitting in an office doing a lot of documentation and having a whole lot more liability than a nurse does,” she says. “I wanted to be at the bedside with my patients all of the time. So I opted to go with nursing and I was in CNCC’s first nursing class.”


Nursing Program Options at CNCC

Nursing Courses

Yantzer explains that starting your nursing education at a community college like CNCC offers many advantages over a larger university. For one thing, at CNCC, students don’t get lost in the crowd. “In my opinion, we offer a lot more one-on-one support. You're not just a number. We get to know our students, we know what their life circumstances are, and we can give them individualized support and accommodate them a little better,” says Yantzer. There is also a significant cost advantage to consider: CNCC students receive a very high-quality nursing education — at much more affordable community college tuition rates.

CNCC offers students a wide variety of options when it comes to pursuing a nursing career. You can enroll in the Associate of Applied Science in Nursing (AAS - RN) program, the Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) program, the Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) program, or even pursue a dual degree by enrolling in a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) at a partner university while working toward your AAS degree.

Each program prepares students for a different type of nursing career, and they vary in length from a few weeks to two years. The two-year AAS program gives students a strong medical foundation. Yantzer says students will learn about medical-surgical and the fundamentals of nursing, and even get a bit of an introduction to obstetrics.

“Then, in their second year, they build on all of that. Students can take more advanced classes or they can spend more time learning from nursing professionals in a clinical setting. There, they can develop more practical nursing capability so that when they are out on their own professionally, they have a good basis to start with,” explains Yantzer. After completing the AAS program, graduates can take the National Council of State Board of Nursing Licensure Examination to become licensed as a registered nurse (RN). One clear advantage of the nursing program at CNCC is that flexibility is built-in to accommodate a student’s personal career goals.

“Students also have the option of exiting out after their first year in the program. If they take a bridge course they can do an LPN exit option and become a licensed practical nurse,” adds Yantzer. This practical nursing exit point is open to students who have completed their first two semesters of the AAS program and a Transition to Practical Nursing course offered during the summer semester. Graduates are then eligible to take the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nursing and begin working as an LPN. Alternately, students who are certified already as LPNs can take a transition course and enter the second year of the AAS program and continue on to earn their degree to become registered nurses.

Still another option is CNCC’s CNA program, where you can complete Nurse Aide Training courses to learn the fundamentals of becoming a nurse aide. Courses cover basic nursing skills, restorative services, personal care skills, as well as safety and emergency care. After completing this five-credit program, students are eligible to take the Nurse Aide Training and Competency Evaluation Program certification exam.


From AAS to BSN: The Dual Degree Option

CNCC also offers a dual degree option that gives you the opportunity to earn both an AAS and a BSN degree. The associate program is more focused on practical application, so it offers students more  time in a hands-on clinical setting. The BSN also involves practical skills, but because it’s a more advanced degree, students will spend more time in the classroom and receive a broader education in health sciences and nursing theory. “I think it's good to start with the practical applied skills and then round out with the theory that you still need to know to become a more specialized nurse,” explains Yantzer.

The dual BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) degree option is earned through CNCC’s partnerships with nearby universities. Yantzer explains that through this program, students have the option to complete their AAS nursing and BSN degrees concurrently. After completing a BSN, graduates are eligible to take the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nursing to become certified.

This dual degree approach gives students all of the advantages of the community college support system while allowing them to pursue a higher degree.

“At CNCC, you have that one-on-one support which means more help building your foundation to become a good nurse,” she says.


Clinical Experience at CNCC


CNCC’s programs ensure that students also get hands-on experience. By the time they graduate, they’ll have at least 750 hours of clinical time

“Their rotations take them through long-term care, two local hospitals, school nurse experiences, obstetrics, emergency medicine, advanced medical-surgical nursing, and mental health,” says Yantzer.“They also work at the VA hospital in Grand Junction, and sometimes they get a taste of home health.” in a variety of medical settings and specialties.

While clinical rotations are designed to fulfill national standards, students also have the opportunity to choose rotations based on their interests. Yantzer explains, “Toward the end of their program, students have a senior capstone or a senior practicum. That's when they can explore their area of interest. They can request an emergency room setting, obstetrics, medical-surgical, or even substance abuse. We try our best to accommodate their choices.”

Yantzer adds that exposure to different specialties during rotations also helps students figure out what type of positions they’d like to pursue after graduation. “We try to give them a taste of everything when they're in nursing school. Some students have very definite ideas of what they want when they come in, and we're here to support that. But others really aren't sure. They just know they want to help people and they want to be in the medical field, but they're not sure where,” says Yantzer.

Yantzer strongly advises any prospective student who is unsure which program is the best fit to meet with someone from the nursing department to explore the many options available. “We help them every step of the way. Whether it’s helping them increase their chances of admission or making sure that this is something they really want to do,” she says.


Nursing Careers

Employment opportunities in Colorado for CNAs, RNs, and LPNs are expected to grow by as much as 37%, which is good news for nursing students in all programs.

Each nursing program prepares students for different health care jobs. For example, Yantzer says while some medical offices hire LPNs, professionals with this certification tend to work in long-term care settings, such as a nursing home. Every level of nursing education offers a degree of versatility.

“CNAs can pretty much work in any long-term care facility or hospital. And as a registered nurse, you can work anywhere, really,” she says. Students interested in working in a specialty area or at a larger hospital often complete a BSN, as bachelor’s degrees are often preferred in those settings.

CNCC also helps its students find work after graduation. “We have a pretty good reputation in our communities, and many local facilities tend to seek out our students,” says Yantzer. “Our local hospital, Memorial Regional Health, really likes to support our graduates. They tend to hire several of our new grads every year. UCHealth in Steamboat has also hired several of our new graduates.”

Yantzer adds that professionals from a local nursing home visit the school to speak with students about their work in general, as well as sometimes offer career opportunities.


Finding Your Fit At CNCC

Finding your fit

Today, CNCC’s program attracts students from all walks of life, and each student has a different motivation for choosing a nursing career. For some, it’s financial. For others, it’s been a life-long calling. “And some of them are career changers who realized that health care was more along the lines of what they want,” explains Yantzer.

No matter a student’s reasons for attending nursing school, Yantzer says that drive and dedication are a must because study skills play a huge role in a nursing program. She adds that CNCC provides plenty of support.

“Our instructors genuinely care about our students, and we try everything in our power to make all of them successful. We invest our hearts and souls into our students. It's not just a job for us, it's a passion,” she says.“I think the college, as a whole, is very supportive of its students, from prerequisite to graduation. This is just an outstanding community of people.”

If you would like to learn more about CNCC’s nursing programs, visit the program page where you can also download our Nursing Student Handbook.

Published April 20, 2020

CNCC's National Park Ranger

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


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


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About CNCC

Colorado Northwestern is one college in two Colorado communities. Depending on what you want to study, CNCC has the perfect surroundings and facilities to meet your needs. Founded in 1962 as “Rangely College,” CNCC now serves nearly 1,800 students on two campuses, two service centers and online. Our two campuses are located in Craig and Rangely and are 90 miles apart in the mountains and canyons of Northwestern Colorado.

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