What it's Like to be a County Parks Ranger
“Parks are where the outdoors and the people meet, and that’s where I want to be.”
Asked what he looks forward to each day, Joel Cervantes answered without hesitation: “This.”
“This” included oak trees, a deer poking through the forest and morning sunshine causing steam to rise from the roof of the nearby Miwok Picnic Shelter in Huddart County Park. But “this” also happened to include the shovel in his hand and a mound of broken-up asphalt that wasn’t going to load itself into the back of a nearby truck.
“I always wanted to be outdoors and to help people,” he continued. “Parks are where the outdoors and the people meet, and that’s where I want to be.”
Cervantes has worked as a San Mateo County Parks ranger for two years. His first assignment was helping to manage the crowds at the new Devil’s Slide Trail that opened in spring 2014. You can find him now at Huddart or other mid-county parks, usually with a shovel, chainsaw, broom, hammer – whatever it takes to get that day’s job done.
The budget for County parks suffered following the global economic crisis that hit in 2008. To cut costs, the Board of Supervisors merged Parks into the Public Works Department.
Funding provided by Measure A, the countywide half-cent sales tax approved by voters in November 2012, allowed the Board to return Parks to a stand-alone department and to launch numerous projects to maintain and improve a parks system visited by 2 million people a year.
Measure A also provided the funding necessary to hire Cervantes, along with Parks Director Marlene Finley and other key staff. Their salaries and benefits are now paid through the County's General Fund.
Cervantes grew up in Petaluma. His father worked on a road crew, and Cervantes spent two summers alongside his dad working with hot tar. He enjoyed being outdoors but nothing else about the experience -- except a new appreciation for how hard his father worked to support his family.
Cervantes earned a degree from the University of California at Santa Cruz in environmental science with a focus on water use and water rights. After college he worked as a bartender, waiter and beer brewer before landing a job at a private nature preserve in Sonoma County. That experience helped prepare him to become an entry-level ranger with San Mateo County Parks.
(Unlike rangers in State Parks and some counties, San Mateo County rangers are not peace/law enforcement officers. Local rangers typically have a background in natural resources conservation, park management, biology and related fields.)
So what is a ranger’s life like?
“As for my day-to-day job, I can plan what I want to get done but that doesn’t always happen,” he said. Fallen trees, lost hikers and a hundred other incidents routinely spoil the day’s work plan, but that’s part of what keeps the job interesting.
First on each day's agenda (following his commute -- not all rangers live in parks) is making sure the park is safe and clean. That may mean donning thick chaps and a helmet as he uses a chainsaw to remove a fallen tree. Or he may tackle the unglamorous but necessary task of cleaning toilets, picking up trash and removing ashes from the barbecue pits.
He clears brush (“This is not a good job if you get poison oak bad.”), fixes pretty much everything from broken signs to broken equipment and answers questions from visitors.
A friendly 29-year-old with an easy smile, he especially enjoys recommending hikes for all ages and abilities.
He’s hiked them all, often with a chainsaw in hand. “Going to work is my workout," he said. "I stopped going to the gym and I never watch what I eat."
As he spoke, a young deer strolled by, one of many deer, bobcats, hawks and other animals he may spot every day. He smiled, took a swig of water and got back to work.
Yes, just another day in the life of a park ranger.
Published in June 2016.