John Boeck

Ranger's job just a walk in the park


"There are drawbacks. I'm always at work, whether it's my day off or not. Sometimes that takes a toll on you."

That's John Boeck, talking about his job. But lest you conclude that the resident park ranger at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park is complaining, let him complete his thoughts:

"But I can't think of a better place to always be at work, or another job with so few drawbacks. And I certainly couldn't think of a better place to live."

The state park Boeck calls home is the Rim country's single most popular tourist attraction, and not an unpopular place among even the oldest local old-timers.

Growing up, Boeck knew he wanted to pursue one of two professions, he said. But common sense ruled out one of them.

"I always liked the outdoors and animals, and I always knew I either wanted to be a veterinarian or a park ranger. But veterinarianism just took a lot of schooling ... so when I got my bachelor's degree, I decided to go for being a park ranger."

Although he was born in Minnesota, the 45-year-old spent the bulk of his formative years in Southern California. He first set foot in Arizona at the age of 17, when he arrived in Flagstaff to study recreation resource management at Northern Arizona University.

After graduating in 1977, Boeck worked a few odd jobs before beginning to realize his dream at the Lake Havasu State Park, starting out as a seasonal park ranger and eventually moving to a full-time position.

From there he found employment as a ranger in parks all over Arizona: at Buckingham State Park near Parker Dam; the historic park at the old Yuma Territorial Prison; and Slide Rock State Park in Sedona, which Boeck helped develop.

If, so far, Boeck sounds like someone who can't keep a job, well, he made his professional landing at Tonto Natural Bridge 11 years ago, in October of 1990.

"I'd been over here with my family to take a look at the park, which at that time was just about to be purchased by the state," Boeck said. "We liked it, they offered me the job, and my family decided I should take it."

In the years since Boeck agreed, he has found that the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park's beauty is all that separates it from other state parks all of which are identical siblings in terms of the critical issues which face them.

The most important of those, Boeck said, is the need to "Find and maintain a balance between the resource, the visitors and development. You can overdevelop an area, which can really detract from its natural setting.

"An area like this is a pretty delicate resource, and it's hard to find a balance between development that will make a visitor's experience better and taking away the natural setting of the park," he said. "Do you put in a campground or not? If so, how many campsites? Do you build more trails and access points? Do you try to spread out the use so it's not so concentrated?"

Another area where balance is difficult to maintain, Boeck said, is funding.

"More and more, our department has to rely on entrance fees and less on tax dollars to pay for all of the salaries and operational costs here at the park. We don't want to overprice entry into the park, but in order to keep up services, we have to bring in more money, just like any other kind of business. That's a big problem right now."

Rising right along with entrance fees, however, is park attendance a fact that brings with it both good news (people appreciating the land) and bad news (overuse).

"Overuse is where so many of our problems, and those of all state parks, come from," Boeck said. "Nothing puts a greater burden on the resources. Nothing."

For that problem, Boeck said, there is only one single, simple, but very hard-to-enforce solution: The continuing education of park visitors.

"When people carve their initials in a tree, for example, they don't realize that the sap that comes out is like the blood of the tree. Understanding nature and learning how to take care of it, is a big part of it."

If Boeck could tell every park visitor in the country one thing, he is asked, what would it be?

"Have an outdoor code in which you have personal rules about preserving the area that you've entered, being careful with fire, and leaving the area in the same condition as you found it, or better" Boeck said. "The Boy Scouts have an outdoor code that covers almost everything you could think about. It would be good for everyone to have such a code for parents to teach to their kids, for kids to teach to their parents. More and more, we're seeing that a lot of the younger people are better than older people in many aspects of taking care of our state parks."

Oh, yes. One more very important question, which has surely crossed the minds of everyone who's made the steep, arduous, lung-exploding mountainside descent that's required of those who wish to view the Tonto Natural Bridge up close.

Will Boeck ever install an elevator?

"Probably not."

How about an escalator?

"That would detract from the site, I think."

How about offering helicopter flights to the bottom?

"Nope. The winds are too strong here. But you never know what the future might hold."

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