In his lively memoirs, Thomas A. Smith covers the highlights of his life as a seasonal ranger from 1981 through 1988. This book is a fascinating look at the activity that goes on behind the scenes at a national park – the rewards and the challenges that face rangers and visitors every day in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
There were so many requests for more ranger stories that we are working on a sequel, which will be published in 2011.
Interview with the Author: Thomas Smith
What’s the best part of being a seasonal park ranger?
The best part is the atmosphere and the environment that you work in. There is nothing like having a beautiful backyard. I was a horse patrolman. I had always loved horses since I was a child. Rode eight hours a day, five days a week. There is a “mystic” about being a ranger on a horse that is hard to explain. Believe it or not, I loved being 14 miles from the nearest road when I was a wilderness ranger. Everyday was filled with wonder and awe when I worked in Yosemite.
What’s the hardest part of being a ranger?
The hardest part is dealing with death. Picking up bodies off the highway from car accidents, or climbing accidents. People do not look nice after they have fallen a couple thousand feet. The stressful first aid situations. Law enforcement situations where the person ends up in jail always leave you with sweaty palms.
What did your family think of the seasonal experience?
They all love Yosemite, I am sure. Bob and Kathy both ended up working in the Park for several years while they were in College. Bob worked with Bear Management, and Kathy ran the Merced Lake High Sierra Camp for the Yosemite Park and Curry Company.
Jerry was pretty young, but seemed to enjoy the experience.
I think it had a big influence with Jim. His career, as well as Bob’s, deal with environmental issues. Jim love to roam the backcountry and has revealed to me that the Yosemite experiences made him want a career that had an involvement with nature.
I think that Dave really didn’t care for it too much. He like to be more comfortable. There was a time, however, when Dave considered making a career as a park ranger. He worked seasonally for county parks.
Both Jim and Jerry worked for the Town of Los Gatos Parks during the summer when they were in High School. I think that was more because Dad knew the Director and it was a summer job for them, but I know they enjoyed it.
My wife, Millie, tolerated it. She hated the tent cabin in Tuolumne, but liked the other places where we lived. I usually did most of the cooking when we were in the Park, which I am sure gave her a vacation.
How has the job of the park ranger changed over time?
Seasonal Park rangers now are more into law enforcement and the generalist ranger who could do most anything is disappearing.
What is the Yosemite’s biggest challenge today?
There is nothing about Yosemite that money couldn’t fix. The present administration has not been kind to the National Park Service. That is, of course, the biggest threat. No funds. However, there are other threats.
- Encroachment by development on the borders of the park. This is a serious matter because it cuts off the normal migration routes of wildlife. It is true in most parks in this country, national, state or local.
- Smog and other environmental issues coming from the outside of parks that threaten what is inside. Until we clean up other people’s acts, the parks will not be able to recover. It is serious in a lot of places in this country. Not just Yosemite. Great Smoky Mountains used to have a view shed of a 100 miles that is now cut to less than 20 from smog. Trees are dying as well.
You are working on a sequel to I’m Just a Seasonal. Can you tell us about it?
I am writing a sequel. Maybe a little different this time, although it does have some stories that I could have put into “Seasonal.” Some of those guys on the couch in the last chapter have begun to share some of their stories. I interviewed Dick Rogers before he passed away, so I have his story as well. The difference is that there is going to be a whole section on the demise of the generalist ranger. I sent a little questionnaire to several of my friends in the National Park Service and the California State Parks that asked the following:
- Do you think that the generalist ranger is fading from view? (Generalist is just that: one that can do interpretation, some maintenance, rescue damsels in distress, as well as protect people from other people.)
- If you do, do you think that there was a “trigger” that turned the present rangers toward law enforcement and away from being a generalist? (The riots in Yosemite were the most-mentioned factor, and I will have a chapter about that in the next book.)
- Do you think that the new people seeking the career have the same land ethic that you had when you came in, and are they just as prepared as you were for the job?
- Can this trend turn around?
I have a stack of responses that I am trying to put together into something that makes sense. At least 50 people have responded. It is a hot issue.
Thomas A. Smith is a retired instructor in Park management from West Valley College and had over 20 years of experience as a seasonal park ranger with the National Park Service and the Santa Clara County Department of Parks and Recreation. In 1986, the County borrowed him from the College to act as an interim director/full-time consultant for the park system while they conducted a nationwide search for a new director. Santa Clara County has 26 parks and over 50 thousand acres. He held this position for five months before returning to teach. After retirement he lectured and worked part-time at San Jose State University for ten years in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies, teaching all park related courses and handling the park internships.
Smith holds certificates from the National Park Service’s Horace Albright Training Center in Park Operations, the Santa Rosa Criminal Justice Training Center in National Park Law Enforcement, and in National Forest Recreation from Colorado State University. He serves on several college advisory boards including: West Valley College (currently), Cal Poly San Luis Obispo State University, and San Jose State University (currently).
He served as the Director of the Region Five Recreation Academy for the United States Forest Service for 11 years until retirement.
Thomas Smith spent many years as a volunteer in the Boy Scouts of America and hold the Silver Beaver awarded for distinguished service to the Youth of Santa Clara County.
He received the first honorary lifetime membership to the Park Rangers Association of California (PRAC) and was one of the founding fathers of the organization. He has a scholarship placed in his name with PRAC.
While employed with the National Park Service, he received a Special Achievement Award for work performance exceeding job standards.
He is one of the Founders of the Arizona Track and Cross Country Association and was placed in their Hall of Fame as a coach in 1999.
B.S. Physical Education, Purdue University
M.S. Physical Education, Indiana University
Consultant, Santa Clara County parks 2001-present. He helped develop and write a natural resource management policy document for the county park system and has written resource management plans for seven of their parks as of this writing.
Coordinator and Instructor in Park management West Valley College. He was on the original staff when the school started in 1961.
He worked seasonally for Santa Clara County and the National Park Service in Yosemite National Park as a park ranger.