by Texas Public Employees Association | February 24, 2021
Essential Texans II: Staying the Course
As Texans find their pandemic escape in the state park system, park rangers work overtime to keep these little cities of nature open. You probably couldn't tell it's been a challenge.
We recently spoke with five employees of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), asking how their year has been since COVID hit. Laura Jennings said her park, Big Bend Ranch, has been slammed. At 315,000 acres, this not-so-little sibling of Big Bend National Park is Texas’ largest state park. It should not need to limit capacity like other parks confined by narrow trails. Yet, Big Bend Ranch can only support visitors if staff are active. When the pandemic first closed parks to outside visitors, Jennings went hiking. She thought herself to be all alone until a lost straggler came up saying something along the lines of, “Oh thank goodness you have a map.” The temperature surpasses 90°F in April and May. Jennings has saved a few more lives since.
Even masters of hiking could not enjoy state parks without the rangers who are essential to conserving these spaces. Maintenance Supervisor Nathan Reynolds takes care of Bastrop State Park’s remains, which narrowly survived a wildfire in 2011. Scarred trees act like lightning rods when it storms. Reynolds spends the following days looking out for smoke. He entered park service during this pandemic and quickly received enough training — the state’s investment, he calls it — to combat future disasters. Sarah Hurst, who attended a wildland fire academy while training for her role of Assistant Superintendent, explained that prescribed burns can clear invasive plants for native species to flourish again. Hurst lit up when talking about wildlife. She warned how people should not feed deer, despite that park in Nara, Japan looking like so much fun.
The work of Parks employees requires expertise that even the most experienced hiker may not command. Park rangers might be graduates of wildlife ecology programs or earn degrees specializing in park management. Jennings was an English major read in British Romantic literature of a conservationist quality. Some people become park rangers after working related jobs at fisheries or outdoors stores. Others discover the profession while young and take TPWD internships to climb towards this career. Hurst fit the last description after being inspired by the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation. She worked in her local Parks department for years, then came to TPWD to focus on conservation. Hurst’s recreation experience makes her well-suited to host community-centered programs like Boo in the Park, Christmas in the Park, and Tawakoni Bingo. Public programming provides educational opportunities that should not be lost to this pandemic.
Between higher visitation and staff shortages, state parks are stretched thin. Before your trip to a state park, do your research on weather and hiking conditions and pack plenty of water. When you run into Parks staff on your trip, show a little extra appreciation.
When we spoke with Melissa Chadwick, Superintendent of Mother Neff State Park, and her Lead Ranger, Bryan Crisman, they might have been the only staff on duty that day. One colleague was out for a funeral. This is par for the course. Jennings commuted five days a week for a month to fill staff shortages at Sauceda Station, an hour from her post in Big Bend Ranch. Reynolds hadn’t seen three of seven Bastrop Park Rangers who should report directly to him. Hurst stayed as Interim Superintendent at Martin Creek State Park until a leader could be found, months after she was supposed to transfer out. Throughout the week, state park employees take on many roles — mowing, clearing, cleaning, inspecting, and interacting with visitors. Crisman loves this last part. He says, “When they tell us this is a beautiful place to be, you know you’re doing the best you can.” If you get the chance to let these Essential Texans know how beautiful you find their work, tell them.
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