Aaron Kaye's official title of park ranger conjures up the image of an avid outdoorsman decked out in the gray and green of the National Park Service, a stiff-billed ranger hat atop his head. And Kaye certainly fits that image, whether he's on the job exploring the 244,000-acre expanse known as the Badlands or at play after work: fishing in the park, scuba diving in the tropics or skiing in Colorado.
His title tells only part of the story. "My job is totally a big blob of stuff," said Kaye, a second-generation park ranger, on a recent morning.
He's an emergency management technician who comes to the rescue when one of the roughly 1 million annual visitors to the park is hurt or lost. He leads educational tours for children and answers questions for tourists about bison, prairie dogs or the black-billed magpie. He takes photos and writes articles for the park's Web site, which he maintains. On some days, Kaye might even collect your entrance fee -- $10 per car -- if he happens to be staffing the desk at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.
What he enjoys most about his job, however, is fighting and preventing fires. Kaye is a certified federal firefighter who travels across the country during fire season to help battle fires. Last summer, he fought two fires from helicopters in Mesa Verde, Colo., outside of parkland and 12 fires in the park.
Here in the Badlands, he helps set controlled fires to get rid of scrub and prevent the types of accidental fires that have scorched millions of acres and destroyed private property.
"The job takes every aspect of outdoor skill you have," he said. "It's a great way to make extra money, but for me the thing is to see other people and see other places. It's dangerous, but it's an awesome thing to do."
The badlands are a remnant of the grasslands (too dry to support trees, too wet to be desert) that once stretched from Texas to Canada. The rock formations in the park are an accumulation of sediment that washed in from the nearby Black Hills 30 million to 60 million years ago, eroding into spectacular, multicolored rock formations that contain fossils of prehistoric horses, pigs and camels. The badlands' nickname came about because the place was considered inhospitable to life.
The Park Service wants to ensure that the native plants and animals always have a place in the park. There is a herd of 600 bison, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and the recently reintroduced black-footed ferret -- all part of an effort to return the ecosystem to what it used to be when hordes of animals roamed free and native plants thrived.
That's where the fire comes in. About 5,000 acres are burned each year, in part, to reduce plants that have invaded the park. Canada thistle, for instance, is crowding out native prairie species.
Neighboring private landowners don't like the burning. "Burning off prairie is not popular among the ranching community, because they consider that food" for their animals, Kaye said. "We have some private landowners that can be a challenge sometimes."
Challenges aside, Kaye said he loves being a ranger. "I grew up in the Park Service," he said, noting that his father had jobs at Crater Lake in Oregon and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, among others. "A lot of people say I'm a park brat and have green and gray blood."
As his family did when he was a child, Kaye lives in the park. Each morning, he walks a couple hundred yards from his house to his office at the visitor center. Rangers, like Kaye, who live on the site consider the town of Interior, which claims 67 residents, as their current hometown.
"The opportunity for peace and solitude is one of the draws of the area," he said.
But that can also be a drawback. "It can be lonely," Kaye said. "We're so far from movies, dance clubs and socializing that you become a little more independent." He fishes every day after work. On Wednesday nights, he plays volleyball at the Interior Elementary School.
He is resigned to the fact that at some point he'll move on to another national park. He's excited about the prospect of moving again but unsure whether he wants to go into management. "The higher you go up, the more you become tied by the job to the desk and to the phone and to the travel."
And that wouldn't suit Kaye: "The more time I spend outdoors, the happier I am."