News & Updates

The Journey to be a Park Ranger: Vanessa Luois’ Story

Michael Taylor - November 8, 2022
Vanessa and Lego Vanessa!

Mount Graham, in Southeastern Arizona, is a “sky island” – a unique biosphere of rock and forest rising high above the desert, forcing its isolated ecosystem to evolve separate from all others. There are eighteen species of plants and animals that only exist on its peak. And it is through the University of Arizona’s work up there with the Mount Graham Red Squirrel that our interview today comes about.

Vanessa Luois, an accomplished biologist now serving as park ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park, spent a summer at the peak working with these endangered squirrels while still an undergraduate. As did I.

Our time up there means that Vanessa and I can both teach you how to spot a red squirrel midden. How to tell if scat on the ground comes from a canid or a felid, and, if it’s a felid’s, how recent their kill was.

Our resumes upon graduation were remarkably similar. We had the same schooling, same training, and, to an extent, similar experiences. We cannot, however, talk of each others’ interpretation of these experiences. Those are wholly our own.

See, here’s the things that don’t always make it onto our resumes – I have OCD and Vanessa is deaf. This space is for Vanessa’s story specifically, as she is just about the smartest person I came across in my undergraduate. Furthermore, she exemplifies the statement that the outdoors is for everyone – not only as a place to be, but also as a place to work.

M: Hi Vanessa! Wonderful to be with you again. Well, I know you as the person who kept scoring annoyingly higher than me in class… but that seems like an unfair introduction, so would you mind sharing who you are and your background in the outdoors?

Vanessa: Hi Michael! Thank you for having me here. So, my name is Vanessa Luois and I graduated from the University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources, earning a B.S. in Wildlife Conservation and Management. In addition, I completed a Master’s with Colorado State University, focusing on conservation law and action with land management, animals, and people. Throughout my undergraduate and graduate career, I studied mammals, birds and amphibians/reptiles in their natural habitats.

In my pursuit of becoming a biologist, I’ve worked with all kinds of National and State programs, as an AmeriCorps member and as a wildlife technician. I’ve been involved with a myriad of projects – from working on trail construction and habitat restoration to wildlife surveys and presentations. This was with major institutions, including the US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Forest Service, and National and State Parks. Today, I am enjoying my second-year seasonal position in educating visitors about wildlife and the history of Rocky Mountain National Park, as a National Park Ranger. [Ed. Note: Vanessa has since accepted a full-time position with RMNP!]

Oh! And, recently, I completed my internship with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Along the way I’ve also gained a neat opportunity to become a certified Interpretive Guide!

Vanessa hiking in an arid area
The number one thing that helps you become a park ranger? Time working outside!

M: Thanks, I think this showcases the timeline that most park rangers take! Now, for those out there who might want to be a park ranger or park manager one day – what does the journey look like to become one?

Vanessa:  Having a college degree that focuses on natural resources, parks, and wildlife will help you pursue a park ranger’s career. It is important to have great experience in the customer service field. You will be talking with all kinds of visitors, and you can become a certified interpretive guide too. Having that backbone in both ecology and customer service will help you when educating guests and visitors about Rocky Mountain National Park and its history, or at any National or State Parks!

M: Great, thank you! And, for those same prospective souls, what does a typical day’s work look like for you at Rocky Mountain National Park?

Vanessa: As a park ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park, I support and present National Park Service’s mission: preserving, unimpaired, the natural and cultural resources and values of the park for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. I do this in my work to the guests at Beaver Meadows and Fall River Entrance stations, daily – come say hi!

In addition, I coordinate with other departments throughout the park, including the law enforcement, road crews, maintenance, interpretative rangers, resources, and Rocky Mountain Conservancy. During fee collection operations, I’m at the entrance stations welcoming park visitors and selling interagency and park passes. It can be an extremely fast paced environment and you absolutely have to maintain accountable stock records for passes and change funds.

M: Thanks, Vanessa. So, the National Park Service has long had ties to Leave No Trace principles. As a Park Ranger, what are the principles and practices that have resonated most with you?

Vanessa: Oh boy! We sure do love practicing and educating Leave No Trace principles to our visitors, hikers, and campers at the Rocky! All principles and practices are highly encouraged in the park.

Most recently, we witnessed elk bugling in their rut season (late September – late October). And, unfortunately, we are watching the visitors approaching elk very closely, to both their and the elk’s detriment. I believe that Principle 6, Respect Wildlife, is critical. We can practice by keeping a safe distance between you and the wildlife.

I love sharing my method of knowing how close I am to the wildlife by using a “rule of a thumb.” If you can cover the entire wild animal with your thumb then you are at a safe distance. The distance is usually around 25 yards from most wildlife and 100 yards from large wildlife. But hey we do not carry a ruler in our pocket these days! Also, if you really want to see the wildlife very close, that’s what a camera or binoculars are for!

Vanessa atop a mountain
Park rangers love outdoor activities just as much as you, so treat them kindly!

M: For those who will read this interview that are deaf or hard of hearing – are there any organizations you recommend they look into for fellows in the community?

Vanessa: I am grateful to know of so many organizations for the deaf and hard of hearing communities, at least here in Colorado. I urge folks to join deaf groups and events such as the Colorado Association for the Deaf or the Denver-Deaf Night Life. It is important to build your connection for any professional or personal experiences!

M: Along those same lines, do you have any quick tips for people in the outdoors field on how we all can be more inclusive for people with hearing disabilities?

Vanessa: Be patient and be willing to accommodate any of the things that they might ask for. We can start off by asking “ How can we help you with your outdoor activity or experience?”

Some might request for an interpreter, or a transcript, or even a headphone to hear better. Or even nothing! From my personal experience, I always appreciate the outdoor tour guides asking me how they can meet or exceed my learning experience. It’s nice to be able to participate with other individuals without having any barriers, and not being ignored!

M: Do you have a particular wildlife or natural experience from your time in the field that you’d most like to share? I always loved watching the clouds come in from below us on Mount Graham, but didn’t love having a mountain lion surprise me.

Vanessa: I have too many beautiful moments to list here, so I’ll do a quick run-through. Studying abroad in Namibia, Africa during my college years was one of my most favorite experiences. I just absolutely loved waking up to stelliferous formations in the sky and watching the African sunrises. Watching wildlife like elephants, giraffes, and rhinos come together to drink from a waterhole was a spectacular moment to witness too. You can say that everything I see from the Lion King movie is pretty much what I experienced at that moment.

M: I was jealous then and am jealous now! Last question is the same for everyone – if you had to boil down all of your life experiences to one sentence to share with the world, what would it be?

Vanessa: Meet people and build your connections. You’ll never know what kind of unique people you’ll meet and who’ll change your life.

Vanessa and Lego Vanessa!

Let’s protect and enjoy our natural world together

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