Teacher Finds Beauty In Badlands

Aug 22, 2013

It’s not often you get to follow your life’s calling in an environment that you love. But that’s just what happened for one New York City school teacher this summer. Today we travel to Badlands National Park to spend time with a teacher who became a National Park Service ranger and also with young interns who are following in his footsteps.

South Dakota’s Badlands received its name from the Lakota who referred to it as “Mako Sica” – or “land bad”. Of course, if you encountered a quarter million acres of land with extreme temperatures, a lack of water and exposed rugged terrain while traveling on foot…or even on horseback…you’d probably call it that, too.

But with the ability to cross the textured, multi-colored landscape that was once the floor of a great sea in the comfort of a vehicle, this former “bad land” turns into an area of stark beauty.

National Park Service Teacher-Ranger Gary Joseph Cohen
Credit Photo by Sarah Nevison

“I’m here because I absolutely love it here,” says Gary Joseph Cohen, a New York City teacher who keeps coming back to South Dakota’s Badlands.

“Just about everything that I love to do is all in one place,” he continues. “For example…paleontology, ecology, conservation…the most enormous clouds that I’ve ever seen in my life.”

And though many who live in South Dakota may come to take those enormous clouds and the magnificent vistas here for granted, Gary’s artistic side was captivated by them. He first came to Mako Sica as the artist-in-residence at Badlands National Park in 2003 and was so impacted by the experience that he arranged for students from Manhattan’s Calhoun School – where he teaches – to visit the park during their Spring break in 2012 and 2013. This summer, Gary’s here in a different role, says Julie Johndreau, Acting Chief of Resource Education for the park.

“Gary is a teacher-ranger,” Johndreau explains “And that’s a program where we work with classroom teachers and bring them out to the park so that they see what we do on a day-to-day basis as park rangers.” 

Julie Johndreau says that with one of the larger goals of Badlands National Park being to reach out to teenagers to get them involved in the park, one of Gary’s primary functions has been to work with summer interns. But that’s not all.

Gary Joseph Cohen works with intern Earl Lamont
Credit Photo by Bridge McKye

“He does everything,” says Johndreau. “Gary’s also an artist. He teaches art. So some days you can find him in our fossil prep lab painting pictures of the specimens. You can find him along trails, talking to visitors, mentoring our interns…role modeling how to interact with visitors, giving safety messages to the public.”

Gary says his time spent with the summer interns is nothing short of extraordinary.

“They’re discovering their passions,” he observes. “They’re discovering their affinities. They pick up material very quickly. They’re also generating knowledge for us too, so they’re out in the field with us. They’re out there roving with me. They’re helping to interpret resources. It’s absolutely thrilling…especially when they take initiative and bring some of their own backgrounds into the conversation with visitors. And to me, that’s the beginning of seeing the next generation of park resource interpretation.”

Taking a few minutes away from his duties at the visitor center’s front desk,  Lakota high school student Earl Lamont explains why he chose to intern at Badlands National Park.

Intern Earl Lamont (left) keeps things light at Badlands National Park's visitor center
Credit Photo by Bridge McKye

"Well, I’ve been wanting to do this ever since I was seven years old,” says Earl. “Because I like the uniform, I like human interaction…it’s always interesting to meet new people…‘cause like they say, every day’s a gift.” 

Pretty deep for a 15-year old. But there’s also a more direct answer why Earl enjoys being at the Badlands. 

“Getting to work with dead things,” he explains with a smile.   

Er...that’s strictly from a scientific standpoint, since Earl plans to pursue a career in paleontology.

As for 17-year old Jennifer Emery, what started as a one-time stopover to learn more about prairie dogs for her work with the Future Farmers of America group, has turned into a regular summer job. 

Intern Jennifer Emery (left) assists in bird-watching class for Badlands National Park visitors
Credit Photo by Bridge McKye

“And then I just ended up liking the job,” says Jennifer. “It was really fun and I like to work with people and talk in front of people, so…”

So, swearing in young visitors who’ve completed the Badlands Junior Ranger program is just her speed.

In the end, Gary Joseph Cohen says he learns as much from the six interns he works with - who all live in the area, as they do from him.

But what’s his alone is the thrill he gets each time he puts on the uniform of the National Park Service. It gives the New York native a seriousness of purpose in his work at Badlands National Park and connects him to a long line of park stewards whose traditions he’ll take home with him when he leaves.