A Definitive Directory to the Top Careers in the Outdoors
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The Work: State and federally employed special agents (most punch the clock for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the Environmental Protection Agency) spend their days incognito, tracking and busting violators of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. Agents do everything from stinging renegade taxidermists to foiling coral smugglers to cruising airports with contraband-sniffing German shepherds.
Time Outside: 25—75 percent, depending on the post. “The criminals don’t come to you,” says Special Agent Doug Goessman, who tracks grizzly poachers for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Montana. “You’ve got to take your spotting scope, your video camera, your binoculars, and get out there and beat the bushes.”
Payback: $21,000 a year for entry-level agents with previous law-enforcement experience; $60,000 for senior agents.
Prerequisites: Start with a B.S. in criminal justice from a school like Southern Illinois University—Carbondale (618-453-2121; www.siu.edu/~ajsiuc). Once hired, you’ll be taught high-speed pursuit driving, interrogation, federal conservation laws, and the limits of your own stamina: Flunk the physical evaluation battery—20 push-ups in two minutes, for starters—and you’re out.
Networking: The Federal Wildlife Officers Association (www.fwoa.org) and the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (202-624-7890; www.sso.org/iafwa) are must-surf Web sites for job openings.
Peon to Pro: Expect to spend at least five years in the field before making senior agent, and at least 15 years for top billing: chief of law enforcement. * Drudge Factor: Rummaging through cargo loads of reptile-skin boots, live tropical fish, and caviar at an international customs booth.
Outlook: Dog-eat-dog. With only 230 special-agent positions in the Fish and Wildlife Service, competition is stiff. In 1998, 980 applicants wrangled over 15 openings.
The Work: Your mission is clear—to valorously protect the environment!—but your job description isn’t, especially if you work for a small, grassroots venture. A typical day could have you rallying local businesses and labor groups against a proposed golf course, penning press releases, lobbying legislators for tighter emissions restrictions, or trekking Alabama forests to inventory the endangered Eastern indigo snake.
Time Outside: For grassroots activists, 25—90 percent. Lobbyists for the citybound national organizations, 40 percent.
Payback: $12,000— $35,000 a year.
Prerequisites: Come one, come all: The job is open to anybody, says Tom Price, communications director at Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, “with an aversion to making money and a healthy dose of moral outrage.”
Networking: The Sierra Club posts reams of archival information on hot-topic enviro issues, organizations, and high-profile campaigns around the country (415-977-5500; www.sierraclub.org).
Drudge Factor: With such minuscule budgets, there’s never going to be anyone to bring you coffee or take dictation.
Peon to Pro: Four to seven years to make executive director on the local level. Promotions aside, you know you’ve hit your stride when a pissed-off rancher calls at 2 a.m.
Outlook: Put your save-the-world face on: Rampant burnout results in high turnover, meaning there may a job for you at one of the country’s 250-plus organizations.
Backcountry Ranger’s Ramble
The Work: A little known fact: Smokejumpers with the Bureau of Land Managementand the Forest Service don’t just parachute into forests to fight fires, they parachute onto them—intentionally landing on lodgepole pines and lowering themselves down to battle raging blazes with only their Kevlar-reinforced jumpsuits for protection. In their downtime, they frequent the free-weight circuit and the sewing machine (tree branches wreak havoc on gauzy parachute canopies).
Time Outside: 40-80 percent during the typical JuneSeptember fire season, depending on tinder conditions.
Payback: Rookies for the feds pocket a base pay of $10.50 an hour—twice that when actually fighting a fire. Base commanders with 20-plus years of experience earn $60,000 a year.
Prerequisites: The only way in is trial by fire—literally. Most rookies have six years of on-the-ground firefighting experience with hotshot crews. No jumping experience is needed, though; the BLM and Forest Service prefer to train from scratch.
Networking: Check in with the National Smokejumpers Association (406-549-9938; www.smokejumpers.com).
Peon to Pro: Ten years to foreman and a spot on the year-round crew.
