‘Ranger biologist’: Why a woman who’s done it all calls being a BLM park ranger a perfect fit

James Hart


The BLM Alaska park ranger is a jack of all trades.  While the most public-facing duties include interpretive presentations -- where information is crafted to connect specific audiences with the resources that impact them -- their jobs also include trail maintenance, keeping an eye on lands and assets in their areas of responsibility, and even some janitorial work.

One ranger in Alaska has all that and then some. Park ranger Teri Balser works for the Eastern Interior Field Office in Fairbanks. She said it’s becoming more common for BLM rangers to perform a broader range of duties than ever before, including some recreation planning, which involves tasks more closely related to environmental law than face-to-face public engagement.

 

BLM park ranger and students standing on gravel
BLM Alaska park ranger Teri Balser talks with sixth graders about bear safety and the proper use of pepper spray during the 2019 Outdoor Days, an annual outdoor education event held at the Tanana Lakes Recreation Area in Fairbanks. BLM photo

Her primary job isn’t tied to a visitor center, such as the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center in Coldfoot, and her area of responsibility makes in-person visits less frequent.

“Our lands are very remote,” Balser explained, “so it’s hard for me to get an audience, and I have to find different ways to engage the public.”

Woman in helicopter with mountain visible out window.
BLM park ranger Teri Balser on a helicopter flight to Summit Trail in the White Mountains Recreation Area near Fairbanks, Alaska, summer of 2019. Photo by Tim DuPont.

Remote is an understatement. Balser is the only permanent park ranger covering approximately 9 million acres and include the White Mountains National Recreation Area near Fairbanks, the adjacent Steese National Conservation Area and three Wild and Scenic Rivers: Birch Creek, Beaver Creek and the Fortymile River. The rivers total 670 miles, or the approximate distance from Seattle to Salt Lake City, and the land area she covers is a million acres larger than the state of Maryland.

 

Woman in raft with cliff and river in background
BLM Alaska park ranger Teri Balser rafting the north fork of the Fortymile River on an interpretive planning trip. Photo by Nancy Patterson.

She typically gets some help from three seasonal park rangers during summers: two for the recreation program and one who covers long-term camping compliance.

Even when she’s doing manual labor, including occasional janitorial work, she’s always in a ‘get people excited about public lands’ mode.

“It can be a bit tough to engage with people when you’re wearing rubber gloves and a mask,” Balser laughed. “But working in the field does offer some one-on-one contact with the public, which is great. Those conversations can have more impact because you can have a deeper conversation about what people are seeing.

“Even now [four years in], I enjoy the challenges that get thrown at me,” Balser beamed. “Maybe not all of them, like budget, but I enjoy being able to share our public lands with people and finding new and creative ways to do that.”

For instance, she’s working on signs at common entry points for the far-flung Fortymile region that will replace the existing information map panels typically found behind plexiglass at trailheads. Unlike the panels, the signs will be unique for each wayside (typically at path entrances) along the Taylor Highway. 

“So rather than having a map that says, ‘Here’s the road and some campgrounds’,” Balser elaborated, “we can have something to entice them to learn more about the discovery of gold in the Fortymile. Maybe we can get them excited to see some of the small [placer] mining operations that continue to provide a living today for those willing to work hard and go after the gold.”

Balser’s path to her dream job wasn’t completely direct. She started as a volunteer, offering Ski with a Ranger tours with the US Forest Service at Snowbird Ski Resort in Utah, conducting rare plant surveys in Nevada's Great Basin National Park, and spending summers pitching in at Alaska’s Klondike Goldrush National Historical Park. With a degree in biology, she also joined a crew in Sequoia National Park monitoring the effects of wildland fire.

Balser got her first ranger position the following winter as a Tuolumne Ski Ranger in Yosemite National Park.  That spring she got her first permanent position collecting fees and answering visitor questions at Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.  After two years, she became a backcountry law enforcement ranger for the park and preserve, where she was referred to as a ‘ranger biologist’ because she would regularly assist biologists with their remote plant and wildlife surveys.   

“I decided I really like sharing this stuff with people,” Balser remembered. “That’s what I want to do, I want to be a ranger. So, when I saw this position I’m in now, I said, ‘That’s the one – I’m perfect for that!’”

 

Student spraying inert bear spray at a paper target
BLM Alaska park ranger Teri Balser coaches a sixth-grade student in the use of bear spray (inert for training). Balser presented a session on bear safety at the 2019 Outdoor Days, an annual outdoor education event hosted by state and federal agencies and community partners at the Tanana Lakes Recreation Area in Fairbanks. BLM photo.

If you’re interested in becoming a park ranger, Balser said one of the best ways is to work as an intern through the BLM’s internship program or start volunteering. You can also check USAJobs for listings, and BLM has a career page that can walk you through an overview of what it is to be a ranger.