Cami McKinney was around 8 years old when her mother took her to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Spanning 400 miles — the longest in the world — the cave system has a variety of tours, exploring different parts. McKinney had her eyes set on the Snowball Room, named for the round-shaped calcium carbonate formations on the ceiling, where backpackers can grab refreshments.

“When you grow up, Cami, you can go all the way down there,” her mother said, and the young girl hoped she would.

“I was raised in a national park family,” she said, and that means hiking the trails was a common occurrence, as was a yearly trip to a national park like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. Another time, her mother suggested an impromptu family trip to a nearby national monument.

“My memory tells me that she got us up in the morning and said, ‘I know what would be fun to do with our family — Let’s go to Timpanogos Cave,’” she told me over the phone. 

McKinney, who has worked for the National Park Service for over 25 years, is now a program manager at this Utah cave monument and a photo from that time sits on her desk. “That kind of behavior is long in our past,” she confessed. “Visiting national parks takes a lot more planning than it may have in the past.” 

Now, the Timpanogos caves offer a limited number of tours and tickets selling weeks ahead of time during the busy summer months. While people are more prepared to be in nature, with their hiking gear and water bottles, “there’s a lot of wonderful things about being able to just stumble on a wonderful outdoor experience,” that isn’t as common anymore.

A big reason is record-breaking visitation, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, stretching the staff thin. Each year, the National Park Service loses employees. But this chronic problem becomes more pressing when the changing climate calls for all-hands-on-deck situations.


ABCs of being a park ranger

McKinney took the job with the NPS in 1997 as a fee collector at American Fork Canyon, famous for the 340 million-year-old Timpanogos Cave, which rests south of the Wasatch mountain range. She didn’t necessarily want to be a park ranger, but it would allow her to be outside and get paid for it. 

“Plus, I had the coolest job among my friends,” she joked. 

Rangers like McKinney are stewards of protected and historic lands. Emerging in the 19th century as full-time soldiers amid the North American colonial wars, the job description of the ranger changed over time. 

In 1857, when Yosemite became the first California state park before coming under the wing of National Park Service, Galen Clark was chosen as the park’s guardian, becoming the first national park ranger, according to California’s Parks and Recreation Department

The former carpenter spent over half a century educating the public with humor and a set of interesting facts. When Theodore Roosevelt took office in the early 1900s, he doubled the number of parks in the system, earning him the nickname “the conservation president.” He also paved way for the Antiquities Act, which allowed presidents to protect cultural and natural resources, historical or scientific.

And park rangers, wearing broad-rimmed hats, gray shirts and green pants, are the ones at the forefront of the operation. They can specialize in interpretation, presenting general, historical and scientific information to tourists, or in law enforcement, keeping the vast acres of land secure.

A view of Half Dome from the valley floor of Yosemite National Park is shown in this Oct. 20, 1997 file photo, in Yosemite, Calif.
A view of Half Dome from the valley floor of Yosemite National Park is shown in this Oct. 20, 1997, photo, in Yosemite, Calif. | Associated Press

Apart from the HR teams and tech wizards, the federal agency has a few unique needs. “We hire people that crawl into caves,” McKinney said. “There’s parks with archaeologists. There’s parks with people that dress up in period costumes and speak only in a particular time period … there’s the underwater archaeologists.” 

On a daily basis, McKinney tended to vehicle parking issues at the canyon, recommended hiking trails, performed minor first aid and dealt with visitors who were having too much fun. 

Eventually, she began giving hourlong cave tours, guiding first-timers through the cool, limestone cavern, which is 0.3 miles long. Its proximity to Salt Lake County invited many school groups.

“There’s something magical about a field trip of students,” she admitted. “They’re learning about very early geology and Earth science. To have them make connections … it’s so amazing, it’s so fun.” Of course, at the time, the park service had more resources and fewer visitors. 


High visitation  

At the Timpanogos caves, the number of sightseers lingered closer to 70,000 in the early 2000s. Then, the pandemic happened. “People were not going to concerts and they weren’t going to movie theaters — they were going outside,” said McKinney. 

“Putting people in the small, dark, moist cave environment might be ideal for disease transmission,” she said, so the cave itself remained closed. But this didn’t stop people from hiking and picnicking, and visitation numbers ticked up 300%, she said. 

“We definitely were surprised,” she said. 

The trend hasn’t exactly cooled off at this particular national monument, which drew in just under 156,000 people in 2022, representing a 27% jump from the year before, as the Deseret News reported. The stress reflects in the data gathered. The National Park Service ranks 370 out of 436 feral agencies in the “best places to work” list for federal employment.

Scott Einberger, an interpretation supervisor at Whiskeytown, said that Whiskeytown National Recreation Area in California usually attracts 1 million guests each year on average. 

“We have a big reservoir. It’s very hot in this area in the summer, so swimming, boating and fishing are really popular, but we’ve had for the first time in our history over 1 million visitors this past year,” he said. 

A photo of the lower part of Crystal Creek Falls in Whiskeytown National Recreation Area.
A photo of the lower part of the Crystal Creek Falls in Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. | National Park Service

Not only is the land’s biodiversity protected, but the cultural history of the Wintu people and the California Gold Rush is also preserved for current and future generations.

But this tourist crush creates two problems — a decline in visitor experience and damage to the ecology. National parks across the country have experienced issues with high numbers of visitors.

“One user on a Zion National Park suggestions Facebook group complained about her trip to Zion last July, mentioning lengthy waits for restaurants and buses in 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but said that “we still had a great time.”

