“I’m asking you to raise your voice. Because the only way real change takes place in this world is with voices that are raised. You can’t do it with a whisper. You can only do it with a shout. And it’s especially important if you are not by yourself. Be part of a group of people walking together in the same direction with the intent to change the world… Be inspired and be inspiring.”
– Shelton Johnson, Ranger at Yosemite National Park.
Having recently attended the 8th World Ranger Congress in Colorado, representing the National Trust and also the CMA, I have returned to the UK wholly inspired.
I could go on and on (and on) about the many experiences I had, the people I met, the things that I learnt (and I do). However, I don’t have that luxury here (understandably, and maybe thankfully). So, instead I want to focus on a single theme, the theme of inspiration – of which I continually and unceasingly picked up during my time at the Congress.
Inspiration – ‘a divine influence directly and immediately exerted upon the mind or soul.’
If I could have captured the feeling in the air during the Congress, I would have filled my pockets full (along with my hand luggage and suitcase too). It has added a spring to my step, made me walk tall and proud.
330 RANGERS FROM 63 DIFFERENT NATIONS
The embodiment of inspiration was demonstrated during the opening ceremony, on the first day of the Congress. 330 rangers were present, representing 63 different nations. Each nation and their rangers carried their flag, following a procession from inside, to amass together outside, the Rocky Mountains towering around in attendance. 63 flags blowing in the wind, rangers from all corners of the Earth, together representing the rangers of the world. We were connected in kind, and there was a communality that tied us all together.
A native American ranger went on to give us all a blessing in his own tongue (poetry if ever I had heard it), and we followed by holding a minutes silence for the 60 rangers killed in service in the past year (60!). The names of each of them were read out beforehand, along with their cause of death. ‘…killed by poachers …killed by militia … homicide … trampled by elephant … axed to death …’
I can remember the shock mixed with admiration that soared through my body (and still does). Being in the presence of that group of rangers, in the presence of such sacrifice was extremely moving.
Flying high above all of the flags was the International Ranger Federation (IRF) flag. Sean Wilmore, president of the IRF, told us that there are somewhere around 300,000 rangers in the world. As Sean then put it, “each of you here are 1 in 1,000, each of you represents 1,000 rangers around the world.”
Over the duration of the Congress I listened to many different speakers, attended various panels and workshops, spoke to lots of rangers and those involved in the ranger community, and I continued to feel inspired.
The main message tethered throughout? That rangers matter.
When people like Jane Goodall declare ‘I have so much admiration for rangers – my heart goes out to you all, and my congratulations’ it makes you believe. A world renowned ethologist, anthropologist, and UN Messenger of Peace directly telling us, the rangers on the ground, we are doing a good job.
Shelton Johnson, another legendary figure and well-known ranger in the U.S (and probably the best public speaker I have ever observed) filled us all with belief in our cause. “Never underestimate the power of what you do and who you are.” This guy just oozed inspiration. “Because are we not here for the business of saving the Earth, saving rainforests, saving deserts, saving landscapes that we love? And so all of us are doing the exact same mission, chartered with the exact same mission. It’s in our blood, it’s in our spirit, it’s in our eyes, it’s in our heart, it’s in our soul. I am a caretaker. I work for you. I work for the public. I work for the future.”
EARTH, OUR HOME
There were eye-opening conversations too. One evening I chatted to a ranger called Christian Mbina, working in Gabon, Africa. He was a proud man and adamant he was not only a ranger of Gabon, but a ranger of the World. Why? “Because I not only work hard to protect the animals of Gabon, but from this protection I help fight terrorism on a global scale.” He went on to describe how ivory poaching in Africa contributes to the funding of many terrorist organisations such as Boko Haram, who use ivory as a currency to purchase weaponries.
Messages like these stuck with me, put things into perspective, and sometimes I would think of the work I do as a ranger in the UK – was it as important as fighting terrorism, saving rainforests, dealing with poaching? Well, it may not be on the scales of those, but it is nevertheless important. We are all overcoming issues and challenges and working and striving to protect special places, conserving our natural and cultural heritage.
“I want to talk about where home is for all of us. Earth. This is our home. And I want to say this. No one, in the world, is doing more important work than rangers, looking after Earth. The Earth needs rangers. Rangers can lead the charge.” – Harvey Locke, Conservationist and speaker at the Congress.
BACK DOWN TO EARTH
So, through a ranger’s eyes, an experience I will never forget.
Back to the UK, back down to Earth. The strimmer awaits, there are fences to repair, trees to clear up after heavy winds. There are events to plan, projects to plan, work programmes to plan. There’s litter to pick up, surveys to complete, visitors to talk to. The list is longer than my arm. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I am proud to be a Ranger.
Let’s continue to inspire others and inspire ourselves.
