As we release this episode, the longest government shutdown in American history is still underway, and 800,000 government workers are on furlough, including rangers and other protectors of our wildlife and national treasures. Those that remain on the job, mainly law enforcement rangers, are working without paychecks, and are facing protecting federal lands that remain open to visitors with very little support.

We thought this was an appropriate time to again highlight those rangers and other federal employees in the interior department.


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Transcript

JASON
As we release this episode, the longest government shutdown in American history is still underway, and 800,000 government workers are on furlough, including rangers and other protectors of our wildlife and national treasures. Those that remain on the job, mainly law enforcement rangers, are working without paychecks, and are facing protecting federal lands that remain open to visitors with very little support.

We thought this was an appropriate time to again highlight those rangers and other federal employees in the interior department.

We begin with a cowhand turned wildlife champion. Here’s Abigail Trabue.

ABIGAIL
For many years, Mark Haroldson lived as an old-western cowboy, riding a horse across the rugged landscape of Wyoming and Montana. But instead of wrangling cattle, he tracked and captured grizzly bears.

What started as a work-study job when he was 20 years old developed into a lifelong career of studying grizzlies. “It’s been a dream of mine as far back as I can remember,” he said.

Since he first started working with grizzly bears in 1976, Mark has served as a field biologist for the US Geological Survey, responsible for the handling and capture of bears throughout Yellowstone National Park. He currently spearheads the Interagency Grizzly Bear Team, a group of scientists responsible for long-term monitoring of the species.

Each time Mark captures a bear, he tries to obtain all the scientific information possible to “do right by the bear.” He first drugs the animal, takes fur samples for DNA and isotopic analysis, and marks it with a GPS collar — all of which help to determine survival estimates and population projections.

He then opens the bear’s maw and reaches between its massive teeth to pull out a small premolar in the back, which typically falls out naturally over time. By analyzing this single tooth, scientists can determine the bear’s age.

The sight of a bear’s open jaws would terrify most, but Mark works with calm and steady hands. “I’m anxious until I know the bear is ok and up and out of there,” he said.

Only then does he feel a sense of accomplishment.

Mark’s work was integral in reviving the grizzly bear population and bringing them off the endangered species list, which he views as a team accomplishment. While the grizzly’s recovery has had a tremendous impact, he continues to work towards long-term conservation of the Yellowstone ecosystem.

Given the chance, he wouldn’t trade anything for the field time he had in the Yellowstone backcountry. “It was the sense of being in the wilderness on horseback,” said Mark. “My boss would point to an area on the map and say go find some bears.”

Like a cowboy rambling across the Wild West, Mark continues to explore America’s great wilderness, still chasing the wild and magnificent North American grizzly bear.

JASON
Mark Haroldson was honored with the Interior Department’s Distinguished Service Award for his impactful work and lifelong dedication to grizzly bear research.

Next, we look back at the devastating 2016 fires in the Smoky Mountains, and the rangers that didn’t hesitate to save thousands of lives.

ABIGAIL
As smoke and soot filled the air on November 28, 2016, winds ranging up to 90 miles an hour hurled branches and burning embers on park staff at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They were exposed to snapping trees and falling live power lines while responding to a historic wildfire. Despite these dangers, the rangers forged ahead.

“No one asked that night what needed to be done. They just did it,” said District Park Ranger Jared St. Claire. Over the course of four hours, they evacuated over 14,000 Gatlinburg residents through the park, one of only two escape routes for the neighboring town.

Rangers and staff had to avoid falling trees while pushing broken-down cars and burning trees from the evacuation route. To clear the roads, they used chainsaws and snow plows to remove boulders, trees and other debris. If they had it, they used it to get the job done.

Some were rendered temporarily senseless, blinded by smoke and deafened by explosive noises. One ranger was injured after a falling tree limb hit him on the head. Yet, that didn’t stop him from completing the mission. After he received aid from another ranger, he picked up where he left off and continued clearing the roadway of debris.

“It affected everyone’s home and family, but nobody asked to go. Everyone stayed and pulled together to get it done,” said St. Claire.

