Five Questions with Park Ranger and Superintendent Rebecca Harriett
Rebecca Harriett graduated from the NC State College of Natural Resources with a degree in park and recreation resources management, with a concentration in natural resources management, in 1979.
In her 38 years with the National Park Service (NPS), Harriett held multiple positions at parks, monuments and historic sites across the nation. She retired in 2016 as park superintendent at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia and continues to volunteer at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
We reached out to Harriett to learn more about her path to parks and recreation and her career with the NPS.
What did a typical day on the job look like when you worked for the NPS?
A park ranger is a “jack of all trades,” which I loved. My first job at Cape Lookout National Seashore in North Carolina involved tagging nesting sea turtles and protecting and monitoring their nests. I lived in a backcountry village on a barrier island in a historic district so when I wasn’t patrolling the beaches, I was researching the history of the structures and conducting oral histories of the people that lived there.
A typical day included patrolling the beach and looking for turtle nests, assisting park visitors, giving interpretive programs about the park, while also citing visitors that were violating the rules. I did search and rescue and firefighting when needed. I graduated from the Federal Law Enforcement Academy so that I could enforce park regulations and was a certified emergency medical technician. No day was alike; it was exciting.
Once I moved into management as chief ranger then park superintendent, the job became more administrative working with human resources and personnel issues, preparing park budgets, park planning, project management, long-term visioning, building community relationships and expanding partnerships, land acquisitions to protect park resources, the list goes on. This “big picture” work was very rewarding and satisfying, but I always tried to retain my connection with the field that was out there doing the fun stuff, the art of “rangering.”
What inspired you to study and work in parks and recreation?
My family, especially my dad, loved to visit national and state parks, historic sites and museums. We enjoyed camping, hiking and just being outdoors, but we also enjoyed history and going to sites like Monticello and Colonial Williamsburg. I was introduced to the people, the interpreters, the curators, the biologists and the rangers at any early age and thought, “what a great job they have.”
But I think it was the rangers that really captured my attention with their Smokey hats and helpful demeanor. To work outside in beautiful locations and/or important historical sites and protecting and connecting those sites to our visitors had a strong appeal. I think I wanted to be a ranger since I was about 12 years old and never wavered from that dream.
During my freshman year at NC State I declared “wildlife biology” as my major and while that was fine, no one ever mentioned the possibility of being a park ranger. A friend told me about the parks and recreation program so I looked into it. Their promotional literature mentioned “park ranger” as a career option numerous times. I changed my major my sophomore year and never regretted it. I was where I needed to be.
How were you able to make an impact through your work?
Well, you always hope that wherever you work that you leave the place better than before. And I certainly hope that I was a good steward of our national parks throughout my career whether by protecting those sea turtles and other wildlife from poachers and or inspiring visitors and employees to help care for their national parks and planet by being good stewards themselves.
At historical sites I hope that I encouraged Americans to dig a little deeper and think a little harder about our nation’s complex history and how that history defines our national identity, both for good and bad.
But I would have to say on a more tangible level that the ability to expand the park boundaries of both parks I managed was tremendously impactful because preserved land lasts for generations. And it is not an easy process as it requires scientific and historical research to justify protection, congressional approval and then, of course, getting the money for land acquisition. It is a long and daunting process. But as with any worthwhile project, once you are successful, it is euphoric.
How did the College of Natural Resources prepare you for your career?
In every way, from the classes offered to the supportive professors and instructors. But for me personally, the required nine-semester-hour internship was a turning point. While I hadn’t distinguished between the state park system and the national park system, my summer as a volunteer/intern at Cape Lookout National Seashore sealed the National Park Service for me.
With support from my college advisor and park supervisor, I was able to design a diverse and rich summer of work experiences that I remember to this day. That transformative experience made me realize in clearer terms the path that was right for me. And I am still to this day, after 40 years, in contact with those colleagues that I met that summer.
What advice do you have for current College of Natural Resources students?
Never give up on your dream and be persistent. Take advantage of opportunities, even the ones you think you might not want because you may learn new skills that you didn’t even know you needed. Acting assignments are invaluable. With the world finally prioritizing the climate crisis, your skills are needed more than ever. Now is your time to make a positive impact in the protection of our natural resources.