‘What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left, O let them be left, wildness and wet; Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.’ – Gerard Hopkins
After attending the World Ranger Congress in Colorado, I had an amazing opportunity to follow that up with 3 days of volunteering at the Pinnacles National Park, to work with their rangers and wildlife biologists in a shadow assignment.
Pinnacles National Park is the United States’ 59th and newest national park, located in Central California, 125 miles south of San Francisco.
The park gets its name from the towering rock formations that dominate its landscape – eroded leftovers of the extinct Neenach Volcano (which is in an advanced stage of decomposition after erupting 23 million years ago!). The park is managed by the National Park Service and the majority of it is protected as wilderness.
I was lucky enough to spend my time at Pinnacles with a fellow Brit – Chris Lockyer, a ranger working in the Peak District National Park who I had met as part of the National Trust contingent at the World Ranger Congress.
I met up with Chris and some of the Pinnacles team on the night before the shadow assignment. We met at a traditional American saloon called the 19th Hole in a town called Tres Pinos, and chatted over burgers and beers!
I had already met Jan Lemons, Chief Ranger at Pinnacles, whilst in Colorado. She was our host for our stay at Pinnacles.
What was interesting to find out from Jan was how the team at Pinnacles works – staff cover different roles focusing on specific areas (which back in the UK we generally cover within a single role):
● Law Enforcement Rangers – who have a broad authority to enforce federal and state laws (they have guns!) and are tasked with everything from responding to crime to searching for a missing hiker
● Interpretation Rangers – who provide a wide range of informational services to visitors alongside educational programs
● Maintenance team – who undertake practical work such as building, repairing and preserving trails/signage
● Wildlife Biologists – who work to protect and preserve wildlife and related resources
We eventually arrived at Pinnacles in the dark, stars prickling the night sky with a dim light teasing the surrounding park, offering only disguised glimpses of the landscape we would be working on in the following days…
The California Condor is the largest land bird in North America, with an impressive wingspan reaching 3 meters (10 feet).
They’re majestic creatures that suffered a severe and dramatic population decline in the 20th century – by 1982, there were only 23 condors living in the wild and by 1987, all remaining wild condors were placed into a captive breeding program in an attempt to save them from extinction.
Pinnacles National Park joined the California Condor Recovery Program as a release and management site in 2003.
The team here is led by wildlife biologists Gavin Emmons and Alicia Welch.
Gavin and Alicia took us on the High Peaks Trail, a breathtaking loop passing through and around some of the Pinnacles rock formations, offering some incredible views on the way along with great vantage points to survey for condor activity.
It was hot! Incredibly hot. The temperature sitting around 100°F (37°C). We were quickly soaked in sweat and I found myself drinking lots and lots of water (which we were told was vital for hiking in the park at this time of year).
On our way along the trail we saw lots of wildlife and I was in awe of anything and everything that moved. One of the highlights was seeing my second species of hummingbird since being in the United States – Anna’s Hummingbird.
On reaching the highest point of the trail we stopped for lunch. Ahead of us was a huge rock face which Gavin told us was home to a pair of Prairie Falcon.
Part of Gavin’s job is to also monitor raptors in the park, including this pair, and he told us how they were currently rearing 3 chicks together. Through Gavin’s scope we could actually see one of the chicks sitting on a ledge, and whilst eating lunch we also caught a glimpse of one of the adults flying nearby (presumably hunting). Pretty amazing!
Up until that point we hadn’t spotted a condor, and we weren’t necessarily guaranteed to see one either. We had spotted dozens of Turkey Vultures – a very similar, smaller species that can often be confused with the former.
However, almost on cue as we finished off our lunch, what was first thought to be another Turkey Vulture in the distance, soon materialised into a much bigger bird – the California Condor. Approaching us slowly, we had plenty of time to watch it glide effortlessly through the air. And it didn’t stop approaching, eventually passing right over our heads!
Every California Condor is identified by a ‘studbook’ number, assigned on their hatch date. The bird we saw was 340.
Gavin and Alicia know 340 well and told us a bit more about him:
340 hatched in 2004 (the first condor to hatch from Oregon Zoo). After his release in 2005 he started to expand his range and quickly ascended the dominance hierarchy. He is known as a bit of a Rockstar for his feisty behaviour, and is really liked by the Condor Crew and many local visitors. As a culturally significant species to the Wasco tribe, the honour of naming 340 was given to Chief Nelson Wallulutum, who named him Kun-Wac-Shun – meaning Thunder and Lightning. No chicks from him have reached adulthood as of yet. Sadly, last year, a one month old chick of his died. But there is hope this year! He has another chick over a month old which is so far doing well. Fingers crossed.
These birds are an iconic species and an incredible conservation story in the United States (and the World). There are now 410 birds living in the wild. To hear their story, and see one fly above my head, was a privilege and I admire the great work the programme is carrying out and the success it has achieved. Let’s hope the California Condor can continue to prosper!
