About Me

My photo
The insightful and thought-provoking comments found here do not represent the official opinions or policies of the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, or the Cornish Stannary Parliament. Warning: Do not read this blog if you suffer from linear thinking, myopic vision, closed-mindedness, a lack of a sense of a humor, or if you suffer from ego-dramas. Side effects from reading this blog may include an increase in the collective consciousness. No animals were harmed in the writing of this blog. Copyright (c) 2019 "The Ranger Archivist is very entertaining so his writings are interesting and fun." – Ruth Kilday, founder and executive director of the Mountains Conservancy Foundation

Friday, June 8, 2012

A Brief History of the Junior Ranger Program


Note: please consider this a draft as I hope this story will continue to evolve in the coming months. 

Example of a Junior Ranger badge from the
Ranger Archivist's personal collection.
Can you remember the first time you heard about the Junior Ranger program?  Although it’s one of the most beloved traditions in the National Park Service, Junior Rangers has been part of American culture for so many years it’s hard for most of us to remember when it first appeared.   

Many historians consider the Yosemite Junior Nature School as the forerunner of today’s Junior Ranger program.  The Junior Nature School was started in June 1930 by Park Naturalist Charles A. Harwell, and by the summer of 1937 included such activities as “field instruction, observation and nature games…four auto caravans, one Indian demonstration, and a treasure hunt and picnic” (Yosemite Nature Notes, volume XVI, number 6, June 1937, 41).   

Becoming a Junior Naturalist in Yosemite wasn’t easy!  To earn the award, children had to answer 26 questions and attend at least five meetings of the Junior Nature School.  The following are examples of the questions a Junior Naturalist would be asked: 
  • Point out and give characteristics of ten trees
  • Identify five birds by their songs alone
  • Point out the four principle minerals found in granite
  • Name and identify 25 different wildflowers
  • Outline the life history of the bear
  • Tell four ways of identifying old Indian village sites
  • Point out 40 points of interest around Yosemite Valley  
Example of a Junior Ranger patch from
the Ranger Archivist's personal
Yosemite’s Junior Naturalist program ran from 1930 to 1954.  Other National Parks eventually followed their lead and started similar programs: Sequoia National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and the National Historic Sites in and around our nation’s capital had their own programs, and the topic became so important that it was included as a subject of discussion during the Second Park Naturalist Conference at Grand Canyon National Park in 1940 (California Department of Parks and Recreation, Junior Ranger Program Handbook, no date, 1-4).   

In Yellowstone, the earliest example of such a program is the Junior Nature Explorers, which began in 1947.  It’s fortunate that records of this program still exist in the archives of the Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center (HRC), including the field journal of Ranger Naturalist Mildred Ericson, who seems to have instituted the program.  Details of the Junior Nature Explorers were also described in the Superintendent’s Monthly Reports (bound copies can be found in the HRC’s research library):   
A special phase of Yellowstone Park interpretation which is being tried out this year is the inauguration of a junior nature program which is being given to children from 6 to 14 years of age each afternoon from 2:00 – 4:30 for five days each week…This junior nature program consists of special exploring trips for these young people and a treatment of nature lore with some work being done on nature craft (June 1947, 4).
Ranger Erickson’s journal gives us an exciting window into interpretation for children during that era, and some of her enthusiasm can be detected in her entry from Thursday, August 19, 1947:  

There were just so many kids today that I declared “visitors day” and consequently had one of the finest nature-study trips of the season. Went to the Beaver Dams [near Mammoth Hot Springs] where we studied the habits of the beaver, hypnotized frogs, and observed a herd of antelope.

However, all of these programs were just the precursors of the Junior Ranger programs we know today, and it seems the credit (for its creation) is not due to the National Park Service, but rather to the U.S. Forest Service and Smokey Bear.  Smokey has been a symbol of conservation since 1944, but his story really captured the nation’s attention in 1950 when a little black bear cub was rescued from a wildfire in New Mexico.  This bear soon found a home in the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and became the living symbol of Smokey Bear.  Two years later, the Junior Forest Ranger program was started and encouraged children throughout the nation to write Smokey expressing their interest in fire prevention.  In reply, children would receive a Junior Forest Ranger Kit.  In 1953 the first Smokey Bear plush toy was sold with accompanying Junior Forest Ranger badge. 
(Unlike the NPS's Junior Ranger program, Smokey Bear’s history is well-documented including Ellen Earnhardt Morrison’s Guardian of the Forest: a History of Smokey Bear and the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program which has a chapter describing the background of the Junior Forest Ranger program.)