Drudge Factor: When it comes to risk, it’s all or nothing: Land the wrong way and you could find yourself with a dead branch embedded in your butt—or worse, a broken back. During soggy summers, blaze-battlers build fences. Yawn.
Outlook: Look before you leap. Each year, roughly 800 hopefuls apply for 30 BLM and Forest Service openings.
The Work: What you do depends on your boss. State and federal foresters monitor trees for disease, analyze soil and water quality, supervise loggers, and draft long-term conservation strategies for stands of giant redwoods. Consulting foresters help private owners of small tracts manage trees and wildlife. Timber company employees oversee harvested land, decide what gets the saw next, and coordinate replantings after clear-cutting.
Time Outside: 50-75 percent.
Payback: $27,000-$60,000 for government jobs; up to $80,000 for private sector.
Prerequisites: Get a B.S. in forestry from SUNY in Syracuse (315-470-6600; www.esf.edu), or aim high with an advanced degree from The Yale School of Forestry (203-432-5100; www.yale.edu/forestry). State jobs require that you pass a standardized forestry exam.
Networking: The Society of American Foresters (301-897-8720; www.sfnet.org) provides a database of needy employers for its more than 17,050 members.
Peon to Pro: “With a B.S., you can get a job,” says Larry Nance, of the Arkansas Department of Forestry. “But to know your job takes about three to four years.” And promotion to district ranger requires ten to 15.
Drudge Factor: Much of your time—more than half for seasoned foresters—can be spent squinting at computerized graphs instead of romping through the woods.
Outlook: Like trees, the profession is slow-growing, but there’s an increasing need for foresters within private firms and green groups that manage sustainable tracts.
The Work: Drag yourself through an adventure race or mountain-bike relay, and you’ll think the race organizers have the easy job: What’s there to do other than stock the water stations? Yet for sports marketers who organize and oversee hundreds of contests each year, there’s no shortage of work—tallying entry forms, pitching the event to ESPNII, driving front-end loaders through aspen groves to build berms, corralling volunteers, walking the course, even firing the starting gun.
Time Outside: 40 percent. (The balance goes to honing your PR savvy behind a desk.)
Payback: Executive producerscan expect to pocket $55,000-$65,000.
Prerequisites: Unless raking up orange peels is your idea of a career, you’ll need to bring computer and marketing skills to the job.
Networking: Start out volunteering at high-profile events such as the High-Tec Adventure Racing Series (818-707-8866; www.mesp.com). And make Detail your middle name: “If you forget the safety pins,” says Pat Follet, who organizes mountain-bike races for Team Big Bear in California, “you could screw up the entire race.”
Peon to Pro: Aim for making executive producer—supervising a staff of ten—within five years.
Drudge Factor: Pounding slalom flags into mountainsides with a giant hammer.
Outlook: Promising. With participation in the 1999 Hi-Tec series up 40 percent from last year, look for an expanding race calendar.
The Work: In a word, juggling. At least in the beginning, you’ll need to balance a day job to pay the bills, a minimum of 25 hours of training a week, a grueling weekend race schedule, quality face-time with potential sponsors, and sleepless nights agonizing over your decision to abandon a respectable living for this.
Time Outside: 35-60 percent. You’ve got to play (and practice) to win.
Payback: If you can break even, you’re doing pretty damn well; avoiding debt usually requires deep-pocketed sponsors. Expect to bank $20,000-$30,000 in a good year, unless you’re wildly successful (surfing great Kelly Slater boasts career contest earnings of more than $700,000).
Prerequisites: Athletic genes and a high tolerance for prerace jitters will take you only so far. Make sure your competitive streak runs strong and deep. “You have to be more than a gifted athlete,” says extreme kayaker Tao Berman, whose world-record 98-foot waterfall drop speaks for itself. “You have to be cutthroat ambitious.”
Networking: Start trouncing the local competition, and then launch a full-scale sponsorship blitz: mass résumé mailings, cold-calling, and chatting up athlete reps.
