They’re on the front lines of Corps lakes, but from Oct. 27-29 several hundred were in downtown Louisville for the 2009 U.S. Army Corps Lakes and Rivers Division Ranger Conference.
Day one opened up with remarks on safety and the presentation of Star of Life awards.
More than 16 million people visited Louisville District lakes and locks in fiscal year 2009. There was a 40 percent reduction in fatalities.
Beginning in May, the Louisville District was able to dedicate several full-time park rangers to water safety education at the agency’s numerous lakes. The opportunity was made possible using funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, legislation passed earlier this year to stimulate the economy and repair the nation’s infrastructure.
In fiscal year 2008, there were 262 total full and part time park ranger and natural resource management employees. In 2009, the number grew to 537.
“We had 16 million visits to our lakes last year,” Louisville District Commander Col. Keith Landry said. “We are working those park rangers to the bone, but those rangers are the front line troops – they’re the faces of the Corps.”
Four Louisville District park rangers were awarded the Star of Life, an award presented to Corps employees or volunteers who take action that prevent a member of the visiting public from being severely injured or becoming a fatality. Actions typically consist of an actual physical rescue, however pro-active measures that prevent such situations from occurring may also be considered.
Ranger Joe Staigl and maintenance mechanics James Sparks and Justin Sanders of Cecil Harden Lake and Jon Fillingham of Barren River Lake were named Star of Life recipients.
Rangers are constantly interacting with the public in a variety of situations. They advise lake visitors on the proper way to extinguish a fire, host water safety seminars at state fairs, and they occasionally have to calm the tempers of unruly campers. They’re not armed like law enforcement officers, so rangers depend on their diplomatic abilities to ensure everyone’s visit to the lake is a safe one.
Since good communication skills are such an important part of the job, the Louisville District invited Dr. Robert Walsh of Evans and Associates professional and organizational consulting firm to speak to rangers. Walsh spoke about the importance of keeping emotions in check when dealing with the occasional lake visitor who loses his emotions. Maintaining patience requires patient listening, Walsh said, and that requires active and effective thought.
“Being patient helps us fight the tendency to only listen to only parts of what’s being said, or what is convenient,” he said.
After lunch, the group loaded up on four busses and headed for the Falls of the Ohio National Wildlife Conservation Area. The Falls of the Ohio lie in the Ohio River in the states of Indiana and Kentucky. Permanent settlement at the Falls dates from 1778, when George Rogers Clark established a camp on Corn Island that was located just upstream Shippingsport Island. The city of Louisville can trace its historical development to this small camp.
The Falls is in fact not a falls but a series of rapids, which prior to construction of McAlpine Locks and Dam, dropped 26 feet in three miles. Geologically, the Falls is world-renowned because of the great abundance and variety of well-preserved fossilized corals and associated species found in the Devonian Period limestone formations. More than 245 species of birds have been recorded at the Falls, many only stopping off in their seasonal migratory patterns.
In 1981, the Louisville District purchased the 1,400 acres that are the Wildlife Conservation Area that sits in and around the river, and the District also runs the interpretive center that sits on the Indiana side of the river. District Natural Resource Manager Keith Richardson supervises the site.
“Our job is to protect fish, wildlife and fossils, and make it available to public and for research,” Richardson said. “There are a lot of user groups here, too, and it can get complicated. The Corps maintains navigation and keeps the user groups like fisherman, boaters, kayakers, researchers, etc., happy while looking after the wildlife.”
Following a briefing on ranger uniforms, Park Ranger Bill Jackson from the Vicksburg District’s Lake Ouachita Field Office addressed the group. Citing Hurricane Katrina, Jackson spoke about the unique skill of the Corps’ rangers and the demand for the abilities in times of crisis. Many rangers from the Vicksburg district deployed during the crises.
“In the after action report that came out, one of the primary things that was said was, ‘We want rangers,’” he said. “It’s because park rangers work in an atmosphere where we’re under stress at times, we’re able to meet with the public when they’re under stress, and we have such a diverse background that we’re able to adapt to whatever situation we’re placed in. You represent the Corps very well.”
Jackson continued his briefing with examples of what dangers park rangers face today, citing everything from threats to locks and dams, drug manufacturing in remote park regions, and gang activity.
“Rangers are on the front lines of defense against those who want to harm dams, parks and lakes,” Jackson said.
While rangers do their best to be the diplomat, they sometimes must use force in defending federal property and the right of the public to enjoy Corps lakes in a secure and safe environment. That’s why the day ended in a self-defense class, an annual requirement for all rangers. Rangers paired off with partners and, following their instructor’s lead, moved through each self-defense move in their inventory.
“Ever since I’ve been in a ranger uniform, I’ve never had to use the tactics that we teach,” Jackson said. “But we have had rangers who’ve been involved in pushing and shoving, and have gotten out of it.”
When the last punch of the day was thrown, Jackson gave some parting words to his fellow rangers and dismissed the class. Taylorsville Lake Park Ranger and conference organizer Lisa Freeman said the three-day event was a valuable experience.
“I think it went very well,” she said. “It’s great for networking, and it’s a great way to get our required training done all at once.”