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SALT LAKE CITY — With his initial park ranger training winding down, Erik O'Brien says he's been able to familiarize himself with his new office along the Jordan River Parkway Trail.
He lights up thinking about watching a great blue heron soaring over the river and also explaining its ecosystem to trail users.
"(To) geek out on these nature things is amazing," he says, as his fellow rangers chuckle behind him. "We're nature geeks, but we're also the safe people in the park."
O'Brien is one of the first 13 park rangers hired this summer as a part of Salt Lake City's new park ranger program. Another three rangers are expected to be hired in the coming weeks to round out a staff that will serve as park educators and information specialists, letting visitors know of park rules and alerting police to any issues that may arise.
Park visitors will start to see these rangers any day now, as they will be assigned to Fairmont, Liberty, Jordan and Pioneer parks, while also traveling to other city parks near those bases. The city also plans to assign rangers to its foothills trails by the end of the year.
"These park rangers ... are a Salt Lake City dream come true," said Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, flanked by the park ranger staff at the International Peace Gardens this week. "And it's a dream that's been a decade in the making."
The idea of a park ranger program floated around for a while before the mayor first announced official city ranger program plans in October 2021. Nearly $4 million of the $85 million the city received from the American Rescue Plan last year helped turn the idea into a reality.
The idea was further bolstered when city officials learned this spring that usage of city parks jumped by 43% since the COVID-19 pandemic began. And while the program began with the backing of one-time federal funds, Mendenhall said the budget has now been shifted over to the city's general fund so that the program can continue for years to come.
"As our city continues to grow and we become more diverse, the ways that we serve our residents also need to continue to grow and meet those diverse needs," she said. "We need park rangers in our Salt Lake City parks to promote a safe and welcoming atmosphere on our trails and in our natural areas, too."
City officials announced in March that they had hired Janessa Edwards, former education and outreach director for FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake, and Suzy Lee, a city's parks department employee, for the top two positions in the program. That's also when the city began its park ranger hiring process, which ultimately drew about 150 applicants.
The rangers hired have various outdoors experiences. One previously worked at Zion National Park, while another graduated with a degree from the Teton Science Schools Graduate Program in Wyoming, according to city officials.
Nahuel Tulian, one of the city's new park rangers, used to guide hikes at Antelope Island State Park just north of the city. He, like O'Brien, was inspired to apply because of the nature education component of the job.
"I think what we're all looking forward to really is do educational programs. We're all a bunch of nature geeks so we're all looking forward to doing some programming with ecology and I'm working on history tours," Tulian said. "So it's going to be a lot of fun doing those things."
As for the other components of the job, the initial class of rangers began learning all the tools of the trade in June, according to O'Brien. He said the team has completed homelessness engagement and de-escalation training, as well as CPR training and animal control training. They won't write tickets, but rangers will inform visitors about rules and offer assistance when needed.
This training is already starting to pay off. O'Brien said rangers were recently able to help an injured child at a skate park who had become separated from their parents. Rangers provided medical assistance as they located the child's family. The team also reunited a lost dog with its owner minutes before Wednesday's press briefing.
That's on top of time spent talking about parks with city residents.
"The conservations we've had with these folks have affirmed my belief that the park rangers can make a significant positive difference in the community by building relationships, educating park users and connecting people with amenities or services they made not be aware of," O'Brien said. "We're out here ... (and) helping."