Peon to Pro: Master your signature move—like Berman’s ten-story plunge—and flaunt it shamelessly.
Drudge Factor: Waking up sore before the 42-mile Rage in the Sage bike race after a night in budget accommodations: your tent.
Outlook: Keep sucking up to your day-job boss and scrambling for sponsorship. Competition is fierce.
The Work: As king of the hill, you scout for dangerous trail conditions, track and discipline renegade out-of-bounders, haul slope-battered accident victims to safety, throw avalanche bombs, evacuate faulty lifts, bond with rescue dogs, splint broken fingers, calm panicky skiers, haul unwieldy toboggans, and serve as a paragon of sanity among hordes of reckless downhillers. Off-season, you’re a mere mortal, working construction, guiding fishing trips, mixing margaritas.
Time Outside: 99 percent during November-April season, including hot-chocolate breaks.
Payback: Ski resorts pay by the hour: $13 for rookies, $15-$20 for six-year vets, $25-$27 for patrol directors.
Prerequisites: Brilliant in the bumps, fast and unflappable on the steeps—while towing a sled, of course. Plus a certificate from the National Ski Patrol’s Outdoor Emergency Care Training Course (303-988-1646; www.nsp.org) and CPR training.
Networking: Make the rounds to ski area job fairs, held annually from mid-October through early November. Call the National Ski Patrol (303-988-1111) for dates and information.
Peon to Pro: A patroller with at least one year under his or her belt must pass expert ski or snowboarding courses, sled-handling clinics, and leadership seminars.
Drudge Factor: Succumbing to big-toe frostbite while standing for hours at dangerous trail junctions, yelling at yahoos to slow down.
Outlook: Ski with caution: Due to resort mergers, the number of salaried positions has remained flat at 8,000 since 1996.
Equipment Tech Rep
The Work: Willy Loman never imagined that a salesman’s job could be so cool: Endless hours crisscrossing the country in a van full of newly minted mountain bikes, snowboards, and kayaks, and hosting demo events where consumers and retailers sample—and, hopefully, buy—your company’s gear. The operative word is demo. You show how a squirt boat performs, and then let the customers try it themselves.
Time Outside: 20-80 percent, depending on how much office time is required to set up these events.
Payback: As a rookie working part-time and pulling in a scant $12,000 a year, your motto will be “keep it lean”—i.e., sleeping in your truck and staving off starvation. Eventually you’ll max out at $45,000, unless you switch to the six-figure management track.
Prerequisites: No suit and tie, no advanced degree.What you really need are polished demo-ready skills and a healthy inner show-off: If you’re pushing titanium mountain bikes, you’ll need to be able to wow the crowd with flawless log-hurdling.
Networking: Outdoor Retailer magazine (800-255-2824; http://www.outdoorbiz.com) publishes monthly industry news and trends and cohosts the biannual Outdoor Retailer Expo.
Peon to Pro: Five years to full-time, but true success means no longer having to eat mac and cheese three days a week and bologna the other four.
Drudge Factor: “People beat the crap out of your equipment,” says Chuck Joy, of kayak manufacturer Prijon, “then leave without saying thanks.”
Outlook: Choose your gear wisely: The more radical segments of the industry—rodeo kayaking and sport climbing—are growing in popularity.
Bike Shop Associate
The Work: Go the retail route or join the wrench force. Sales associates perfect the three S’s: straightening, stocking, and selling. Mechanics get greasy hands. Or be a bigger wheel: Buy your own shop, and do both.
Time Outside: 5 percent. The good news, though, is that you don’t risk your job when you go for midday rides (employees of Mountain Bike Specialists in Durango, Colorado, spend their lunch hours pedaling some of the country’s finest singletrack).
Payback: $6-$14 an hour. Berkeley’s Missing Link, an employee-owned co-op, pays an across-the-board $12 an hour, plus full benefits.
Prerequisites: Retail sales experience is good; mechanical know-how is better. The Barnett Bicycle Institute in Colorado Springs (719-632-5173; http://www.bbinstitute.com) can take you from ignoramus to sage in about 100 hours.
