Meet the Rangers of New York City’s Parks
Knowledgeable and friendly rangers aren’t just found in our national parks
On a sun-drenched spring afternoon, a petite woman emerged from an NYC Parks van, decked out in green fatigues, a tan wide-brimmed hat, and an overstuffed backpack. It was Ranger Mara Pendergrass, and she had just arrived for her latest urban park ranger assignment: a walking geology tour of Central Park.
I was excited, having already joined another of Ranger Mara’s hikes at the start of the year, when we remained quarantined during what seemed to be the last vestiges of the pandemic. Desperate to escape our confined city spaces, even on a blistering cold January morning, a group of roughly 100 eager New Yorkers gathered at Fort Tryon Park in upper Manhattan to hear her expertise on the kinds of rock that anchored the city’s most popular borough.
Ranger Mara came prepared with her hulking knapsack filled with rocks and charts and marched into the middle of the loosely assembled crowd. She began an impassioned lesson that commanded everyone’s attention. “Most of Manhattan has three layers of bedrock that are underneath your feet—the first layer being Manhattan schist,” she said, revealing the trio of stones in her hand. “They’re all metamorphic rocks. These are rocks that were one thing and then got pushed down under the mountains when the continents came together and changed. When they came up, they were different rocks.”
She went on to explain that the second layer was Inwood marble, a very pretty rock that resembles marble. The oldest layer, Fordham gneiss, was somewhere around 1 billion years old, having metamorphosed twice in its lifetime. “All of these rocks come to the surface in different places, and the rock that underlies Manhattan is several miles thick,” she added to the crowd’s amazement. With that, Ranger Mara traipsed off, leading the group through just-budding daffodils and flowering shrubbery to the site of her next lesson.
Ranger Mara is one of 45 urban park rangers in the Big Apple. Experts on the geography and natural history of their boroughs, they are responsible for environmental education and park management. Part of park patrol units, they also lead weekly events on nature exploration, wildlife viewing, astronomy, outdoor skills, and conservation. While rangers have the authority to make citizen arrests, they mostly handle wildlife rescue and park preservation issues. They are easily identified by their green uniforms and western-style hats.
“The hat is iconic,” Ranger Mara chuckled. “In the summertime, we wear those big straw Smokey the Bear hats, and in the wintertime, they’re felt. Everybody who sees the hat knows that we’re park rangers.”
Born in Memphis and raised in New York City, Ranger Mara always had an interest in nature. As a child, she often went canoeing and fishing and excelled at mud turtle catch and release. While studying for a bachelor’s degree in the biological aspects of conservation, she discovered a deep interest in geology, fostered by a few friends who were avid fossil hunters. After graduation, she began working in outdoor environmental education, finding her niche in introducing urban children to the natural world. When she discovered the urban park rangers, it was a natural fit. “I’ve been a ranger for 23 years,” she said. “My favorite part is leading the programs for everybody—the kids, the adults, the school programs, and the weekend adventures in the summertime.”
Ranger Mara’s zeal for earth science instruction is indefatigable, but it can easily be interrupted by the appearance of an aerial wonder, such as a red-tailed hawk that circled above during her tour. After the bird piqued her interest, she launched into an impromptu gabfest about their existence in the city. Incredibly fit, Ranger Mara sped ahead with the group in pursuit, climbing up hills and rock formations while speaking. “I’m not meant to be a classroom teacher; I’m meant to be an outdoor teacher. That’s been my focus my entire life—getting outside, being outdoors, and doing that stuff,” she said.
The NYC Parks Department was forced to halt all educational events during the pandemic; half of the urban park rangers were laid off, and public programs declined due to budget cuts. “Everything came to a screeching halt in March 2020 because we weren’t supposed to be encouraging gatherings,” Ranger Mara said. “So, for a couple of months, our job was patrolling the parks and handing out masks until we got permission to start doing pop-up programs.”
Events have slowly resumed as New York City officially opens up. Group programs for forest hiking, kayaking, fishing, and archery are finally back on the agenda. “We’re going to be starting up our canoeing programs again, but because we can’t sanitize everything, all programs will be done by lottery. We’re also resuming camping,” Ranger Mara said.
As the Parks Department rebuilds its itinerary, Ranger Mara encourages tourists and city slickers to embrace the natural side of the city. “When you’re with a park ranger, chances are you’re going to be going into the remnants, like the natural forest of Inwood Hill Park, which is in Manhattan,” she said. “Most people think, ‘This is Manhattan?’ Or you might get a hike through Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, which is the city’s third-largest park. And you wouldn’t know that you’re still in the city limits.”
Which is exactly what our group experienced on her Central Park geology hike. As a surprise, Ranger Mara led us up a steep incline through shrubs and rocky paths before descending on an abandoned stone structure. She climbed the few front steps to explain that we were standing at the Blockhouse, a fortress predating the park that was used to fire against enemy combatants during the War of 1812. She then unlocked a massive door, allowing visitors inside for a view from the highest point on the grounds.
Like the majority of the tour group, I had no idea this existed. This is what excites Ranger Mara most—when she is responsible for people discovering new aspects of urban parks.
As people flocked inside the ancient fort that overlooked Harlem, Ranger Mara waited to the side, fielding a barrage of incoming questions at the conclusion of her program, satisfied with her day’s work.