Spend a day in a park ranger’s boots

August 28, 2020
By Olivia Cameron

One man explains what it’s like to work our state park system
BY OLIVIA CAMERON- A workday in the sweltering heat is a breeze to Gasparilla Island Beach State Park Ranger Joseph Berger, who remembers the days scraping ice off his windshield in Cincinnati. However, daily operations have taken on a new meaning for Berger in the “Sunshine State.” 
“When my family and I started fresh in Florida, I always avoided the cliché of, ‘What would you do if you didn’t have to work?’ Two-and-a-half-years later and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing,” said Berger. 
He takes pride in exceeding visitors’ expectations.
“What really drove me to work for the parks is that feeling you get when you go to one. As a society, we get more disconnected and get caught up in our fast-paced lives. I always went to the park to center myself and organize my thoughts. I want to provide that outlet for people, and give them the best possible experience.”
Berger recognizes that there’s no better time than now to get out for a breath of fresh air. He monitors the safety of the visitors’ experience to keep the parks from shutting down again in this viral time. 
“We closed around the end of March, after restaurants closed, and began a phased reopening a month later. Annual pass holders were the only ones allowed to visit after hours. Picnic pavilions and bathrooms were closed for a while until we got the go ahead to open them,” said Berger.
His day consists of unlocking the facilities in the morning, putting the flags up at beach entrances to display the status and potential safety risks at the beach,  and making sure everything is clean. 
“The process of opening depends on what happened the night before, and sometimes it may take over an hour,”  Berger said.
Rangers then collect the money from the “honor system” boxes at the beach access points, usually by the middle of the day, then close the parks up at nightfall.
The essential operations take up a good chunk of time. In between, the rangers are maintaining the cleanliness of the facilities. 
“People may be under the impression that these parks operate like the national parks, where positions are more specialized, but we have a very small team responsible for everything that happens on our properties,” Berger explained.
Despite the infringing pandemic, Berger fancies the idea of being the friendly park ranger. The added precautions rangers take for visitors will provide a safe experience. Park rangers have been asked to monitor the social distancing recommendation and ensure that visitors remain six feet away from others. Luckily, masks have not been required in outdoor areas. In regard to campground closures across the state, new disinfection procedures are taking effect for a safe reopening in the future. 
Berger monitors parking space availability on high-visitation days, especially when the beach is a popular midday attraction. When his tasks are completed, Berger will landscape and monitor the vegetation as well. He stated that the local park rangers must keep an eye on invasive plants before they take over the grounds. The rangers have continuously monitored sea turtle nests through their nesting season. As for the rangers, they must avoid developing heat exhaustion by drinking lots of water the day before they work in record highs.  
Alex Cronin of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection provided a statement in regard to the pandemic, ensuring a responsive course of action to keep COVID from spreading across the island. 
“The DEP continues to reopen Florida State Parks as part of the phased plan to reopen Florida. As these parks reopen areas, experiences and amenities, DEP will be taking measures to ensure the protection of staff and the public. During this phase of reopening, visitors should expect limited hours, capacity, events and amenities. We will continue to review operations on a daily basis and make additional operational changes as may be deemed necessary for protection of public health,” the statement reads.
Despite the previous shutdown, Berger is glad to be back. “Contributing to the state park gives you a foot in the community progression,” he said. “All state parks will continue to follow state mandates. It’s all part of providing the visitors a safe experience.”
Berger stated that the off-season has slowed, but the parks have remained popular over the weekends. “It’s been an unpredictable year,” Berger said.
For more information, visit floridastateparks.org.