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Oct. 17, 2019
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Park operations rangers: Adaptable, responsive, innovative

By Pamela A. Keene
 
Lakeside News Senior Reporter Pam Keene spent Saturday of Labor Day weekend with Corps of Engineers park operations staff. Her assignment in this first of a two-part series: learn about these rangers’ duties, how they interact with the public; how they serve the lake’s recreational community; and tell the story of these rangers’ daily jobs. Here is her report.
 
Ranger for a day
Someone camping on Corps property; a visit with the Paw Patrol; and a slight mishap on a boat ramp with no injuries. On Labor Day weekend’s Saturday, park operations rangers stayed busy with routine duties. But it’s not always that way. 
 
Meet Rachel Rush, a ranger with the Corps at Lake Lanier since August 2016. A Pennsylvania native, she first worked as a park ranger at the Corps’ Summersville Lake in West Virginia, after earning her bachelor’s degree in environmental studies. Her Parks and Resource management masters’ degree from her home state’s Slippery Rock University is serving her well, bringing innovation to the Buford Dam Project Management Office.
 
“Labor Day weekend can be hit or miss at Lake Lanier,” she said. “We can be really busy with routine matters or we may be called to an emergency. The key is to always be ready and in good communication with the other rangers who are working and the office. Typically Sunday is a busier day on Labor Day weekend.” 
 
Because of the holiday, the Corps staffs up, bringing in rangers from both park operations and shoreline management. On Saturday, about 20 rangers worked, some with extended shifts from 9:30 a.m. to nearly midnight.
 
Park operations had a fairly quiet weekend on Saturday. That allowed time for her to check on park volunteers who manage gates, to talk with families and provide water safety education and back up other rangers on calls, such as the boat-ramp incident. 
 
At East Bank Park, two people tried to launch their boats in separate lanes of the ramp at the same time. As both released their boats and headed to trailer parking, the vehicles bumped into each other. There was no damage, but tempers flared. As the incident was broadcast on the rangers’ radios, several of them provided back-up just in case. A ranger stepped in to calm the situation; both boaters backed off and calmly moved their trucks to designated trailer parking then left the ramps in their boats going different directions. “Sometimes this sort of thing happens, and we’re here to make certain that it doesn’t escalate,” she said. 
 
Rangers have specific areas they monitor. At the 9:30 meeting that morning, assignments were made for park and lake coverage. Those assignments involve driving through parking lots to ensure fees have been paid, eyeballing the parks and beaches for potential issues, and interacting with visitors.
Water safety: It takes a village 
 
On federal holidays, Gwinnett County Fire Department sets up at Buford Dam Park with an interactive display and free life jackets for kids, provided by Safe Kids. The squad’s fire truck and swift-water boat are on display; the county’s Fire Explorer Cadets and members of the Citizens Fire Academy man the tables, help distribute life jackets and show families how to properly fit and put life jackets on their children. Marshal, the mascot of Paw Patrol, was on hand for photos with the kids. 
 
Several of the Explorer high schoolers asked Rachel about what it takes to be a park ranger, explaining that a college degree is important and that many park rangers have internships while they are in college. “A number of our rangers here at Lanier are former military, firefighters or paramedics,” she said. “You do spend a lot of time outdoors, but you also have administrative duties and paperwork. Rangers work with the public and need to be problem-solvers. They also have to be safety minded and be able to grasp a situation and come up with a solution on the spot. They also need to be good team players and maintain a good attitude.” 
 
Rangers also need to be quick to respond in times of crisis. In April, Rachel and ranger Steve Cahn attempted to rescue a young boy drowning at Buford Dam Park. “We did CPR on him until the paramedics arrived,” she said. “Unfortunately, he didn’t make it, and that’s so hard on the families, the paramedics and us. That’s why we are so focused on water safety and wearing life jackets.” 
 
Rachel and Steve both received Civilian Service Commendation Awards for their actions from the Department of the Army in August.

On the water 
Rangers Cahn and Dan Barnes worked the lake in the Corps run-about on Saturday. Steve is a retired Gwinnett County Firefighter and has 22 years as a U.S. Marine. Dan served 20 years in the U.S. Army and is still in the Army Reserve. Dan is a former high school teacher and coach. Both work as park operations rangers.
 
Their Saturday included responding to a report of a campsite on the shoreline in the north part of the lake, following up on potential shallow-water and obstruction hazards, and ensuring that children ages 12 and under are wearing life jackets when on the water. 
 
On the way to the reported campsite, they pointed out some yellow signs on trees. “This area is under restoration,” Steve said. “The homeowner illegally cleared trees from Corps property and has been fined a fee for every tree removed. He is also required to replant native trees to replace those that he cut down. The signs will remain for two years and the work must be completed by then.”
 
Farther north, Steve and Dan discovered a blue tent covered with a tarp close to the shoreline. They went ashore to inspect and found that this campsite was not on Corps property, but in another cove close by, another tent covered with a tarp was visible from the water. A medium-sized dog on a run greeted them. He was thirsty; Dan brought him a bottle from the boat’s cooler. 
 
“This one is definitely on Corps property,” Steve said. The pair walked around the site that included a fire pit, clothes hanging on lines between trees and other signs of life. However, no one was present. “No one is allowed to camp on Corps land except in designated campgrounds,” Dan said. 
They decided to come back near dusk to see if the camper had returned. 
 
“One of our jobs is to be good environmental stewards of these public lands and to protect them for future generations,” Steve explained. “And as rangers, whether we work in park operations or shoreline management, we are all part of the same team.”
 
Other duties as assigned 
Many Corps rangers are called on as project managers or to supervise aspects of Corps work. Rachel was tasked with developing a pilot program for the Corps to eliminate cash fees at Lanier’s parks.
 
“The project involved an impact study and working with various vendors to determine the best way to make it easier for our visitors and safer for our volunteers,” she said. “Previously, people would use a cash honor-box system and volunteers or rangers would collect the money regularly. It took a lot of manpower. Now, our parks have credit/debit kiosks, we’re saving time to divert to other projects and our income from parking fees has significantly increased.”
 
Over the years, park operations and shoreline management rangers have been deployed to assist with natural disasters. This means they may leave home for weeks or months at a time to support missions coordinated by the Mobile District’s Emergency Management Office. One of the largest missions that Lanier rangers recently supported was assisting with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. 
 
“As rangers, we have a number of jobs to do, many that people don’t even realize,” Rachel said. “First and foremost, safety is most important. But we also want people to realize that we are normal everyday people, too, just like them.”
 
 Coming in November: Pam will report on the work of shoreline management rangers.

 Posted online 9.27.19
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