Yellowstone Park Company children's menu circa 1960.
Note the badge with "Junior Ranger Yellowstone 
Park Company."  NPS/YELL
Back in Yellowstone, the success of the Junior Forest Ranger program as an educational and marketing tool was not lost on the park’s concessionaire: the Yellowstone Park Company (YPC).  A company memo from December 23, 1960 – which is also found in the archives of the HRC – records a meeting between the park’s deputy superintendent and YPC officials including ideas for a Junior Ranger program.  An agent with the YPC’s advertising company supported the idea, and on December 29th of that year wrote:  

I like your idea of rewarding the child with a Junior Ranger Badge (providing the NPS doesn’t object) but this would work strongly only with the boys.  Don’t you think we should have something else for the girls?  The girls generally aren’t attracted to the Rangers until they get a little older.   
Yellowstone National Park's first Junior Ranger
Regardless of when girls become interested in Rangers, Junior Ranger programs seem to have become widespread in the NPS in the late 1960’s. For better or for worse, Yellowstone provides us with an example of how a park can lose their connection with Junior Ranger history and heritage.  For example, Yellowstone is currently celebrating the 20th anniversary of their Junior Ranger program. While it’s commonly believed that program started in 1992, records show that the program really started in 1984!  Several Junior Ranger badges from 1984 can be found in the museum collection of the HRC along with accompanying documents in the archives, including guidelines for the program in a memo from the Summer of 1985 (HRC, Archives, Box K-106).  According to this document: 
The goal of Yellowstone National Park’s Junior Ranger Program is to acquaint elementary school-age visitors with the Yellowstone environment through a pleasant and memorable experience.  The experience should involve them as participants, in order to help them develop an appreciation for Yellowstone, the life in it, and the park’s value as a milestone in mankind’s relationship with the land.  This appreciation is necessary to create an informed public, capable of participating positively in the management efforts of the National Park Service (“Junior Ranger Program,” 1985).
The advocates of Yellowstone’s nascent Junior Ranger program sum-up their objectives well: “There is a child in all of us.  May you find yours in working with the children visiting Yellowstone!” 

Of course, the Junior Ranger program continues to evolve throughout the NPS.  National standards for the program were created in 2005, and in 2007 First Lady Laura Bush was in Zion National Park to help kick-off the first National Junior Ranger Day.  "Yesterday [April 29?] was the first-ever Junior Ranger Day.  This program brings children across the nation into our parks," said the First Lady, adding that, "Zion National Park has one of the oldest Junior Ranger program in the Nation" (Sunny Dixie day for US First Lady: Laura Bush speaks at Zion National Park," Deseret News, April 30, 2007.  See http://tinyurl.com/883yaqm).  And WebRangers - created about this same time - has brought the program to children with access to the Internet. 
However, many unanswered questions remain. For instance, in what year and in which National Park was the first Junior Ranger badge issued? And what the true impetus of the program in the 1950s and 1960s?

This Junior Ranger badge, from Muir Woods
National Monument, is made from recycled
redwood.  From the Ranger Archivist's personal

Examples of the three Junior Ranger patches currently available at
Yellowstone National Park.  From the Ranger Archivist's personal
<a rel="license" href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/"><img alt="Creative Commons License" style="border-width:0" src="http://i.creativecommons.org/l/by-nc-nd/3.0/88x31.png" /></a><br />This work by <span xmlns:cc="http://creativecommons.org/ns#" property="cc:attributionName">Francis Shawn Bawden</span> is licensed under a <a rel="license" href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/">Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License</a>.


  1. Update: I've finally found some information about the first National Junior Ranger Day! First Lady Laura Bush was at Zion National Park in 2007 to help kick off a series Junior Ranger events held across the country. "Yesterday was the first-ever Junior Ranger Day. This program brings children across the nation into our parks," said the First Lday, adding that, "Zion National Park has one of the oldest Junior Ranger programs in the Nation ("Sunny Dixie day for US First Lady: Laura Bush speaks at Zion National Park," Deseret News, April 30, 2007. See http://tinyurl.com/883yaqm).

  2. My kids collect National Park Service Junior Ranger items. I was wondering if you have any items to trade. We live in Philadelphia and have a lot of items from the east coast to trade.

  3. Thank you very much,I found interesting to join junior rangers,I want to be a member,I would like to learn about nature.