Monday, December 13, 2010

Author Interview: Bruce Bytnar Recalls 'A Park Ranger's Life'

National Park rangers are “almost 12 times more likely to be assaulted than a Border Patrol agent,” says retired park ranger Bruce Bytnar.  In fact, he says, they “are by far the most assaulted of all federal law enforcement agents.”

Bytnar should know.  After more than three decades in the profession, serving most of that time on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, he wrote a book called A Park Ranger’s Life:  Thirty-two Years Protecting Our National Parks (Wheatmark, 2009).  During those years, he said, more than 12 rangers were killed in the line of duty.

A resident of Rockbridge County, Bytnar was one of 36 authors present at the second annual “Meet the Authors Book Signing Event” at the Holiday Inn in Charlottesville on November 19.  He graciously answered my questions about A Park Ranger’s Life in a brief interview.

Bears, bad guys, and ghosts
The book, he explained, is based on his experiences “from my career as a park ranger.  It has everything from stories about bears and bad guys [to] lost hikers.  There’s even a ghost story from early in my career from a haunted house I had to work in for two weeks.”

The book also “attempts to show what it’s really like to be a National Park ranger, as well as lots of tips for people about when they come to parks, how they can travel and be in the park safely.”

In the year since it was published, A Park Ranger’s Life “has also been adopted by three universities as required reading for students:  Ohio State University, Northern Arizona University, and Slippery Rock.”  In addition, Bytnar said, five other colleges have added it to recommended reading lists for students of resource protection who aim to become park rangers.

“Part of the reason that the universities have adopted it is the fact that it’s an honest reflection of what it actually is to be a park ranger,” Bytnar explains.  It has “not only the good, fun stories and the successes but also the frustrations, such as dealing with budgets, park managers who don’t really like what you do,” and also something most people don’t think about, negative effects on rangers’ families.

Bytnar began his career in 1975 at Fort McHenry in Baltimore before moving to the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Virginia, finally settling into a job along the Blue Ridge Parkway, where the stability was good for his family.

Three decades of changes
Did Bytnar observe changes over the three decades he was a park ranger?

“Definitely, definitely,” he said, pointing to “lots of changes in the way things were done, changes in visitation patterns, changes in the way management viewed our work.  Lots of things changed,” including the cars and all the equipment that rangers use on the job.

As for the years to come, Bytnar said, “the National Park System has a bright future as long as the American people still stand behind it.”

Americans, he explained, “have to realize what an important treasure it is that we have, and support it” not only financially and by soliciting support from their legislators, “but also by visiting the national parks.”

To complement his book, Bruce Bytnar maintains a blog, also called “A Park Ranger’s Life.”

(An earlier version of this article, in slightly different form, appeared on on November 20, 2010.)

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