NPS unveiled: Meet the people that make the national parks run

Thousands of individuals in parks from Denali to Petrified Forest do little-known but essential jobs.

 

What makes our national parks run? Thousands of dedicated individuals in parks from Denali to Petrified Forest, some with little-known and sometimes quirky jobs you might not have considered. High Country News contributor Krista Langlois caught up with a few of them.

“I get these moments with wildlife
when there’s no one else around.”

Rachel Cudmore, the winter courier at Yellowstone, makes deliveries to employees who overwinter in the park’s interior.
Bianca Klein

Name: Rachel Cudmore

Age: 32

Park: Yellowstone

Title: Commercial film permits coordinator and winter courier 

Job description: In the summer, Cudmore issues film permits for nature documentaries and yearns for the quiet winter months, when she sometimes finds herself alone in the park’s 2.2-million-acre interior, watching wolves lope down a moonlit road. Since 2009, Cudmore has been a lifeline for the 100 or so employees and volunteers who overwinter in Yellowstone. Twice a week from December to March, she climbs into a truck or snowmobile and embarks alone on a 140-mile loop of closed-off, snow-packed roads to deliver mail and packages from the outside world. For rangers, caretakers and others who don’t leave the park all winter, Cudmore’s deliveries — and her company — may be their only connection to the outside world. 

Necessary skills: Troubleshooting broken snowmobile parts, baking cookies for Christmas and Valentine’s Day

Job perk: “So many times in Yellowstone when there’s an animal spotted, you’re not the only one there. I get to have these moments with wildlife when there’s no one else around. It’s like watching a National Geographic documentary.” 

Her favorite dog? “That’s like asking which child is your favorite."

Jen Raffaeli with a husky puppy in training as a canine ranger in Denali National Park.
Courtesy Jen Raffaeli

Name: Jen Raffaeli

Age: 40

Park: Denali

Title: Kennel manager

Job Description: When rangers need to haul trash out of or bring scientific research supplies into Denali’s 2 million acres of designated wilderness, they call Raffaeli. As manager of the only team of Canine Rangers (sled dogs) in the country, Raffaeli’s mushing helps keep the backcountry quiet, by doing work that would otherwise be done by snowmobiles or motorized vehicles. She also plays a role in preserving Alaskan history: As snow machines replace dogs in many villages, and smaller, faster breeds replace traditional Alaskan huskies in races like the Iditarod, Denali’s 27 sled-pulling huskies (and six puppies) are a living link to the state’s past. Denali’s kennel was founded in 1921 to control poaching in the newly designated park; today, Raffaeli and her team still mush some 3,000 miles a year.

Favorite season: Winter

Favorite dog: “That’s like asking which child is your favorite,” Raffaeli says, laughing. “There are dogs that are best for breaking trail in deep snow, dogs that are best for bringing into the cabin to snuggle, dogs that are best for raising puppies.”

Biggest accomplishment: In her five years managing the kennel, neither Raffaeli nor her staff have ever fallen through the ice. But with climate change bringing warmer winters and later freeze-up, Raffaeli has become extra-diligent. “It’s a constant wake-up call,” she says. “Just because a route has always been good, doesn’t mean it’s good now.” 

Cave visitors leave behind tiny pieces of themselves — clothing fibers, skin cells, hair

Pat Jablonsky uses a paintbrush to loosen the layer of lint that collects in a cave in Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
Courtesy Pat Jablonsky

Name: Pat Jablonsky

Age: 72

Park: Carlsbad Caverns

Official title: Lint camp coordinator (retired)

Unofficial title: “The nagging lint lady” 

Job description: In 1986, a park ranger leaned over a retaining wall deep within the caverns and grabbed a handful of what Jablonsky thought resembled the lint from a clothes dryer. That’s basically what it was: For decades, visitors had left behind tiny pieces of themselves — clothing fibers, skin cells and hair — that coated Carlsbad’s famous formations, creating a barrier that trapped acidic cave moisture and helped corrode the formations. Over the next three decades, Jablonsky, a volunteer, organized annual camps to pick the lint from the caves. Between 1988 and 2014, when she retired, Jablonsky and 386 other volunteers spent 8,111 hours removing 495 pounds of human detritus. Jablonsky’s work and the research it spawned has helped cave managers in the United States, Australia and New Zealand develop rules to minimize human impact on delicate underground environments. 

Best way to put her out of work: “If everyone caved nekkid!”

Other interests: Paleontology. Jablonsky once helped excavate a ground sloth from a remote cave in Carlsbad, and has a fossil, Pseudopalatus jablonskiae, named after her. Her biggest passion, however, remains caving: Her husband took her caving on their second date, and while she’d always been fascinated by caves, “to finally get to go into one was like a disease. I was hooked.” 

