When you walk into Scott Gediman's office in the valley of Yosemite National Park, one of the first things you’ll notice is an old picture. In it, three faces smile at the camera—a park ranger and two young boys.
“That’s me,” Scott says, pointing to the smallest boy in a red t-shirt. “All I wanted to be was a ranger in Yosemite,” he goes on, adjusting the brim of his NPS-issued ranger hat. The picture opposite the one of Scott as a child is a recreation of the same shot taken 40 years later—this time, he’s the ranger and the two small children at his side are his kids.
Scott is the Public Affairs Officer of Yosemite National Park. In his 25 years at Yosemite, Scott has helped countless people—both in the park and across the country—better understand one of America’s best known natural destinations. He’s played host to President Obama and Oprah, hung out with Ken Burns and California governors, but it’s clear that the accolade Scott is most proud of is his title: ranger. “I grew up in Los Angeles and our parents brought us to Yosemite every year. When we came up through the south entrance, and when I saw the ranger, I was just in awe. Ever since I can remember, I just wanted to be a ranger.”
Scott’s life—from youth to present—is inextricably tied to national parks—he spent his childhood loving them (he fondly recalls “playing Yosemite” with his brother Steve), career devoted to them, and even met his wife at his first post at Glen Canyon. “After college, I started at Glen Canyon. I started there seasonally, and then became permanent. When the job opened up here in 1996, I applied and got the job here.”
Getting the job felt like a “dream come true” to Scott. It was also overwhelming. He recalls his first day as he motions to a brown building behind him—it was the site of his first office and it’s where he’s still headquartered today. “Right away, I was doing interviews, hosting congressional visits…” he says with a laugh, shaking his head. “Even to this day it’s like ‘oh my gosh, I’m in Yosemite.’ It sounds silly, it’s not like I pinch myself, but I do think sometimes ‘wow, this is what I’ve literally worked for my whole life.’”
Scott is as excited talking about the reintroduction of red-legged frogs to Yosemite Valley as he is speaking about the influential people he’s hosted during visits to the park. Bullfrogs brought in to provide ambiance to patrons of the Valley’s Ahwahnee Hotel ran off the native red-legged species, thus the need for reintroduction. The park worked with the San Francisco Zoo to raise the frogs from the tadpole stage until they were ready to be introduced to Cook’s Meadow. “I remember, I thought to myself ‘I’m walking with a bin of frogs, we’re going to place them in [the meadow]…this is not just history, but we’re restoring a native species. I became—and become—emotional about it. This is what it’s all about […] to be able to put them back in and let them thrive. Things like that are just really magical.”
One of the things Scott stresses in our conversation is the importance of Native American history to the park. He sees understanding the Native American history as integral to understanding the park itself. “We’re stewards of telling the natural story of the park and also the cultural story.” He brings up how Native Americans would care for the valley by burning trees, their use of acorns, the systems of trade they used to get access to natural materials not native to the park. “Our job [as rangers] is to protect the park and the animals, but also to tell that story.”
That job also means looking at the park holistically. “This is everything—from the wildlife to the effects of fire and things like climate change. Climate change has its impacts here. For us, we’re seeing the pikas and other animals move to higher elevation due to the warmer climate. It’s impacted how we design campgrounds. We have to change how we do things based on the environment. My role here is to see the holistic view.” To this point, he talks about the restoration of Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias—the largest restoration project in the history of the park—and the changes the park needed to make for the trees to thrive. The park has removed hundreds of tons of pavement and restored the natural hydrology (sequoias need a lot of water!) to the grove. Scott also mentions that, as part of the project, the park reached out to Native American tribes to consult with them to ensure that their stories were told and their perspective on the grove was represented. “Every time we approach a project, from both a natural and cultural history, we’re trying to take a bigger picture of it. It’s been a lot of fun for me.”
At once, Scott considers his role in the protection of the park a privilege and a responsibility. “These are the places that can’t be replaced. Once they’re decimated, there’s no bringing them back. It’s a huge responsibility, but it’s not a burden at all—it’s a privilege. I know I use that word a lot, but I do feel that way. It’s a privilege. It really is.”
Something you should know about Scott—his enthusiasm is contagious; even if you’ve been to the park before, you see it through new eyes when you’re with him. When we first met, Scott led us through the Ranger Club, a two-story, wood-framed structure in the Valley commissioned by Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, out into Cook’s Meadow. As we walked in the gold afternoon haze provided by the recent wildfires, we spotted a black bear and two tiny cubs through the trees. Given Scott’s experience in the park, it might be fair to assume that this is just an average day at the office…but that assumption would be wrong. After leading us to a great (but safe) point for observing the trio, Scott lingered, eyes trained on the bears, just as mesmerized—if not more so—than the nearby visitors. When he reflects on the sighting, he gets excited and laughs a little. “It sounds corny,” he says, shaking his head, before launching into a story about another bear sighting. It never does, though. His love for the park is so genuine, so authentic, that all it does is make the people around him more excited, more enthusiastic for the park he loves. “Yosemite means so much to so many people. On the one hand, people say ‘it’s crowded, it’s like a theme park, like a circus,’ that kind of thing…but on the other hand, to me—to a lot of people—this is what a national park is. To me, it’s the symbolism. To a lot of people, we symbolize the national parks.”
One of the things Scott is most passionate about is the Every Kid in a Park program (also known as Every Kid Outdoors). Created by President Barack Obama in 2015, the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, the program gives all fourth graders and their families an annual pass for free admission to national parks, forests, monuments, and wildlife refuges. For Scott, and many admirers of the program, the initiative means kids have the chance to have the same love at first sight moment that Scott had as a kid on his visit in 1968. He smiles when he talks about buses of school children pulling up in the park, the sound of their laughter that he can hear from his office. Scott’s love for the program and passion for ensuring that children have the same ‘ah-ha’ moment seems to be his way of replicating the way he came to love the park—as a small boy in a red t-shirt, standing next to a ranger for his photo at Glacier Point.
Reflecting back on his experiences at the park from childhood to career, I asked Scott what he hoped to leave behind when the day comes that he hangs up his hat. “I think I can leave behind the stewardship responsibility, the fact that this is a special place and we need to protect it. Not only that we protect it, to be vociferous about the responsibility that we all have.” Often, Scott talks about Yosemite and its history and legacy as if it’s his own. In many ways, the two, park and ranger, are tied together. “I don’t know if 100 years, 200 years from now people will still love parks. I hope they will, and I think they will, but I feel it’s our responsibility as the National Park Service—as a society—to show the value of these protected places for both fun…and the fact that they’re places that can’t be replaced.”
He recounts all of the people he’s met, from celebrities to presidents. “That’s all wonderful, I’ve been on TV and that’s all good…but to me—it sounds a little corny—a friend of mine, my former boss, said to me, ‘You know what, Scott? You’re a good ranger. You’re a really good ranger.’ That just stuck with me, because I thought…you know what, that’s all I want to be.”