Patrolling with a smile

City park ranger enjoys plenty of natural perks.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Ashley Bowman, 34, could have the best job in Madison. As lead park ranger for the city’s Parks Division, her “office” has no walls and includes a very natural décor.

On any given day, she drives from city park to city park making sure that rules are being followed, that shelters are secured, and that dog and boat owners have the proper permits.

Bowman works independently, yet she’s rarely alone, greeting walkers, runners, or bikers that pass by, or doling out junior ranger stickers to brighten a child’s day.

Not a bad gig!

Feeding wanderlust

City park rangers monitor all parts of the parks. At Warner Park, above, mosquitoes pose the biggest distraction for Bowman as she exits a wooded path.

Bowman moved to Madison six years ago and spent four years as a seasonal ranger before being elevated to her current role two years ago. She is one of about a dozen park rangers, but the only lead, which adds some oversight to her position. She works four 10-hour shifts a week — including alternate weekends — and she couldn’t be happier.

“I’ve never been a career person,” Bowman admits. For as long as she can remember, she struggled with the notion of selecting one career path, even through college. She graduated with a degree in religious studies from The College of St. Rose in upstate New York but soon decided to pursue jobs in tourism.

“Alaska called first,” she remarks, and that suited her wanderlust just fine.

She found seasonal jobs in customer service for an Alaskan tour company and as an interpretive park ranger for the National Park Service at Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park. In Skagway, she found a job as a community service officer [i.e., police bike cop] before being hired as a full-time police dispatcher — for the borough’s four officers.

After six years, another online search landed her in Madison.

The city’s Parks Division oversees more than 250 parks and 40 reservable shelters. The most popular parks are patrolled by a team of rangers every day of the year — polar vortex or not. They are trained to enforce and educate the public on permit requirements for activities such as launching a boat, exercising a dog, playing frisbee golf, or reserving shelters.

Other tasks involve unlocking and relocking shelter restrooms, calming disputes that sometimes arise, connecting homeless individuals in parks to city resources, and even measuring decibel levels, if called upon, to ensure that event noise doesn’t get out of hand.

“We can issue citations, but really, we’re a blend between customer service and enforcement,” Bowman insists. “We prefer to educate and inform before we enforce. Our choice is to give the public a chance to comply.”

Permit patrol

Bowman communicates with other rangers through a two-way radio, which also provides an extra measure of security.

It’s 9:30 a.m. on a glorious morning at Warner Park, the first of several parks Bowman will visit today. Her city of Madison park ranger vehicle parked in the lot reminds visitors that enforcement is present without being threatening.

She greets us in full uniform, apologizing for not getting her vehicle cleaned. “It’s more realistic this way!” she laughs.

Heading to the Warner Park shelter, she checks a sign posted on the wall to see if reservations are scheduled, and nods to a city maintenance worker who just finished cleaning a restroom. The day has begun.

Inside the Warner Park off-leash dog park, she greets several dog owners and their pets, checking for dog park tags. It’s a good day, she reports, because all are properly tagged.

That is, until she spots a woman walking two large dogs off leash on a hill nearby. That, she explains, is a violation. [Madison Parks is currently surveying the public as it considers revising rules governing dogs in the parks.]

Donning her enforcement hat, Bowman marches up the hill through the waist-high grass until she makes contact. About five minutes later, she explains what ensued:

At the Warner Park dog park, Bowman checks that dog owners have the proper permits for their pets. It’s a favorite part of the job for Bowman, who has two dogs of her own.

“I just smiled and introduced myself and explained the rules. I took her contact information and gave her a warning. I also informed her that if she gets caught again, she could get a ticket.”

This was a friendly encounter, Bowman notes. Things don’t always go as smoothly. Some people really don’t like being issued a warning and let her know it — loudly — and shelter conflicts sometimes get dicey if one group doesn’t vacate a reserved space before the next group arrives. “We have to mitigate that, too,” she says. “It’s difficult sometimes,” Bowman sighs, “because I never can forget that as a public servant, I work for them.”

The city’s park rangers, she describes, are on-call customer service people ready to help in a pinch, whether that means helping with a blown electrical breaker, reporting animals (alive or dead), or any number of issues.

If Bowman can’t solve a problem with what she describes as a “MacGyver fix,” she has quick access to others who can.



Ranger danger?

Park rangers patrol all parts of the city’s parks, including trails that wind through the woods. They are trained to help, and to report anything unusual or dangerous that could present a public danger, such as downed limbs or trees over a path, flooding, or individuals needing assistance.

Bowman checks that parked vehicles with attached boat trailers display the required boat-launch permits in their front windshields. This year’s permit sticker is orange and easy to identify, but colors vary from year to year.

Bowman is more than happy to connect homeless individuals to city resources, or reach out to an agency for assistance, for example, but clearly this is a difficult part of her job. “I love helping people, but I get frustrated when a situation arises that is out of my control.”

If given a choice, she prefers working the late-afternoon/evening shifts, simply because she’s “not a morning person,” but patrolling the parks and trails at night has its moments, too.

“I’ve never really been scared,” she insists, which may seem surprising, because park rangers are unarmed. “We don’t even carry pepper spray!” Bowman quips.

City park rangers are on call seven days a week between 9:30 a.m. and 11 p.m. at (608) 236-0448.

“Heck, I’ve been charged by a bear in Alaska,” she laughs, “and I’ve had good training on situational awareness. I just take steps to keep myself safe at all times. If a situation looks sketchy, I’m not going to get involved.”

If a situation is concerning, she can instantly summon help through the two-way radio attached to her uniform.

For someone who loves customer service and working autonomously, this job allows Bowman time to interact with nature every day.

“You know that saying, if a tree falls in the woods and nobody’s around, does it make a sound?” she asks suddenly. “Well, it does!” she laughs. “I’ve seen it!”

Bowman says bad days are infrequent, but admits she gets frustrated when people don’t value the parks or the natural resources in the same way that she does. “Getting a call that a playground is full of beer cans, for example, is difficult for me.

“But,” she emphasizes, “there is so much stress relief built into this job! It’s hard to stay angry for long when I can take a walk through the woods, pet some dogs, hang out by a lake, or make little kids proud junior rangers. It’s just awesome!”

By the end of our visit, we had proudly earned our ranger badge [inset], as well.

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