What or Who Is A Ranger?

By general definition a park ranger is a person entrusted with protecting and preserving parklands – national, state, provincial, or local parks. “Parks” may be broadly defined by some systems in this context, and include protected culturally or historically important built environments, and is not limited to the natural environment. After looking into park rangers at the USACE parks, the Virginia State Parks and the NC State Recreation Areas, all on Kerr Lake our investigation ended up focused more on the latter.  But first, definitions.

Popular or general duties for a park ranger include but are not necessarily limited to, (1) preservation and protecting of their particularly defined resource, including the environment, the public and in most cases the wildlife; (2) interpretation and education; (3) historical significance (4) emergency response; (5) law enforcement; (6) outdoor scholar; (7) administration; (8) maintenance; (8) tourism and visitor information services and we can add many more items, but maybe one that doesn’t get included as much as it should, youth role model.



At Kerr Lake, the park rangers for the U S Army Corps of Engineers parks still adhere closely to the aforementioned broad range of duties, with only a few designated as full law enforcement officers.  The rangers, including the Chief Ranger wear Federal badges and can issue citations.  That may sound mild, but be assured those citations land accused violators in Federal court because those parks are on Federal land.  Those arrested on the say so of Corps rangers are hauled before a magistrate or to jail by a full law enforcement officer.

In Virginia, the two parks on Kerr Lake have law enforcement officers and there is no “split” in Virginia having parks versus recreation areas; they are all parks.  Some current and former Virginia State Parks employees believe that the tilt of the park ranger job is going too far towards law enforcement and leaving behind the resource, the park’s other employees and the visiting public, or the full scope of ranger duties.  One former employee told about going to a several-hour murder investigation seminar, and though recognizing that the teacher was indeed well qualified, the employee asked how Virginia park rangers could be expected to launch their own investigation into a murder on just that training and said given a murder in their park, the employee would call seasoned and experienced investigators from other agencies.


Park versus Recreation Area

Let’s then bring park ranger to the North Carolina State Parks and to the Division of State Parks which administers parks, under the recent department move from NC DENR to the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.  Then comes the “split” between NC State Parks and NC State Recreation Areas like Kerr Lake, Falls Lake and Jordan Lake.

The term “split” is used because, while there are some seasonal parks that visitors bombard with heavy visitation like Ft. Macon, Mount Mitchell, Grandfather Mountain and Chimney Rock, most parks have much lighter visitation than the recreation areas which offer waterfront day-use areas and campsites.  Also, most of those visiting the high attendance parks are going for day-use purposes anyway, as opposed to Kerr Lake and the other Recreation Areas where day-use may be heavy, but overnight camping can run into the 1000’s.  The rangers in those NC State Parks of lighter visitation have a wider range of duties, naturally because they are in a park environment and not that of a recreation area; huge, huge difference.

Times Have Changed and Maybe They Need To Back Up a Bit

Back in the 1980’s, admittedly, it was sometimes difficult to get timely law enforcement response to Kerr Lake and maybe even some other state parks and recreation areas.  Remoteness played a part there, an issue that doesn’t exist as much due to improved communications, mutual aid and cooperation.  It was also seen as a method to get more rangers and to be able to pay them a law enforcement supplement.  The idea was that if they were park rangers and law enforcement officers that they would stay longer.  We dare say, Kerr Lake turns over park rangers to a higher number and probably percentage than any other parks in the system.  It just seems that a ranger will not stay for long at the Kerr Lake recreation areas.

By bureaucratic nature the Office of State Personnel and the Division of State Parks started pushing rules and definitions of job functions more towards rangers being policemen than park rangers.  A current reclassification by the Department of Human Resources (over the Office of State Personnel) has state employees all over North Carolina questioning whether they have been promoted or demoted, and that leaders and legislators is another whole can of worms we will leave closed at this point.