Networking: The National Bicycle Dealers Association (949-722-6909; http://www.nbda.com) conducts an annual conference and tracks sales stats. Keep abreast of trade buzz with Bicycle Retailer and Industry News (505-995-4360; http://www.bicycleretailer.com) and hobnob with the cog-noscenti at Interbike Expo (949-376-6216; http://www.interbike.com), held every September in Las Vegas.
Peon to Pro: Five years to store manager. “When you know how to make good on a warranty claim or custom-build bike parts with a Dremel,” says Shane Baird, 24, of Mountain Bike Specialists, “you’ve got it made.”
Drudge Factor: Someone has to wash the grimy rags. And then there are those 70-degree days when you’re stuck inside fixing a bike so someone else can ride it.
Outlook: Fair. Annual bike sales are stagnant at about 11 million, and 70 percent of shops go broke within a few years of opening.
The Work: Why stick to the hypochondriac-filled life of a clinic-bound medic when you can be Dr. Adventure? Hired on by outfitters to oversee the well-being and health of team members, expedition physicians organize the acquisition and transport of all medical supplies, treat every kind of emergency, and decide when to call for a helicopter evacuation.
Payback: Unsalaried but—usually—all expenses paid.You supply the medical expertise, and the outfitter foots the bill for your equipment, permits, airfare, and food (about $15,000 for a six-week ascent of Cho Oyu, for example).
Time Outside: 100 percent while on expeditions, which can last three weeks to a year.
Prerequisites: An M.D. is preferable, but wilderness first responders and EMTs are also eligible (earn your certification for both from Wilderness Medical Associates; 207-665-2707; www.wildmed.com). A well-rounded résumé of sports experience can make the difference between a month in Tibet and predawn shifts at your local ER.
Networking: The Wilderness Medical Society (719-572-9255; www.wms.org) plans to start posting expedition want-ads by summer 2000.
Peon to Pro: Five years of steady backcountry work before you make the A-list. To stay in the business, you’ll need a full-time job at home and a boss who’ll tolerate long—and frequent—absences.
Drudge Factor: When local villagers learn there’s a Western doctor in town, get ready for overtime.
Outlook: Healthy. The current vogue for far-flung expeditions and the growing number of novice clients have put a premium on outdoor physicians. The Wilderness Medical Society reports that requests for doctor referrals have doubled since 1996.
The Work: Fly aerial tours over Utah’s canyon country, run charter flights to isolated islands in the Florida Keys, or become a bona fide bush pilot, a winged frontiersman charged with getting anglers to the finest streams, hunters to the elk herds, and mountaineers to the peaks—usually in single-prop planes beyond the range of navigation systems.
Payback: About $50 per hour of flight, at an average of 500-750 hours a year.
Time Outside: 25-90 percent in the cockpit, with ample exposure to deserted beaches, glaciers, and alpine lakes between takeoffs.
Prerequisites: An FAA-sanctioned pilot’s license (some 500 hours of in-flight training, written and oral exams, and a solo flight test)—and a mentor. “You have to know how to get your butt out of trouble without whacking something,” says veteran airman Rob Grant, 50, who suggests working for an experienced outfit before striking out on your own.
Networking: The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Web site offers a state-by-state database of flight schools (800-872-2672; www.aopa.org).
Peon to Pro: “The minute you think you’re a pro,” warns Grant, “you’re gonna have trouble.”
Drudge Factor: Getting grounded by stormy weather in remote Arctic villages. And stats show that every bush pilot has at least one accident in his career. Not good odds.
Outlook: In Alaska, where a third of the population has no access to roads, business is booming. Not so in the Lower 48.
The Trip Scout’s Royal Road
The Work: Hollywood schmoozing meets the great outdoors. As a contractor for film studios or ad firms, you’re on the prowl for the right locale. Producers give you scripts, storyboards, or vague verbal cues that send you bushwhacking through New Hampshire forests, canoeing Louisiana swamps, or riding rangeland in Arizona. You’ll also oversee contracts between the location’s owner and the production company.
