Three Appalachian alumni share their paths to becoming national park rangers

Appalachian State University alumni Marinell Chandler ’13, a sustainable development major with a concentration in environmental studies; Tim Federal ’12 MA, a graduate of Appalachian’s master’s in geography program with a concentration in geographic information science; and geography major Dan McLendon ’13 have all become rangers within the National Park Service – no easy task by all accounts. They each shared their stories and the paths that landed them these most coveted jobs.

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    The BP oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico her senior year of high school piqued an interest in environmental conservation; an alternative service experience in the Virgin Islands led her to the NPS. Works summers at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska since 2014, two seasons at Denali’s Sled Dog Kennels, now staffing the entire east district of the park.
    Marinell Chandler ’13
    ‘This is my park and I hope to work here a long time’

    Chandler lives just inside the Denali National Park and Preserve, which encompasses 6 million acres of Alaska’s interior. Its centerpiece is 20,310-foot-high Denali (formerly called Mount McKinley), North America’s tallest peak. She works with 50 rangers who are the front line of the Division of Interpretation at the park’s entrance – those rangers who interact daily with visitors, staff the visitor center and lead guided hikes and educational programs.

    Chandler got her foot in the door with NPS through the Student Conservation Association (SCA). Every year, she said, the SCA hires two interns to assist in the care of the 30-plus canine rangers in Denali and educate the roughly 50,000 visitors who come to see the dogs during the summer season. She had worked as an animal care coordinator at a local animal hospital at home in Louisiana for three years during the summer and winter holidays, which qualified her for the job.

    Chandler worked at the kennels providing care for the park dogs during two peak summer seasons. “Once our summer season is officially over we begin fall training,” she said. “It’s important to mention the dogs’ true purpose of providing access and protection in the Denali Wilderness. [To prepare], our dog teams run for several miles each day with carts or ATVs to rebuild their strength and endurance.”

    The dogs also have a litter of puppies each summer, so interns would spend much of their time raising them to become the next generation of Denali Wilderness protectors, she said.

    Chandler also completed an internship as a fisheries technician with the U.S. Forest Service in Sitka, Alaska, through the SCA during summer 2013 where she helped build and operate a remote fish weir during salmon spawning season.

    Chandler said, “Watching visitors make connections with the park and tell stories about their experiences in our parks is my favorite part about being a ranger.” She wants to continue working as a park ranger in Denali. “I hope to become a wilderness EMT this winter,” she explained, “and continue growing as an interpretive ranger. This is my park, and I hope to stay for a long time.”

    As much as she loves Denali, Chandler said, “I miss the Appalachian Community. Living around people who had the same love for the outdoors as I did, and having professors who encouraged me to follow my passion for our country’s natural places inspired me tremendously, and I will always remember that.”

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    Passionate about the outdoors, came to Boone to escape city life. Became a biological-science technician after a “game changer” trip to Peru with Appalachian’s Dr. Baker Perry. Headquartered in Boulder City, Nevada, he works several desert regions with fellow alumnus Tim Federal. A non-traditional student, his experience in an automotive shop pre-college helps in the backcountry where he maintains a fleet of service vehicles.
    Daniel McLendon ’12
    ‘a bit of a weather nerd’

    McLendon applauds the rangers who do interpretive work like Chandler, but that job is not for him: “I don’t want to answer questions all the time,” he said, admitting he prefers to work in the field – alone and in nature. In the field and without Internet access, he called in for this interview one late September afternoon from “the middle of nowhere in Utah, in Arches National Park, in the Colorado Plateau.” Describing his surroundings, he ticked off the following: “sandstone mountains, mesa, plateaus… rolling hills of grassland and sagebrush. Bunches of tumbleweed,” and he claimed he had not seen another person all day. “It’s raining and that’s just weird,” he continued. “The desert gets less than 10 inches of rain a year. It just doesn’t happen enough for it to be normal. I laugh and I’m happy about it. But I also know a little rain can be deadly. I’m kind of a weather nerd. And it’s shaped me as a person.” He paused. “Global warming is for real.”

    McLendon completed an internship with the Blue Ridge Parkway on an exotic plant management team. “I was out of town a lot ... Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, in the Smokies, working remote... eight days you’re in the back country, then off for six. That’s a pretty cool long weekend. It was so much fun, I was hooked. If you want this job,” he explained, “you have to volunteer, do the internships... and that means being overworked and underpaid. It’s the name of the game.”

    McLendon is on the Lake Mead Exotic Plant Management Team, a regional crew that conducts exotic species surveys, eradication efforts and monitoring for a handful of national parks and a variety of public lands across the southwestern U.S.

    A non-traditional student who graduated at age 27, McLendon said his real-world experience working at Clark Tire in Boone has been helpful. He learned enough about car maintenance to maintain his crew’s fleet of work trucks and, he said, “It’s a good thing. In the backcountry, something always breaks.”

    It’s physically rigorous, McLendon said – rugged work. Treatments range from hand-pulling weeds to spraying herbicides to clear-cutting stands of invasive trees. He described bouts with poison ivy, a run in with a scorpion and a particularly treacherous truck caravan down a narrow gorge with a vertical drop of 1,000 feet, no guard rails and a developing mudslide. “But I sleep at night knowing I’ve enabled a small bit of native habitat to coexist… that it’s not being bombarded by an invasive plant that is choking out the vegetation.”

  • Earned his master’s in geography with a concentration in geographic information science. Clocked four seasons in Alaska national parks, starting with an internship in 2010. Leads the data management crew for Lake Mead Exotic Plant Management Team. Hopes to continue in the field of restoration ecology and natural resource management, with an emphasis on using geospatial technology to make fieldwork easier and data collection more accurate.
    Tim Federal ’12 MA
    ‘Data is key to understanding the natural resource issues in our parks’

    Federal is data manager/crew lead for the Lake Mead Exotic Plant Management Team – McLendon’s team. He is responsible for maintaining a robust geodatabase of all of the work the team does, as well as “working with clients to determine metrics such as infested acreage, treated acreage and monitoring exotic species infestations, year after year, using the GIS data we collect to evaluate how these infestations are changing over time due to the teams’ eradication efforts in the field. This requires lots of office work,” he said, currently keeping him indoors 50-75 percent of the time. He also helps with the logistics planning for a traveling crew of 20-plus people.

    The Student Conservation Association provided Federal’s entry portal to the NPS, as it did Chandler. His first internship was at Wrangell St.-Elias National Park in Alaska in summer 2010, just before he started his graduate work at Appalachian. “Through connections I made with that internship, I was hired on as a seasonal NPS employee for the next three summers working out of the NPS Regional Office in Alaska. I was hired under the Student Temporary Employment Program (STEP), which allowed my supervisor to hire me without competition... that program no longer exists and was replaced by the Pathways program, which allows recent graduates (within two years) to apply for jobs with ‘status,’ meaning they only compete with other NPS employees.”

    Federal wants to remain in the field of restoration ecology and natural resource management, with an emphasis on using geospatial technology “to not only make our field work a bit easier, but to gain better resource data that gives us a deeper understanding of the many natural resource issues facing our parks today. The work we do,” he explained, “drives home a sense of ownership and stewardship of the beautiful lands and natural resources that many of us take for granted.”

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