Identifying the Ranger Problem at Kerr Lake

In the 1960’s, 1970’s, 1980’s and most of the 1990’s park rangers at Kerr Lake realized several axioms: (1) people come to Kerr Lake because of the water, (2) all kinds of people come for weekends, and (3) families come to Kerr Lake for weekends and many come for their vacations.  The park rangers of those decades and, as we said before, some into the 2000’s and only a few full park rangers currently, recognized or knew many of the high number of returning visitors and campers.  Those rangers realized that they were viewed almost as innkeepers or to some as vacation resort managers.  Esteemed Kerr Lake Recreation Area Chief Ranger Nathan Burwell told superiors he didn’t need a gun because he could enforce through respect, and if that did not work, he knew their families and he could get a problem fixed.  What a testament to being a park ranger Burwell’s life and career was!

Since the 1980’s when law enforcement was added to park ranger duties, most of the rangers at Kerr Lake adapted to becoming law enforcement officers, but the key is that well into the 2000’s those rangers kept their focus on the parks for which they were responsible and law enforcement was added to their mix of duties.

One might say there has been a slow transmutation in ranger habits, performance, duties and job functions that has left the public scratching its head, while frustrating other park employees who feel that rangers are set apart and above because of their law enforcement designation.  It used to be at Kerr Lake that everyone worked as a team, helping one another.

Whether it is due to park system administration or another complex, confusing set of rules from the Office of State Personnel, what has transpired is that while working in the same park, Kerr Lake State Recreation Areas specifically, the day to day job situation exist that one person in one job classification can not even suggest how a person of lower, equal or higher seniority might do their job better, or that they need to go and do for a particular task.

Kerr Lake Park Watch members and or leaders have spent almost a cumulative 30 days in the Kerr Lake Recreation Areas this Spring.  A number of tearful situations have been observed which demonstrate the practicing theory, “That’s Not My Job.”

The most tearful was to see in one of the parks that the friendly neighborhood racoons had visited a trash can, and after snacking they managed to scatter half a dozen pieces of trash.   Keep in mind that although in the NC State Recreation Areas at Kerr Lake, that the trucks are all white, all with state park decals and a few with state ranger decals.  Sometimes the public sees them as all the same.

With that trash on the ground, two trucks passed that were decaled only.  Two other trucks passed marked with decals and state ranger rolled by at a fast speed.  When the fifth truck rolled up, the driver who was picking up the trash was asked about the others and that person stated that according to state rules he could not tell any of those parties to pick up the trash.  That is a sad state.

Kerr Lake Park Watch visited several of the recreation areas and asked 20 random visitors if they had seen and/or spoken to a ranger, given that their time spent in the parks also varied; most however, were camping.  Of the 20 Kerr Lake visitors, only one had seen a ranger, who was flagged down to ask about the lake level, which has been a problem during the 30-day investigative period.

One of the most common complaints from the visiting public is, “We don’t see the rangers like we used to.”

Here’s some other of the most poignant comments that the people we interviewed offered:

  • Who told rangers at Kerr Lake that their only function is to ride through the parks?
  • Why do they have to spend several hours a day at the Satterwhite Point office?
  • They are never in this park.
  • We think rangers are out of the parks entirely too much.
  • The only thing the rangers are taught to focus on now is the shiny rim of a beer can.
  • Don’t they know that a left-arm sunburn is dangerous.
  • The only time we see rangers is them with their trucks facing each other and them talking.
  • Who’s the ranger this month?
  • The rangers ride through here so fast that if a bear was assaulting a coyote at a campsite, they wouldn’t see it.

Kerr Lake Park Watch and the public thinks that in most of the NC State Recreation Areas, most, not all because there are still a few real park rangers, that the relationships between staff and visitor that used to be stellar, is at an all time low.

To a large degree law enforcement being added to park rangers has dulled the relationship that has been traditional for generations to where whole families knew rangers who would visit and often come and eat at the visitors’ campsite or enjoy watermelon or homemade ice cream.  The law enforcement mentality has ended all of that to the dismay of older adults and to the depravity of the youth, who certainly could use more of those good role models in their lives.