Time Outside: 85 percent.
Payback: About $350 a day, plus expenses. At their busiest, scouts work six days a week, nine months of the year.
Prerequisites: No degree, but a knack for documentary-style photography (your images sell the location), a grasp of basic contract law, and enough familiarity with your region to handle requests such as “Find me a place where Cajuns dance.”
Networking: With only about 300 people in the biz, referrals will get you as much work as an ad in Variety. Serve as an assistant to an established scout; then let your local film commission know you’re available.
Peon to Pro: Five years from apprentice to free agent. Gauge success by the star-quality of your clients: If you’re still scouting for Crazy Wally’s Used Car Madhouse ads, try harder.
Drudge Factor: Road time. Los Angeles-based scout Jof Hanwright logs 30,000 miles a year behind the wheel.
Outlook: Get tech savvy: More producers are finding locations in online catalogs (just click on “mansion” and go to “creepy”), so the location scout of the near future will be less of a wanderer and more of Web designer.
The Work: Draft plans to transform once-polluted mining quarries into amphitheaters, design private marigold gardens and elaborate public hedge mazes, and work to preserve historically significant tracts of land. “It’s where biology and aesthetics intersect,” notes Jane Amidon, co-owner of the Colorado-based Land Art Studio. “We shape a living medium.”
Time Outside: 30-75 percent.
Payback: Though apprentices may start as low as $20,000, the typical midcareer salary hovers around $52,000. A principal in a corporate firm, with 15 to 20 years of experience, can top $100,000.
Prerequisites: Earning your green thumb in a nursery or pruning hedges as part of a landscaping crew will give you a taste for the business, but eventually you’ll have to hit the books. Cornell (607-255-5241; www.cornell.edu) offers master’s and Ph.D. programs. So does Harvard (617-495-2573; www..gsd.harvard.edu/GSDdep.html), which also runs a six-week Career Discovery seminar in landscape architecture every summer. Then get certified: The Council of Landscape Architects Registration Board (703-818-1300; www.clarb.org) administers three-day standardized tests across the country for advanced-degree holders.
Networking: Check out the nationwide job-link service of the American Society of Landscape Architects (800-787-2752; www.asla.org).
Peon to Pro: Three years from apprentice to licensed architect. Orchestrate a logistically tricky overseas project in Europe or Asia and your stock will skyrocket.
Drudge Factor: Wrangling with the EPA over water zoning, the local design review board over historical authenticity, and your own computer over 3-D modeling.
Outlook: The profession is blossoming: The U.S. Department of Labor forecasts a 21-percent growth rate through 2006.
Have Camera, Must Travel
The Work: Take your pick among a dozen rock-jock jobs, including seismology (dig trenches across California fault lines to find signs of tectonic shift) and digital mapping with the U.S. Geological Survey. Or work as a petroleum geologist, scouting for oil traces along the continental shelves.
Time Outside: 80 percent for government researchers, 25 percent for academics, 10 percent for consultants and oil seekers.
Payback: $25,000 as a rookie USGS hire; $30,000-$50,000 as a private consultant; $100,000-plus as a full professor or Exxon explorer.
Prerequisites: A B.S. in the geophysical sciences gets you started, but to rise in the ranks you need an advanced degree: Try the University of Chicago (773-702-8101; geosci.uchicago.edu).
Networking: The Geological Society of America (303-447-2020; www.geosociety.org) offers a monthly bulletin of job leads.
Peon to Pro: “At first, all the rocks look gray,” says Dartmouth geologist Page Chamberlain, “After 20 years, you see hundreds of shades of gray.”
Drudge Factor: Hauling rocks.
Outlook: Academia is tight, but private sector work follows the economy. When the world’s reserves go down and the price of oil goes up, so will the demand for geologists.