Occasionally, she’ll rescue an old saw from a crumbling cabin inside the park

Tara Vessella, right, prefers an old-school crosscut saw for her work at Rocky Mountain National Park.
National Park Service

Name: Tara Vessella

Age: 35

Park: Rocky Mountain 

Title: Backcountry coordinator

Job description: Rocky Mountain National Park has 250 backcountry campsites, and Vessella and her crew are in charge of maintaining all of them. Often, that means packing tools, food and gear dozens of miles into the wilderness to repair tent platforms, clean pit toilets, and fell dangerous “widowmaker” trees to keep campers safe. Although chainsaws are allowed when deemed necessary for human safety, Vessella is part of a small but passionate group that prefers to do things the old-fashioned way: with a crosscut saw, often one that’s older than she is. When she’s not slicing through beetle-killed wood, Vessella is sharpening her skills, sometimes with the help of Forest Service saw-sharpening legend Dolly Chapman. She also bargains with saw hunters — collectors and middlemen who travel the West searching for vintage crosscuts –- and occasionally does some hunting of her own, rescuing old saws from crumbling cabins inside the park.

Favorite tool: Llamas, used to pack tools and supplies into the backcountry, “because without them I don’t think a lot of the things we do would be possible.”

Unexpected downside: In 2015, Rocky Mountain shattered its previous backcountry record by nearly 3,000 permits. That means there’s a whole lot of people in the backcountry, and many, Vessella says, are inexperienced and lack fully developed “Leave No Trace” ethics. Or to put it bluntly: “We pick up a lot of human waste.”

Parker uncovered a Revueltosaurusskeleton and found it wasn’t a dinosaur at all

Bill Parker at the site of a phytosaur in Petrified Forest National Park.
National Park Service

Name: Bill Parker

Age: 48

Park: Petrified Forest

Title: Paleontologist

Job description: Despite its abundance of fossils, visitors to Petrified Forest often struggle to picture what the park looked like in the late Triassic Period, 200 to 250 million years ago. That’s where Parker comes in. As one of the park’s three paleontologists, he digs up, preserves and documents fossils, then turns his research into information that helps the public imagine the arid Arizona landscape as an ancient jungle, replete with giant ferns, six-foot-long amphibians and freshwater sharks. Since he began working for the park in 2001, Parker and his team have discovered two to three new species of plants and animals every year, gradually providing a better glimpse into an environment that disappeared as the continent shifted northward.

Coolest discovery: The world’s first Revueltosaurus skeleton. Previously known only by its teeth, Revueltosaurus was thought to be the ancestor of later dinosaurs like Stegosaurus and Triceratops. But in 2004, Parker uncovered skeletons that revealed the creatures weren’t dinosaurs at all, but rather the ancestors of modern crocodiles, throwing a wrench into evolutionary theories that had persisted for decades. “It was very exciting,” he says.

On seeing the world: “It’s kind of annoying, but I don’t see scenery anymore. When I drive through Utah, I don’t remember the exit numbers. I remember the geologic layers.”

“We do a lot of  schlogging
up and down this mountain

Stefan Löfgren evacuates an injured climber from Lane Peak in Mount Rainier National Park.
National Park Service

Name: Stefan Löfgren

Age: 44

Park: Mount Rainier 

Title: Mountaineering district ranger / chief climbing ranger 

Job qualifications: EMT certification, substantial mountaineering skills, experience around helicopters, avalanche training, technical rope rescue

Number of Rainier summits: 105

Job description: Löfgren is one of a dozen seasonal and full-time climbing rangers who staff Mount Rainier’s high camp, haul supplies up and down the mountain, and educate and register the 11,000 or so climbers who attempt to summit the 14,409-foot peak each year. But the elite climbing rangers are perhaps best known for their search-and-rescue work. Although calls rose by 40 percent last year, Löfgren says that the increase came largely from casual visitors, not mountaineers, who tend to be better-prepared. Still, in his 25 years at the park, Löfgren has responded to more climbing rescues than he cares to recall. He’d rather not discuss the “gory” ones; he prefers to recollect the time he helped find a group of five climbers in a white-out blizzard. They had been presumed dead, but survived with only cold toes and dehydration as injuries.

On climbing mountains in his off time: “I’m really not motivated.” Or as one of his colleagues puts it, “We do a lot of schlogging up and down this mountain for work, so if we can avoid schlogging on our personal time, we do.”

What he does instead: Walks across countries and continents. Löfgren has traversed the United States and Europe by foot, and attempted Nepal and New Zealand. 

Krista Langlois is a freelance journalist and correspondent with High Country News. She writes from a tiny round cabin outside Durango, Colorado.

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