If any of you are interested, I interviewed Gavin and Alicia, asking them some questions about the work they do and some of the challenges they face in Pinnacles National Park along with why they think conservation is important and what inspires them to carry out this work. See the videos below:
We eventually re-joined the trail and headed back down to our start point, still on a high from our experience up top and taking in more wonderful scenery on our way.
We spent the evening of our first full day at a BBQ with some of the Pinnacles team, including a USA v. UK dart game (UK won!) followed by an intense game of The Settlers of Catan.
Our second day started by checking out a moth trap put out the previous evening.
So many moths! And interesting, some very similar to moths we find in the UK.
One in particular, the One-eyed Sphinx (Smerinthus cerisyi), is incredibly similar to the Eyed-Hawkmoth (Smerinthus ocellata) we find in the UK.
After clearing up the moth trap we headed over to meet another member of the Pinnacles team – Paul Travis Lathrop or PT – an interpretation ranger.
PT was a great character – easy going and humorous, yet equally serious about the importance of engaging with visitors, connecting with the disconnected, stimulating thought and developing an honest respect for place.
He took us on a short hike, along the way telling us about some of his ideas and programs.
SPACE (Spontaneous Audience Centred Experiences) is one of his programs. As he explained, the idea is trying to revert from traditional interpretation (which focuses on giving visitors as much information as possible, from a number of different angles – History of Pinnacles, Wildlife of Pinnacles, Geology of Pinnacles, Activities to do at Pinnacles etc.) to a new form of interpretation which instead focuses on the visitor themselves – primarily encouraging and stimulating connection.
He gave us some examples:
Visitors are offered a Contemplation Card from the visitor centre. Each card has a different statement on the back. The card encourages contemplation from the visitor whilst enjoying the park.
A chair is placed somewhere in the park – in a quiet spot, overlooking a scenic view, next to a thought-provoking feature. With the chair is a box – within which there is a notepad and some crayons. It is encouraged on the chair to take 5 minutes to sit down and enjoy your surroundings. The box encourages those who are interested, to leave their thoughts from their 5 minutes either in written words or through a sketch or illustration.
Both of these methods aim to create deeper connections and positive experiences from time spent at Pinnacles National Park.
During our walk with PT the weather was again hot, today breaking 100°F! We kept our hike short and returned to PT’s office early afternoon. Sighing with relief from the air con, PT continued to inspire us with his ideas.
He followed up with his top 5 tips for interpretation:
Thou shall not inflict interpretation
Your smile is part of your uniform
Good manners and charm work wonders
Junior Rangers (young visitors) will receive extra attention
Having some free time left following our time with PT, me and Chris decided to so some rock climbing (the area being well-known and well used by rock climbers) with one of the Pinnacles law enforcement rangers, Seth James.
Despite being scared of heights and never having rock climbed before, I had so much fun – scary yet exhilarating. And what a place to climb, Pinnacles National Park !
We finished off our second full day with a visit to a local Mexican restaurant with the Pinnacles team. Super tasty and super (!!!) portions.
Our final day of volunteering at Pinnacles National Park was spent with wildlife biologist Paul Johnson.
He took us on a trail through some of Pinnacles’ Talus Caves.
Talus caves are formed when steep canyons and ravines fill with boulders, leaving passages between the largest rocks that are then widened by water and erosion.
We ventured inside a particular cave, closed off to the public at this time of year, due to it being used by a colony of Townsend’s Big-eared Bats.
As we ventured through the cave we saw some interesting wildlife.
Finally we entered the area that Paul said housed the bats, and we surveyed it quietly and quickly, as to not cause any disturbance. Initially we noticed a single bat on part of the cave wall.
Delving deeper, soon heard and saw glimpses of bats swooping past and over our heads. But then we were signalled by Paul, who shone his light up to part of the ceiling uncovering a huge maternity roost of bats. Paul was shocked by the size and so recommended we leave, so we promptly followed our trail back out. I managed to get a shaky shot of the roost in Paul’s torchlight:
On reflection, Paul said he thinks the colony was as big as it has ever seen at this time of year!
Upon leaving the coolness of the caves, we were hit with the heat of the day (104°F) – it was as if someone was suddenly holding a hair dryer set to hot up to our faces.
We followed a trail up to Bear Gulch Reservoir, along the way spotting lots more wildlife of which Paul gave us more information about.
Our time at Pinnacles was coming to an end. With accommodation booked outside of Pinnacles for the night, we said our goodbyes to Paul and then went on to say goodbye to many of the other Pinnacles staff we had met and made friends with, finally saying by to our host Jan.
All in all, my time at Pinnacles was an incredible experience, one that I will never forget!!!