Taking care of local parks and wildlife even during the coronavirus shelter in place period

We hear about a lot of other front line workers, like restaurant owners, grocery clerks, and first responders. Health care workers are putting themselves on the line every day. As businesses are slowly reopening, many of us are cautious about jumping back into going to restaurants and movies. Even now, navigating the changing rules of the pandemic is challenging and isolating. One activity that remains safe is going outdoors. And with more people staying home, and unable to go to the gym or other entertainment, the parks are busier than ever. Going out into nature is not only healthy because of the exercise, but it also improves mood and immunity to be outdoors.

What you don’t see is how hard the rangers are working to keep the park clean and safe for everyone. During my conversation with the lead Ranger of the Palo Alto Parks, Lisa Myers, I discovered that the parks are busier than they have ever been. But she also sees more problems than ever like vandalism, habitat destruction, and rudeness.

Imagine a day where you get up and spend the day outside. First clearing brush from a trail and picking up garbage and then getting help for injured wildlife, and finally coordinating some research about wildlife. 

This is the job of a Park Ranger.

The many jobs of a Ranger

Palo Alto head Ranger Lisa Meyers shared the challenges she and her team face during shelter-in-place. She spoke about her team’s responsibilities and what it takes to keep our parks open and inviting for visitors

In Palo Alto, Lisa and her team are generalist Rangers. They respond to a diverse number of issues, including grass fires, wildlife rescues, park maintenance and improvements, managing ecosystem research, taking care of misdemeanors, and being medical responders. When you have so many hats to wear, you need a decision matrix to decide what to focus on that day, that hour, that moment even. For Lisa and her team, the priority matrix is 

  1. Life & Limb: Besides making sure visitors are kept safe and get medical care if they need it, Rangers also manage the treatment of injured wildlife. They figure out what is wrong with the animal, call the appropriate wildlife rescue agency if that is necessary, plan for the recovery of the animal, and support the animal as it is healing. 
  2. Property: Rangers protect the park from vandalism and misdemeanors such as theft. They repair the trails and infrastructure of the park.
  3. Visitor complaints: Most of the visitor complaints are reports of graffiti and vandalism, or overgrown trails, but also that dogs in Bixbee park are running off-leash and that there is dog poop that was not picked up.
  4. Routine Maintenance & Aesthetics: The rangers take care of miles of trails that need to be kept clear, the berms mowed, invasive species and weeds kept under control, and trash picked up. The most common invasive plants that need to be taken care of are fennel and thistles, which are challenging to remove. Community services and volunteers for Environmental Volunteers and Save the Bay help with keeping these invasive species under control as well as picking up trash.
Corporate volunteers from the EV helping with park maintenance

Managing the park has changed during shelter-in-place order due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Lisa Meyers mentioned that they are busier now than before the shelter in place order. The more popular areas have also shifted. The duck pond used to draw more people, but now I see more visitors in Bixbee park. It is a challenge to manage the extra visitors. Only three full-time staff cover a large area, and Lisa Meyers has to consider their health. She has reduced the crossover of personnel between the parks as much as possible. 

Even though the state and county are slowly opening up, the capacity of the park for visitors still needs to be taken into consideration. And when the parking lots are full, that means the park is full.

Lisa Myers knew she wanted to become a Ranger when she grew up.

Lisa Meyers decided she wanted to be a Park Ranger when she was five years old and it started on a memorable trip to Yosemite. 

While staying in the tent cabins in Yosemite with her family, Lisa’s mom asked her to put her dinner waste in the trash. She threw the garbage in the trash can inside the tent cabin, not realizing as a small child that she needed to use the bear-proof trash container for it.

In the middle of the night, they were visited by a bear who came to investigate the smell in the tent. Even though Lisa slept through the whole visit, the rest of her family did not. Having a visit from a bear freaked them out and Lisa’s mom was determined to leave the following morning. A Park Ranger who came by at the time calmed Lisa’s mom down and convinced the family to stay.

They ended up having a fantastic time in Yosemite, and this is where Lisa decided she wanted to become a park Ranger herself. 

How Rangers coordinate Research about Wildlife and Ecosystem Health

There is generally not enough time for the Rangers to keep track of wildlife numbers, although they have a general idea of the health of the ecosystem.

The wildlife numbers are tracked by other organizations, such as Point Blue, SFBBO, and SJSU, that are involved in researching plants, birds, and wildlife in the area. Twice a year, the Audubon society does a species count while Point Blue and SFBBO do quantitative counts and include information about the ages and sexes of birds.

Lisa and her team are still involved in the health of the Ecosystems in the parks they manage. This includes taking care of sick and injured wildlife. They need to find out what is wrong with ill and injured wildlife and manage the recovery of wildlife as well.

Most Memorable Day as a Ranger

Lisa’s favorite part of the job is that you never know what the day will bring. She has learned not to make rigid plans for what to do with her day. One particularly memorable day started at Foothills Park while she was opening up. In spite of the cell service is spotty up there, she got a call on the radio that there was a problem in the Baylands Preserve. The construction team working on the boardwalk got their Bobcat excavator stuck in the marsh and it was sinking rapidly. In the meantime, a sea lion was spotted on Bayshore road, clearly having lost their way, and needed help returning to the Bay. 

As Lisa was coming up with a plan to get the tractor out of the mud, she was also coordinating efforts to keep the sealion safe until the Marine Mammal Center could help rescue the animal. At the end of the day, the excavator was back on solid ground, and the sea lion was back in the water. It was a hectic day but also very satisfying to have everything turn out well in the end.

Being a Ranger is a varied and vital job.

Park rangers keep the park safe and enjoyable for everyone. They also protect the habitat and prevent and repair vandalism. Keeping our parks looking great and protecting the plants and animals in it ensures that the parks are lovely places to visit. Enjoying and also caring about the parks is the first step in wanting to protect both the habitat and the wildlife in it and inspiring lifelong stewardship.

Rangers are essential front line workers in the health and wellbeing of the people and the environment in the Bay Area during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Jacqueline Steenhuis, EV Communications Manager

PS – Rangers also explain the mysteries of gull behavior! There are lots of gulls in the Baylands, and while some are migratory, thousands make the Baylands their home year-round. I asked the Ranger why there are times that the gulls seem to swarm over the water purification plant. The gulls like to hang out in the grit bins to forage for food. The grit bins are one of the stages where solids like coffee grounds and food particles are removed from wastewater. They swarm when the wastewater treatment facility employees chase them off.