Suggestions for Solutions on Kerr Lake State Recreation Area Rangers & Relationships

We at Kerr Lake Park Watch, ask that the Division of State Parks and Recreation act to change and improve this situation.  We are also asking the appropriate committees of the North Carolina General Assembly to investigate this and to provide the Division of State Parks any legislative assistance needed to correct and improve this segregated type of park service at Kerr Lake.  Continued on this page are some more specific suggestions for implementing positive changes.

  • Under the first definition of a park ranger, a person who will protect, promote and work in all facets of park service, Kerr Lake has only a very few left who are “old school” whereas the rest are focused on law enforcement.

These old school rangers, even from other parks, need to be given duties to teach rangers who need to understand that being a ranger is not just riding a truck, toting a gun, writing tickets                  and working on a court calendar.  That’s stuff for cops!

  • Another answer is to not spend too much on programs and interpretative rangers at the Kerr Lake Recreation Areas because, as most bureaucratic types and government officials who do not understand the recreation area versus park dilemma, the greatest majority of people go to Kerr Lake because they want to be near, in or on the water.


  • Ask someone with a family, and they will tell you they’d like their rangers to be in their respective parks at Kerr Lake. So, a solution for that is to find out why rangers spend several hours a day, most every day at the Satterwhite Point office.  Solve just that one problem with some policy changes and that family and all others will feel safer.


  • Regarding the many comments that rangers at Kerr Lake think that their only function is to ride through the parks, policy changes should be affected that maybe the rangers post changes in site reservations, parking their trucks in a particular loop or section and walking around thus given the opportunity to speak to and to get to know campers.


  • Against many objections including ours, eight entrance booths were built at the seven Kerr Lake State Recreation Areas at a cost of approximately $250,000 each, yes, that’s a quarter of a million dollars.  Those buildings sit unoccupied and unmanned most of the time.  The entrance booths or entry stations are where the offices for park rangers need to be established.  Each entry station has a phone, computer, office furniture, restrooms, and heat or cooling and are situated so that no one can enter or leave the park without being observed. Utilization of these entry stations would keep rangers in their respective parks.


  • That assumes that Kerr Lake State Recreation Areas need to keep rangers at all. Kerr Lake Park Watch members observed, in that same cumulative 30-day period, a deputy patrolling at least every other day, and even an occasional highway patrolman.  The Division of State Parks needs to take a bold, a specific look at law enforcement at Kerr Lake versus the parks, and if need be, do a separate policy break from other parks.  Precedent is already established as some rules now apply differently to state parks and state recreation areas.

Or maybe the question should be asked, with focuses only on law enforcement, should we have rangers at the State Recreation Areas?


  • While we are providing possible personnel solutions specifically for the Kerr Lake State Recreation Areas that will better serve the public, here is another somewhat related issue to park rangers, but more specifically targeting maintenance people. Because of the way that the administration of the Division of State Parks has been changed by the addition of law enforcement, good, well-trained and extraordinarily knowledgeable park employees outside the ranger job classification and specifically in maintenance cannot climb the personnel ladder and are prohibited from promotion to a position such as a superintendent of a park, a regional superintendent or higher promotion.  At Kerr Lake Park Watch, we feel this is blatant discrimination and may violate the civil liberties and/or the civil rights of these employees.  We ask that either the Division of State Parks amend, change or abolish this current policy and if not, we ask members of the General Assembly to do so, as this discrimination will be challenged at some point, and wisely so.

All eggs are not scrambled or boiled or fried.  The mandate comes from the customer and the cook prepares them from that mandate.  The NC Division of State Parks needs to back up and take a fresh look at the State Recreation Areas, specifically Kerr Lake’s seven parks and break out.

As always, we at Kerr Lake Park Watch extend our hands and our support if we can work together to make some or all these solutions come about.  We suggest that the administration leave Raleigh and get out to talk with the park-using public and employees.

Posted in: KLPW - MAIN NEWS, KLPW - N C State Recreation Areas

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