When I asked if a bigger workforce could help, Einberger said yes: “We can always use more staff.”

“And we can always use more visitors being responsible,” he continued. “They leave their beer cans or snack bags on the lakeshore, which then negatively affects the park. Not only is it an eyesore; it also enables wildlife to eat litter.”

“Canada geese do this and then they poop this unnatural food out, and the chemicals from this unnatural poop leach into the lake, polluting the water,” Einberger added.


Losing employees

The chronic staffing crisis, muddled with overcrowding, has the attention of the National Parks Conservation Association, said Corey McNulty, an associate director. 

“We’re seeing fewer staff, and then the staff that we do have are having to respond to immediate needs, just getting people through the gate, moving the flow of visitors around the park, managing them and trying to protect the resources,” she told me in 2022.

The park service employed nearly 21,200 full- and part-time employees who served 297 million visitors in 2021. 

Becoming a full-time employee requires jumping through a lot of hoops. Most park rangers, like McKinney and Einberger, start as interns, volunteers or seasonal employees. Often, applicants send in their resume four to six months before the job even begins, McKinney said. She’s involved in a lot of hiring at Timpanogos. 

“I feel like that’s a little bit rough for folks because in any other career, you’d walk in and hand a resume, and maybe you’d have an interview two weeks later, right?” she said. 

From 2011 to 2019, the park service lost nearly 16% of its employees across the 424 parks, leaving part-time workers with no room to go up the ladder. 

Then, in December, Congress introduced a funding bill for the fiscal year 2023 and bumped up the NPS budget by $210 million, a 6.4% increase, while including supplemental funding of $1.5 billion to Yellowstone and other parks that came up against natural disasters. 

This will help hire back staff but isn’t effective in replacing a depleted ranger force, according to Peer.org

“That’s a huge loss when our park rangers are the public face of our national park system, but they’re also our caretakers of these extraordinary places that we’ve decided are forever places that need to be protected for the long term,” McNulty said, adding that it permeates into the entire park’s functioning — from “cleaning bathrooms and emptying garbage cans to long term planning.” 


Bigger problems ahead 

Parks are tasked with preparing for the unprecedented challenges — in scope and in size — that the changing climate will bring. Since the park service is short-staffed, the burden to adapt and mitigate falls on everyday rangers.

Consider McKinney’s line of work. Caves are typically dimly lit and exist underground or underneath a mountain. At Timpanogos, the temperature lingers around 44 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, she said. But what would happen if the surface weather changes? Native animals and insect species living in this total darkness will also have to move. 

“In Mammoth Cave, there are these blind white cavefish that can only live there,” she said. “It’s not like they can move to the next cave down the road because that’s not an option.” 

The general trend, it seems, is that “Western parks are warming and drying, while Eastern parks are becoming wetter,” David Thoma, who works at Yellowstone’s inventory and monitoring program, told the Deseret News in an email. 

“The consequences of warming are obvious in the form of larger and hotter fires, loss of snowpack, earlier snowmelt runoff and lower river flows in summer,” he said.

But changes from the latter are less apparent. “Nature is very sensitive to changes in water abundance, we can expect species that like wetter conditions to flourish and outcompete species adapted to less wet conditions,” he said.

At the park level, tackling climate change is more integrated into the day-to-day, whether that’s launching a green fleet of shuttle buses, mitigating forest fires, discovering invasive species or tracking the big-horned sheep, explained Cassity Bromley, the head of resource management and research at Zion National Park when we talked in January 2022. 

A small herd of bighorn sheep dash toward the rocky hills of Utah’s Antelope Island State Park Thursday, March 20, 1997 just west of Ogden, Utah.
A small herd of bighorn sheep dash toward the rocky hills of Utah’s Antelope Island State Park Thursday, March 20, 1997 just west of Ogden, Utah. | Associated Press

“They mostly live on the east side,” she said of tracking the horned mammals, which wear lightweight GPS collars and are important to the desert ecosystem.

“So, we’ve been watching the sheep herd and population dynamics … trying to get a really good handle on lambing and reproduction and how they’re going in the face of this multiyear drought that we’ve been seeing,” said Bromley, sitting in her office surrounded by maps, charts and piles of paperwork. 

Her teams are tracking mule deer, the highly invasive cheatgrass, forage quality and the number of stickers a visitor gets when they go on a hike. The work is endless, and when mapping out plans to tackle surged visitation becomes a priority, long-term planning can get put on hold. They’re doing the best they can with what they have, she said.


A job for the passionate

Bromley likes working for the park service since she started over 22 years ago. “We’re all here for a common cause and a common goal,” she said.

She especially enjoys knowing that she has a role in protecting the places that people from all over the world come to see.

And McKinney shares that same excitement and inquisitiveness for her work. Not only do rangers take care of these parks, but they also open the gate to educate the public by retelling the story of how our country was created, and how these mountains, rivers and tribes came to be, she said with pride.

The best part about the job for her is introducing someone to a cave environment for the first time, transporting them into a sensory experience in the absence of light.

“It’s peaceful listening to the dripping water and standing in the dark,” she said.

When McKinney was in her 20s, she revisited the Mammoth Cave and took the Grand Avenue tour, six hours long, to encounter her childhood obsession — the lunch room. It wasn’t what she had made it out to be.

“Of course as a child you build these ideas of what it might look like. In truth, it was just a really simple place to get a little bit of food,” she said, but she fondly looks back at the curiosity her mother planted.

“I think it was just her way to keep me interested and wanting to learn more,” she said.