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Junior Rangers: A new generation of national park protectors

by Alicia MacLeay
August 30, 2010

A Junior Ranger in Mount Rainier National Park

The national park rangers' ranks are growing, judging by the three western parks our family visited this month.

The newest rangers may be smaller, but they're no less enthusiastic or passionate about the parks. They're the Junior Rangers of the National Park Service, and you'll find them at parks across the United States: attending ranger programs, hiking trails, identifying animals and habitat, completing activity books, and pledging to protect the parks and their resources. All to earn an official Junior Ranger patch or badge from each park.

I'd heard of the Junior Ranger program before my family's trip to Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Rainier, but hadn't given it a lot of thought. Then my 6-year-old asked to attend the evening ranger talks at Jenny Lake Campground in Grand Teton. After a presentation on the prehistory of Jackson Hole (during which my son got to hold a spear and a beaver pelt!) the ranger signed Junior Ranger activity books for other young attendees, and my son was hooked. Soon we were filling out activity pages, recording what animals we'd seen on hikes, and learning new facts about park geology, wildlife, plants, and habitat.

Programs vary by park, but typically kids pick up activity books at visitor centers, or sometimes from rangers leading programs. The three parks we visited — Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Rainier — shared much of the same format: attend a ranger program, hike a trail, and finish a certain number of activities, depending on age, with content focused on what makes that park unique.

A Junior Ranger program in Rainier National Park.

In Yellowstone, kids also can earn a Young Scientist badge through a program sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The 5-7-year-old version involved an introduction to the scientific method, complete with hypothesis, observations, and conclusions about geysers.

Typically a small fee or donation ($1-3) is requested for the book or to cover the cost of the badge or patch, but how much and when it's charged depends on the park. In Grand Teton we got activity books for free but paid for the earned badge, and both kids (including our 2-year-old) earned free patches by attending a Junior Ranger program in our campground on animal signs. In busier Yellowstone, we paid upfront, and in Rainier the program was free.

Not only did the Junior Ranger activities and pursuit of badges excite and captivate my son (who spent evenings in the tent filling out info), it also meant that our family participated in programs we might not have otherwise. We attended ranger-led programs and learned about the prehistory of the Jackson Hole area, how climate change is affecting Grand Teton, the bears of Yellowstone, the history of the national park system, and how to find signs of animals in Rainier.

In each park, we saw and met many other kids, from the United States and abroad, proudly walking around with Junior Ranger badges and patches pinned onto their hats and vests. One young boy we passed on a Yellowstone trail had a hat nearly covered in plastic badges from different parks. My own son proudly told every ranger he met that he was a Junior Ranger.

Taking the Junior Ranger pledge in Grand Teton National Park.

The rangers leading the programs, signing in Junior Rangers, and taking their pledges showed great interest in each child. They took the time to look over each kid's work, ask questions about what they'd seen and learned, gave them the pledge and badge, and shook their hands. They made each Junior Ranger feel important and involved.

Sound like fun? Programs vary across parks and by age, but are worth checking out if you'll be visiting any parks with kids. While my son is naturally inquisitive, participating in the formal Junior Ranger program (versus listening to Mom and Dad), earning badges and patches, and meeting the rangers, really made the trip a lot of fun for him. He took a lot of pride in his accomplishments in each park.

No kids in tow? While programs are geared at 5- to 14-year-olds, several rangers in Grand Teton told us that they get adults earning badges and taking the Junior Ranger pledge daily. A few national parks even have Senior Ranger badges, for those 18 and over.

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