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Public Employee Press: PEP Talk

Park Rangers lead weekend adventures in the natural world

Photos courtesy of Local 983
UPR Michelle Catania teaches youngsters to fish at Crotona Park in the Bronx.

Adventures in the wild lay outside New Yorkers’ doorsteps when they sign up online for Weekend Adventures, a Department of Parks and Recreation program that allows professional park rangers in DC 37 Local 983 to connect city residents with the great outdoors.

The corps of 75 Urban Park Rangers and their supervisors guide weekend educational tours in every borough. They help New Yorkers of all ages explore the City’s 30,000+ acres of forests, parks, greenspaces, and wetlands for free every Saturday and Sunday year round.

“We attract diverse groups who are interested in trying something new. We share our knowledge of the local history, flora, fauna, and fossils found in urban forests and parks within New York City’s five boroughs,” said UPR Michael Burke. “With Weekend Adventures, you don’t have to travel long distances or spend hundreds of dollars for a great experience. It’s right in our backyards and it’s free. We provide a clean, safe place to learn. Our parks envelop you. We’re here to help educate people as they reconnect to nature.”

Local 983 Urban Park Ranger Michael Burke at the Marine Park saltmarshes in Brooklyn.
Urban Park Rangers (UPRs) help city dwellers hike trails and hills in Fort Tryon, part of the National Registry of Historic Places, or focus on photographing migrant birds nesting in the marshes of Marine Park. UPRs lead botany walks and teach rock climbing, fishing, and other activities that spark participants’ imaginations. Families and small groups can enter a raffle to camp overnight beneath canopies of towering oaks, sassafras, and sweetgum trees in Staten Island.

“We hang out with the families overnight and offer protection,” Burke said. “We provide tents and teach survival skills and fire safety.”

Growing up in New York City, UPR Michelle Catania’s mom enrolled her in cross-country running. “I remember how free and calm I felt running through the trees of Forest Park. When I became an adult, I didn’t know a job like this was even an option.”

“I honestly love my job, it’s the best,” said Catania, a former teacher. “I help youngsters find fossils, learn astronomy, and care for the environment. They conquer their fears. The ‘eureka’ moment when their eyes light up is thrilling and very, very cool.”

UPR Harry Aguilar educates local children about the wild animals that roam Queens parks and forests.
UPR Harry Aguilar works in Forest Park near his Richmond Hill neighborhood. “I work in the community that raised me. They see someone who looks and sounds like them. It builds trust,” he said. He teaches canoeing and archery at Baisley Park and Alley Pond Park. Like all UPRs, Aguilar is certified in water rescue and safety.

“I reintroduce New Yorkers to local wildlife — foxes, turtles, chipmunks, raccoons, and even coyotes,” Aguilar said. “I encourage participants to protect nature and advocate for parks. COVID helped bring nature back into balance. The animals adapt to urban settings. The parklands are their habitat. “

Local 983 President Joe Puleo said Gordon Davis, New York City’s first African-American Parks commissioner, started the UPR program 50 years ago as a stewardship for future generations to care for our verdant urban parks and forests.

By the 1990s, NYC Parks had about 400 PEP Officers and UPRs. Today, Parks employs 75 UPRs who mirror New York City’s diversity. “UPRs motivate New Yorkers to want to preserve and expand our city’s parks and greenspaces,” Puleo said.

Park Rangers and their supervisors are unarmed uniformed Peace Officers. They can make arrests and issue summonses. During the COVID-19 pandemic, UPRs distributed facemasks and educated neighborhood children and residents about handwashing and other safety protocols.

“UPRs and Associate UPRs, who are supervisors and sergeants, fill a niche. We bring to the community opportunities to educate themselves and enjoy nature. It’s a rewarding job,” Burke said.

DC 37 rallied at City Hall and Foley Square this spring led to funding for Parks to hire 50 new rangers and call dozens more back to work.
DC 37, Local 983, and the Play Fair Coalition lobbied City Hall and Albany lawmakers to fund New York City parks. This spring, the advocacy group rallied at Foley Square and City Hall to press Mayor Adams to devote 1% of the city budget to Parks to save jobs.

“Our efforts led the City to hire 50 new UPRs and recall dozens of UPRs who were laid off in 2021 following the City’s misguided response to defund the police,” Puleo said. “The work our rangers do is educational, not punitive.”

All UPRs take an entrance exam. Most have Bachelor of Science degrees and many hold master’s degrees. The starting annual salary is $50,000 and increases to $65,000 after 15 years of service. UPR titles are not baselined in the City budget, so each year the union lobbies City Hall and fights for adequate funding to save Parks jobs.

“Weekend Adventures is an excellent program for New Yorkers to explore nature with help from trained professional rangers,” Puleo said. “They can share in a wide range of outdoor activities they never imagined could happen in New York City.”

To sign up for a free Weekend Adventures program, visit the NYC Parks Department website at