National Park police

Park Ranger Training Program
The Park Ranger Training Program combines parks and recreation with law enforcement.

Growing up as the son of a park ranger, Zachary Nelson has had plenty of exposure to the full extent of a ranger's duties. Although common perception may not reflect it, the men and women who wear ranger uniforms are full-fledged officers of the law.

Now enrolled in Northern Arizona University’s Park Ranger Training Program (PRTP), Nelson, a junior parks and recreation major, is getting his own experience with what it takes to be a protector of both a national park and its many visitors.  

“The goal of the program is to introduce you to the whole law enforcement topic in order to be able to perform as a seasonal ranger,” Nelson says. “It gives you a strong foundation on which to build the knowledge that comes with the job.”

Raising the bar

Mark Maciha, the director of the PRTP, says the semester-long, accredited undergraduate program fulfills needs that often go unrecognized by park visitors.

“It may come as a surprise to some folks because as an agency, we try to minimize that presence, but we have police officers out in the national parks,” Maciha says. “This program is designed to train those working in the law enforcement discipline to go out there and do that. The curriculum actually comes to us from the National Park Service.”

The PRTP, which first began teaching courses 15 years ago, instructs 26 students per semester and is one of ten accredited and approved programs in the country that prepares students for roles in the field. Trainees who complete the 12-week program will learn how to apprehend suspects, investigate crime scenes, and use law enforcement techniques.

Recently, the program updated its curriculum to require that students undergo approximately 460 hours of training. The expanded training requirement allows students to earn credit towards a parks and recreation management degree, and places rangers out in the field faster by reducing the time required at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia.

Nelson is grateful for the program’s dedication in preparing students for fieldwork and creating well-rounded officers who are familiar with all aspects of the law. He also says that, even with his father’s background as a ranger, he still finds himself learning new skills every day.

“It really changes your whole perspective on things,” Nelson says. “I grew up with my dad being a law enforcement officer, so he ingrained a lot into me, but obviously not everything. It’s really getting into the mindset of a police officer and how they think.”

A nationwide leader

This change to a more rigorous, beneficial curriculum has propelled the university’s PRTP into one of the nation’s elite, and makes Northern Arizona University home to one of the few programs in the country of its kind. The PRTP also boasts one of the highest employment rates after graduation.

“The accreditation process holds us to a high standard,” Maciha says. “It’s certainly a lot more work on our side, and that’s a good thing; we are able to produce a better quality ranger than we were in the past. 50 percent of all of the seasonal rangers in law enforcement come from Northern Arizona University, as do 25 of the permanent park rangers.” 

Due to its nationwide acclaim, the PRTP typically attracts up to 70 applicants per semester. Some are first-time students, while others are pursuing a career in their second or third occupation. Nelson says the broad appeal of the program allows for students to learn both from the professionals and from one another.

“We’ve had a really great class, and it’s cool to see how we have all bonded and helped each other out,” Nelson says. “We have a guy who is a retired Chandler policeman, as well as a retired fire captain, and they add their life lessons and what they’ve experienced to help us younger guys. I think that just really helps the class come together because everyone has a different background.”