By David Patton, MCEA Staff Attorney
My family and I visited the Apostle Islands for the first time in the summer of 2016. On this trip, we discovered the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger program. The Park Service provided us with a free workbook of environmental education activities. After my son and I completed the activities together, a ranger gave him a plastic ranger badge and swore him in as Junior Ranger.
He pledged: “As a Junior Ranger, I promise to teach others about what I learned today, explore other parks and historic sites, and help preserve and protect these places so future generations can enjoy them.”
My four-year-old son took that oath. He didn’t think of it as a cute program the Park Service did for kids. In his mind, he had been inducted into an elite corps of environmental protectors. He had made a pledge and now he has been entrusted with a duty to protect animals and their environment. This was, without a doubt, a watershed moment in his young life.
We got him the official Junior Ranger vest that day. He still wears it to school at least three days a week. After rain storms, he saves earthworms by moving them from the sidewalk to the grass. He carries plastic gloves in his ranger vest specifically for this purpose. And, of course, we always have to stop to help turtles across the road.
My son’s ranger fascination even led to some interesting family revelations. We learned that when my dad was younger, he worked in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and was a ranger in Carlsbad National Park in New Mexico and Death Valley National Monument in California (where I was conceived). We also discovered that my great-uncle Harry (pictured below with his Llewellyn setter and horse – Pat and Irish, respectively). My cousin sent us pictures of him and a newspaper article from the Great Falls Montana Tribune dated February 19, 1928. Harry was a ranger in Glacier National Park for many years. He is recorded as saying, “I loved that country and I want them to keep it always just like it is right now.” He died just seventeen months after leaving his beloved park.
One day last year, I brought my son to work with me on the Mille Lacs reservation where I represented the Band’s Department of Natural Resources. As we were driving by Mille Lacs Lake, I tried to explain what I did for the tribe. I said that I worked with the Band to protect the trees and the water, and especially the fish. He got real quiet in the back of the car like he was thinking hard. After a minute, he piped up, “Dad, you’re a lawyer-ranger.”
“Yeah”, I thought, “I’m a lawyer-ranger.”
I told that story in my interview for MCEA. When MCEA offered me the Staff Attorney position, I told my son that he had helped me get the job. A few days after that, he was sitting in the back seat of the Prius (I know – cliché). Out of the blue, he declared, “You and me have something in common.” I replied, “What’s that?”
“We spend all day, every day trying to protect the environment.”
We're currently planning a Junior Ranger-themed party for his sixth birthday. At the tender age of five years and 11 months, he gets something that I think a lot of us miss. He gets up and goes to school every day. He plays and watches TV like any kid. But in his mind, all day, every day he’s trying to protect the environment. He is looking for earthworms to save. He’s reminding Dad to turn off the light or asking Mom to turn off the water while she brushes her teeth. He pays attention to the world around him and gathers cool rocks and neat looking leaves. He’s also raising a Venus Flytrap named Snapper. Being a Junior Ranger is core to his identity and, even though he doesn’t know the word, being an environmentalist is core to being a Junior Ranger.
Not everyone gets to be a lawyer-ranger. I was recently told that my job is the “Unicorn of Lawyer Jobs”. But every one of us can save earthworms and help turtles across the road. We can make conservationism and environmentalism core values. We can aim our lives toward incremental changes that will improve the quality of life for our kids and their kids. Even if the environment isn’t your job, it can be your priority.