Despite the significant risk, they saved countless lives during what would go down as one of the largest natural disasters in Tennessee’s history.

JASON
For their courage and heroism, the team was awarded the Valor Award, one of the highest honors in the Department of the Interior.

Interior Department employees can protect lands and people outside of the United States, too. One incident that could have been a mass tragedy was avoided thanks to the work of U.S. Geological Survey scientists.

ABIGAIL
On June 10, 1991, Mount Pinatubo, a volcano that had been dormant for nearly six centuries, erupted in the Zambales Mountains of the Philippines. While halfway around the world from the U.S., this eruption took place 10 miles west of Clark Air Base — one of our country’s largest overseas air bases. The eruption turned the morning sky into a firmament of thick ash and steam, threatening the safety of nearly 15,000 men, women and children.

U.S. Geological Survey scientist John Ewert played a critical role in saving these lives. He was one of the scientists on a team who forewarned of this cataclysmic event, allowing for the evacuation of everyone stationed at Clark Air Base and the locals in the surrounding area. The predictions made by the USGS team also saved $250 million in property damages.

Since that day, John has devoted himself to improving volcanic activity warning systems and minimizing destruction from volcanoes. “It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when,” said John. “We need to be ready to respond.”

He is a founding member of the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program, which designed a successful approach to reduce the loss of life and property during eruptions. He also established an accurate methodology for ranking volcanoes based on their societal threat. And — while serving as the Scientist-in-Charge at the USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory — John created a bi-national exchange for state and local officials to meet with their foreign counterparts in South America.

“The binational exchange is about having them meet with people and talk about their experiences,” he said “Firefighters meet firefighters. Teachers meet teachers. It’s about meeting people who lived through the firsthand experience.”

JASON
John’s lifelong dedication to the research of volcanic activity and protection of human life has earned him international recognition and Interior’s Distinguished Service Award.

One of the biggest concerns of the government shutdown is the inability of rangers to take proactive measures to prevent the loss of life, such as closing trails, issuing warnings, and evacuating areas facing severe weather. One such event a few years ago involved an entire Boy Scout troop completely unaware of the possibility of a coming tornado.

ABIGAIL
On May 16th, 2015, a tornado blew through the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, where Boy Scout Troop 955 from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, were camping. Federal Wildlife Officer Matt Belew anticipated the storm and evacuated all 65 Scouts and their leaders to the refuge headquarters basement about 30 minutes before the tornado hit.

The tornado traveled 10 to 12 miles across refuge land, causing major damage to the Fawn Creek Youth Campground and destroying nearly all the tents.

“One of those blue tents that was totally smashed by a large tree was the one my son was in,” one of the fathers told rangers. “We had no idea a severe storm was approaching when your officer came and had us evacuate for shelter at the headquarters basement. I fear my son and others would have died had we not left. So, thank you.”

Refuge manager Tony Booth said Belew “got in there when the tornado was forming. He took prompt action to go in there and evacuate them.”

“It looks like many boys and their parents are in your debt this morning,” wrote U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe to Belew. “As a parent myself I know I would be calling you a hero. Thanks so much for your foresight and action.”

The tornado touched down about a quarter mile from the campground. One refuge residence and a camper trailer were damaged but there were no injuries.

Belew was honored with the interior department’s Valor Award for his incredible courage and bravery. And it’s not the first time his emergency response capabilities have been highlighted. In 2013, he volunteered as an emergency medical responder following massive destruction from a huge EF-5 tornado in Moore, Oklahoma. In a night and day of almost nonstop work with his team, Belew searched almost 50 houses for survivors.

JASON

As the shutdown marches on, public lands face damage from the lack of services that employees of the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior provide.

Once the government reopens and rangers assess the full extent of damages, both financial resources and volunteers will be needed to help restore these great places. But, you can do something today to help your national parks recover.

The first is to give to the newly created Parks Restoration Fund with the National Park Foundation. The foundation will work with the National Park Service to assess needs and provide clean up efforts once the parks are back open.

The second way you can help is to sign up for information about volunteer efforts at nationalparks.org. We’ll provide a link in the show notes.

This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

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