Wilderness Ranger Academy Prepares New Hires To Survive And Be Successful

  • By Paul Wade, Public Affairs Specialist, Pacific Southwest Region
People sit watching a presentation in an old boat house. A Forest Service law enforcement officer stands with a group teaching a class in the forest. Over 100 people stand on the shore of a lake waving at the camera. People sit inside a gable-roofed building to hear presentations. People sit on grass watching instructors go over backpacking equipment. A group of people sit on the grass applying blister tape to their feet. Students saw a downed tree in the woods. An instructor teaches two people how to ride and manage a horse. People learning to ride on horses trot through a forest. Group of people sit in a classroom watching a presentation.


“Will you be going over how we should go to the bathroom in the backcountry?” said a young man in the crowd. Without blinking an eye or tossing him an uncomfortable glance, Shannon MaGuire, a Wilderness Ranger on the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, transitioned from layering your clothing right into cat holes, wag bags and carrying extra opaque doggie bags to hand to hikers so they can pack out their business. MaGuire, a seasoned wilderness ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, was prepared to answer any and all questions newly hired employees had at the 2017 Interagency Wilderness Ranger Academy, held June 5-9, at the Tallac Historic Site in South Lake Tahoe.

More than 150 first-year and seasoned wilderness rangers from partner organizations and federal agencies participated in this year’s event, which was hosted by the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Society for Wilderness Stewardship. Participants traveled from as far as the Midwest for the academy’s eighth annual offering, which rotates around the Golden State each year and has been offered on forests like the Shasta-Trinity, Stanislaus, Sierra, San Bernardino and Inyo in past years.

“The academy serves as both an orientation and refresher for field-going wilderness personnel,” said Togan Capozza, the Wilderness, Wild & Scenic Rivers and Pacific Crest Trail Program Assistant for the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region. “Offering this centralized training allows us to pull expertise from throughout the region and provides an outstanding opportunity for information sharing within the wilderness ranger community.”


The week kicked off with students pitching their tents at Fallen Leaf Campground, their home away from home, followed by a great outdoors icebreaker, an evening group campfire. At the Tallac Historic Site’s Boat House new rangers participated in sessions on The Wilderness Act, Accessibility Program, wilderness research, ranger safety, and making contact with visitors. As wilderness rangers, interacting with visitors is a crucial part of the job and was put to the test with visitor contact scenarios.

Returning rangers wishing to refresh their skills, learn from each other and share their knowledge with the next generation gathered in the Valhalla Grand Hall to discuss emerging issues, management challenges and wilderness stewardship. 


The morning session of backpack and ranger skills had new employees broken into groups of 30. They sat on lush green grass under towering pines learning about each piece of gear that can go on your back, pack weight, creature comforts for those long hauls spent on the trail, water filtration and carrying methods for trail maintenance and fire tools.

“Set your limits. It’s important to take care of yourself. Health and fitness is crucial prior to the [high visitor] season,” said Chris Engelhardt, Wilderness Manager on the Inyo National Forest. “That way you can take care of others and your job. You make a difference doing your work out there, cleaning up and keeping it nice for others.”

In the early afternoon a local doctor and nurse from nearby Barton Hospital pumped some life into the critical issue of personal risk management and self-care. Experienced from running medical tents at ultramarathon races, they had everyone remove their shoes to learn how to apply blister tape to their feet. As a parting gift the medical team gave students an opportunity to build a starter backcountry medical kit.  

While new rangers were absorbed in discussions over the benefits of fleece, down, ill-advised cotton blends, returning rangers were heating up over lightning strikes and coordinating with the fire organization. In the early afternoon they traded success stories about educating visitors before they reached the trailhead. Success stories from around the state were shared including a creative video developed by the Eldorado National Forest about picking up a permit and responsible camping in the popular Desolation Wilderness (watch the video here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=f71kht8zl5c and visit www.desowv.org/).

To end the day seasoned employees wrapped up with furthering their career goals while the new crew got up to speed on archeological resources and black bears in wilderness.

“The difference between humans and bears when smelling a chocolate cake is that we smell the chocolate but they smell the eggs, the flour, the vanilla, the oil – there is nothing a bear won’t eat and they get smarter and smarter with every interaction with humans,” said Stephanie Coppeto, the Region 5 Be Bear Aware Program Leader assigned to the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.


For the next two days everyone had a chance to sign up for specialty skill courses. Dotted throughout South Lake Tahoe subject-matter-experts on wilderness first aid, Leave No Trace (LNT), stock orientation, crosscut saw and backcountry navigation, gave wilderness rangers hands-on experience.

The LNT team went on an overnight backpacking trip to learn more about the seven LNT principles. The crosscut sawing students, decked out in colorful hard hats and protective gear, converged at a meadow of downed trees and proceeded to hone their sawing technique. The first aid crew went through 18 hours of patient assessment, traumatic injuries, environmental illnesses and several field scenarios. The navigators grabbed map, compass and GPS and tried to find their way using the tricks of the trade. Stock orientation involved learning to safely work around pack saddle animals. Loads were built, hitches were tied and each member got to ride a working horse.

“Working in the wilderness has its own risks and then you throw in livestock,” said Debby McDougald, Forest Stock Manager for the Sierra National Forest, representing the USFS Pack Stock Center of Excellence. Stock experts like Debby train new rangers in an effort to bring back this important traditional skill set.

“Having these animals on a forest is a huge asset in knowing what a horse and mule can do, including [using] pack stock on fires,” said Lee Roeser, Lead Animal Packer on the  Mammoth Ranger District, Inyo National Forest.

“A key component that makes this academy successful is the information and knowledge sharing between new and experienced staff,” said Capozza. “Experienced rangers help with instruction and provide mentoring to those who are starting out. The enthusiasm, willingness to learn and passion for wilderness stewardship the participants bring to the week is what makes the academy work.”

Having those who have come before and walked the topography provide that successful model by passing on their knowledge. It is the help from within.

“Own it. Know what you know and build your team,” said Connie Myers, former Director at Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center, in her closing address, Caretakers of Wonder. “Your morale should be high because you have an important job. Do it well because someone does care.”

Her final question to the future wilderness rangers. “What is wilderness?”

Two poignant responses came back.

“It’s a guardian of freedom.”

“It simplifies us.”

The Interagency Wilderness Ranger Academy occurs the first full week or June every year. For information about next year’s location and agenda, please check back next spring at www.wildernessstewardship.org

More photos can be found on our Flickr page at https://flic.kr/s/aHskZdDjb1