Faces of the Parks
When you visit, these are some of the people you’ll meet.
Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night can keep these dedicated workers from their appointed tasks.
No, not the hard-working mail carriers who ensure our parcels are delivered. We’re talking about the network of folks who make up the community of Texas State Parks — the ones who care for our wild things and wild places. Day in and day out, park staff and volunteers devote their time to making sure that the 10 million visitors passing through park gates have a safe and enjoyable experience in the outdoors. It takes a village. Read on for a glimpse into the roles of people in a variety of park positions across the state.
Maegan Lanham | TPWD
For park rangers, there are very few typical days, says Danny Thach of Brazos Bend.
“You might be writing an incident report one second, and then you have a call that there’s an alligator on the trail you have to address or a raccoon that’s stuck in a dumpster that people really want you to wrangle,” he says of his duties, which also include coordinating the campground park hosts and “learning all the different moving parts of how a state park operates.”
Thach speaks Vietnamese, which is a valuable skill in interacting with the Houston-area park’s global array of visitors.
“Being located in Fort Bend County, which is the most diverse county in pretty much the entire nation, I think that knowing the Vietnamese language fluently has really helped with that language barrier that some people may see when they come to state parks," he says. "It’s beneficial for me to make our visitors feel welcome by being kind of the face of Brazos Bend when they come in — they see someone that looks like themselves.”
Cesar Mendez | TPWD
State park police officers protect the natural and cultural resources within park boundaries, and also protect and serve the communities they live in. Officers deal with campground noise complaints, find lost hikers, lend medical assistance and resolve any park problems that pop up. The best part of her job, says park police officer Autumn Gillespie, is the office views.
“That’s what made realize this was the job for me,” she says. “Whether it’s watching the sunset in El Paso or sitting on a boat on the river, my office changes each day. It’s something I’ll never get tired of.”
Chase Fountain | TPWD
As a park interpreter, Joel Janssen of Lake Livingston leads hikes, conducts campfire programs and more. He says the interpreter’s job is to heighten awareness of the natural and cultural environment. His work adds perspective to the park so people can form a connection to it and want to be stewards of Texas’ public lands in the future.
Creating connections with visitors through park programs is one of the rewarding parts of his position. Janssen offers programs on East Texas wildlife, primitive fire-starting methods and zombie apocalypse survival.
“I’ve got this painting hanging in my office from a little girl who came to one of my programs during a Spring Break minicamp we had,” Janssen says. “She waited an entire year to come back to the same program so she could give me a painting she made of me standing in front of a tree with a rainbow in the background. Little things like that — getting notes from college kids who came out to a program and are inspired to do something in the natural or cultural resource management field — are really what makes me do this and brings me back every day.”
Sonja Sommerfeld | TPWD
Some of the first people visitors meet at a state park are the office staff who work to ensure that check-ins and check-outs are seamless. Yanira Lacio, the office manager at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, makes sure the office and park store run efficiently for staff and visitors.
She opens the park store and checks that it is well-stocked with field guides, hats and T-shirts (you can also rent bikes and binoculars). Bentsen is a birder’s park, so bird-themed merchandise is popular.
“I didn’t know a lot of birds at the beginning,” she says. “I know a lot more now.”
Throughout the day, Lacio checks in and interacts with visitors, offering information on tram tours, best places to see birds and butterflies, recommended hikes and more.
“Coming to the park and meeting with park staff, volunteers, hosts, and regular and first-time customers is the best part of my job,” Lacio says. “I consider them to be my second family.”
Maegan Lanham | TPWD
State parks are like little cities, with utilities, roads and sidewalks in addition to their natural landscape of trees and trails. A lead maintenance ranger like Mario Ramirez of Barton Warnock Visitor Center oversees a team of people who support the facilities within a park. That can include anything from keeping campsites and buildings safe and up to code to controlling erosion on trails.
Maintenance rangers need to know about all kinds of things — electricity, carpentry, wildlife, trail-building — and they’re constantly learning.
“Twice a week we clean the 30 river campsites," he says of Barton Warnock's responsibilities along the river corridor of Big Bend Ranch State Park. "The rest of the time we’re around here fixing stuff. We do everything — cement, carpentry and whatever."
It's a happy kind of busy for Ramirez and his co-workers. "We get people from Germany, France, everywhere. I love it here. You get to be outside, and I love it outside.”
Maegan Lanham | TPWD
Park hosts are the eyes and ears of the park and provide an extra pair of hands (or two) to the parks they serve. These dedicated folks perform tasks such as picking up trash, orienting visitors, selling firewood and teaching about native wildlife. Park hosts are allowed to stay in the campground for free in exchange for their work.
“We are there for the people,” says Enchanted Rock’s Jacky Lee, who is a volunteer, not staff. “That means making sure they have fun, that they enjoy the park."
Sonja Sommerfeld | TPWD
Superintendents are the folks in charge, and a day’s duties might go from doing paperwork to conducting a search and rescue. Nikki Elms is a complex superintendent at Mineral Wells, as opposed to a park superintendent, which means she manages more than one site (in Elms’ case, a park and a trailway).
Elms says that the first time she visited the park and Penitentiary Hollow — the area of the park with cliffs and canyons — she knew she wanted to work there.
On an average day, she is the first one at the park. Her to-do list includes conducting daily camp checks, assisting field operations, checking in at park headquarters and answering emails.
“I love interacting with our park visitors when they arrive,” Elms says. “They are excited to be on vacation and visiting the park, and I enjoy being able to provide that experience for them. We create memories every day. Each time I see a child and they are waving and excited to see me, I remember that could have been me at that age.”
Assistant superintendents wear many hats in a day’s work. Candyce Johnson, who holds the role at Abilene State Park, teaches field trip groups (“We usually see every third grader in Abilene ISD each year,” she says) and other visitors about plant life and Texas critters. She spends time at headquarters greeting guests and doing administrative work, and patrols the roads in her truck to make sure park-goers are staying safe. A key member of the park’s staff of nine, Johnson works hard to create a place where people can safely enjoy the outdoors.
“It's really nice to be able to provide the atmosphere for people to get outside and enjoy themselves and get away from whatever stresses they have in their life,” she says.
Celebrating 100 Years of our State Parks can be delivered straight to your mailbox with a new annual subscription to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. Enjoy 10 issues PLUS this bonus as our gift to you. Subscribe today!