The Work: Scuba diving to check the health of Caribbean reefs; buzzing above Baja Sur to tally migrating gray whales; scraping lobster larvae from the seafloor; negotiating humane fishing practices with Maine lobstermen; tagging Stellar sea lions in Alaska; serving as one of three federally appointed delegates on the Marine Mammal Commission; consulting for eco-tour companies and aquariums.
Time Outside: 30 percent fieldwork, 70 percent hustling grants and teaching.
Payback: $25,000-$33,000 for nonprofit and government work; $40,000-$80,000 for university professors and researchers; $60,000-plus for independent consultants.
Prerequisites: Get your toes wet working for nonprofits, zoos, or aquariums (a B.S. in ecology or biology is your ticket). To secure high-paying research grants and prime teaching positions, you’ll need an advanced degree. Check out the University of Alaska-Fairbanks (907-474-7289; www.sfos.uaf.edu:8000) and the University of Mary land (301-405-6938; www.mees.umd.edu).
Networking: The American Society of Limnology and Oceanography hosts annual symposia and publishes a journal eight times a year (800-929-2756; www.aslo.org).
Peon to Pro: Seven years in the trenches from B.S. to grant-winning Ph.D.
Drudge Factor: It’s not all bikinis and bare feet; there is sea lion scat to collect and rotting jellyfish to analyze. “I necropsy lots of corpses,” says Kate Wynne, a marine mammal specialist at the University of Alaska. “And some of them are the smelliest dead things going.”
Outlook: You could sink or swim. Competition for whale and dolphin research dollars is intense, so consider focusing on little-studied algal blooms or invasive organisms like pfiesteria instead.
The Work: Be like Dennis Alan from The Serpent and the Rainbow and trek to remote jungle outposts on the prowl for medicinal plants, herbal remedies, and other unique characteristics of the local flora. Pick up tips from local shamans; then log research hours in the lab or the herbarium. Or sign on with the USDA, tracing old strains of wheat, corn, and potatoes.
Time Outside: 20-50 percent.
Payback: Academics earn $40,000-$100,000 a year. Sign on with a private company like San Francisco-based ShamanBotanicals.com, which collaborates with native healers in 70 countries to develop dietary supplements, and you could bank more.
Prerequisites: For many nonprofit positions you need only basic botany skills, a valid passport, and a quiver of immunizations. For an advanced degree, check out Tulane University (504-588-5374; www.tulane.edu/~eeob).
Networking: Log on to the Center for International Ethnomedical Education and Research Web site (www.cieer.org) for a list of training programs and conferences.
Peon to Pro: There are plenty of able botanists, but few have mastered the “ethno” angle. Stand out among more than 200 American ethnobotanists by building a rapport with healers.
Drudge Factor: International travel inevitably brings intestinal woes. “Running to the outhouse every ten minutes,” says Steve King, vice president of ethnobotany at ShamanBotanicals, “is not a pleasant experience.”
Outlook: The field is well watered by pharmaceutical companies, college course offerings are sprouting like, well, weeds, and following the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, foreign nations have begun documenting their flora and fauna—good news for ethnobotanists enlisted to help with the inventories.
The Work: Tough it out on campus for nine months a year, then morph into Indiana Jones and supervise summertime digs around the world. Or work as a contract archaeologist for a private company or the government, surveying and excavating building sites and federal lands.
Time Outside: 30 percent.
Payback: Academics, $35,000-$100,000; contractors, $60,000.
Prerequisites: A B.A. in archaeology, history, or anthropology for contract work—but you’ll need a Ph.D. from a school like the University of Pennsylvania (215-898-7461; www.sas.upenn.edu) for the rest.
Networking: The Society for American Archaeology (202-789-8200; www.saa.org) posts private and academic job openings.
Peon to Pro: 15 years to tenured prof or chief investigator.
Drudge Factor: Think highbrow blue collar: digging with axes.
Outlook: Jobs are scarce in academia, but the National Historic Preservation Act, a law that requires archaeological surveys be conducted on federal lands before ground can be broken for construction, has created a steady market for contract work.
Eight way-out gigs to satisfy the rebel within