When heavy rains flooded Lake Cunningham Park, creating a series of mini lakes and flooded parking lots, San Jose park rangers Angie Martinez and Penny Lee didn’t hesitate to leave the comfort of their warm four-wheel drive vehicle.They were on a mission to save a lone mole who had taken shelter under the warm idle of their truck.
As Lee nudged the shivering mole into a box, she and Martinez hiked it up a muddy hill and released it onto dry land under a bushy canopy, reaffirming their dedication to protect not only humans, but also wildlife, no matter how small.
Last month, city park rangers celebrated their 40th anniversary, with a city council commendation for service in seven regional parks, neighborhood parks and trails throughout San Jose. The park ranger program began in 1972 with one ranger overseeing Alum Rock Park. At its peak the ranger program had more than 15 staff rangers. Over the years, budget cuts have reduced the force to only six rangers who patrol four regional parks and 50 miles of trails.
“We are endangered but we’re not extinct,” Martinez said.
The closeness among rangers was exhibited when the budget forced layoffs. One ranger retired a year early so another could keep his job, said Martinez.
“We have six full-time rangers with more facilities than ever before,” said Parks Manager Cindy Rebhan. “They are not in all seven (regional) parks. Some do split duty. It’s hard but we give it the best effort we can.”Along with budget cuts, rangers have had to expand their patrol and skill sets to maintain the parks, protect the public and handle unexpected situations, including dealing with the growing number of homeless who seek daytime shelter in the parks and make creek shorelines their nightly residence.
“They don’t want to do anything wrong while they’re in the park because they want to be able to come back,” said Martinez. “They come in the day and leave in the night.”
Rangers are now working with emergency housing programs for those taking shelter along the creeks, which raise concerns about safety and creek pollution. But only removing encampments just shifts the problem to another area.
“Now we’re focusing on homeless encampments in creeks to keep the creeks clean,” said park ranger Jane Lawson. “Finally we’re going about it the right way.”
Because they are in fewer numbers, the rangers aren’t as visible to the public as they used to be.
“People aren’t use to seeing rangers anymore, so if they arrive, people think it’s because something is wrong,” Martinez said.
Said park volunteer Sylvia Lowe, “I think people do not know what a significant contribution they give to the underside of what we do. They weave a fabric −they weave relationships.”
As the budget cuts have sliced through the amount of things rangers can do, park volunteers stepped-up to the challenge. Volunteers, non-profits and local businesses donate time and money to keep the parks and the ranger program alive. The city’s Adopt-a-Park Program provides volunteers an opportunity to manage gardens and pick up trash, Rebhan said.
“We go to school and we learn how to read and write, but it’s in the parks that we learn how to be a human being and a citizen,” Lowe said. “I see the effect rangers have been in the web of our community.”
As the rangers accepted their commendation from the city council and gathered to honor each other, they took pride in their 40 years of service. Rangers look forward to continuing their dedication of preserving city parks and culture for future generations.
“We were a national leader as a park ranger agency,” Rebhan said. “To get back to that is where we all want to be. We just need the opportunity to let that grow again.”