The history of the National Park Service ranger does not begin with the creation of America’s first national park in 1872. Rather, the first park rangers appeared in 1905, and it was not until 11 years later that national parks and the national park ranger were unified under one centralized government agency, the National Park Service.In 1872, the concept of setting aside large tracts of land as national parks for the “benefit and enjoyment of the people” was unheard of. Consequently, there was no precedent to suggest a management strategy for such an entity. For a number of years, Yellowstone struggled without any real administration or protection–for either visitors or resources. As a temporary measure, in 1886 Congress authorized the military to take charge and protect and manage Yellowstone and, eventually, other early national parks. Military management was not the most effective or efficient method for overseeing visitor-use areas such as national parks, but it did serve to bring order to the parks at a time when it was desperately needed.

By the early 1900s as the number and popularity of the national parks increased, the weaknesses associated with military management became increasingly evident. Rarely were the commanding officers given clear consistent management goals or provided with sufficient resources to reach these objectives. The men serving in the parks, while able soldiers, were not in the parks voluntarily and were not chosen on the basis of any aptitude or interest in conservation of natural resources. Furthermore, the drain of money and man-power that the military experienced while administering the parks was becoming
unbearable and objectionable both to the military and private sector alike.

Recognition of a problem and a desire to remedy it did not guarantee a rapid solution, but it did set into motion a series of events culminating in the transition of park management from military to civilian hands with the formation of the National Park Service on August 25, 1916. While this date marks the beginning of park ranger history under the management of a centralized civilian agency, for a more complete understanding of the origins of the park ranger one must go back further in time.

The first appearance of the term “ranger” (as it applies to American natural reserve areas) was in 1898 when Congress first allocated funds for the protection of existing National Forest Reserves. From these funds, each forest reserve area was allowed a forest supervisor and a small force of men–first known as “special forest agents” and later simply as “forest rangers” –to protect these reserves.

In the national parks, rangers were first used in 1898 in three California parks. These parks, like all others of the time, were managed by the military, however, soldiers were not available year round in these park areas. The summer of 1898, Inspector J.W. Zevely of the General Land Office was given the mandate to protect these parks without the benefit of the military. He hired a group of men with money intended for a neighboring forest reserve. In the fall when the soldiers returned, most of these men were terminated. The few that remained worked alternately as park scouts when the military was present and
then as forest rangers when the military was absent.

This arrangement continued until 1905 when the National Forest Reserves were transferred to the Department of Agriculture, eliminating the source of funding for hiring these men to protect the parks and necessitating an end to the use of the name, “forest ranger.” As new funding became available, now designated specifically for the national parks, the men in the forest ranger positions began to be referred to as “park rangers.” By 1916, when the National Park Service was formed, most of the national parks were at least partially staffed by park rangers. Within two years after the formation of Service, the parks
were fully staffed by park rangers.

The years following 1916 have been ones of gradual evolution for the role of park ranger. Though the basic mission remains the same, the duties of today’s ranger are significantly different and even more varied than were those of the early day park ranger. Today, the term “park ranger” refers to a wide variety of staff positions, from interpreters (the rangers who give campfire programs, nature walks, and staff the visitor centers) to resource managers (the biologists who study and manage the plant and animal life in parks as well as the geologists, hydrologists, and various other “‘ologists”) to protection rangers (who enforce the regulations and protect both visitors and park resources) to administrative staff. All of these people who work in our nation’s national parks proudly wear the uniform and famous flat hat of the National Park Service ranger.