Park rangers are not sheriff’s deputies, though, until recently, their uniforms might have suggested otherwise.
Their star-shaped badges, which had been unchanged since the Sonoma County Regional Parks Department was formed nearly five decades ago, made them look more like law enforcement officers than stewards of the county’s 54 parks.
On Tuesday, an initiative by Regional Parks to revamp the way rangers interact with the public debuted its most visible change when 19 rangers received new badges to adorn their redesigned uniforms.
“Rangers are a combination of many things,” Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart told the rangers during a ceremony Tuesday at Spring Lake Regional Park in Santa Rosa.
“You’re explorers, you’re guardians, outdoorsmen and women, educators, police officers, tree lovers, nature guides, greeters, animal protectors, custodians of our natural wonders, and field and environmental scientists all rolled into one,” Hart said.
The new badges resemble a shield, emblazoned with an image of the sun shining over Mount Hood and the Russian River as a bird soars through the sky. Blue letters on the old star-shaped badges have been replaced by green letters. Tan shirts, like those worn by deputies, have been switched out for gray shirts and olive-green neckties.
The new badges and uniforms are part of a larger departmentwide initiative to make the rangers look less like the sheriff’s deputies that they’re so commonly mistaken for, and more like what they are: rangers, said Bert Whitaker, park manager.
It’s also part of a wider policy change within Regional Parks to get rangers out of their trucks and talking with members of the public.
“We’re really making an emphasis on our rangers being out there firsthand in front of the public,” Whitaker said. “Rather than responding to the issues, we’re out there proactively talking to the community, explaining the challenges and providing that opportunity for the public to enjoy our facilities.”
The department also is increasing rangers’ involvement in public outreach, planning more ranger talks and other programs to reinforce their roles as educators about a county park system that spans more than 11,000 acres.
Whitaker acknowledged that the moves by Regional Parks to distance itself from law enforcement follow high-profile incidents involving the use of force that have increased tensions in some communities between police agencies and the people they serve.
“Our goal is not to go out there and write the citations,” Whitaker said. “We’re not the police. We’re there to encourage and facilitate people.”
The new badge was designed by Jeff Mazzeo. A ranger with the park district for the past seven years, Mazzeo spent 25 years as a graphic designer, and so when the district decided a redesign was in order, they reached out to him.
“My boss came to me and said, ‘Hey Jeff!’ ” Mazzeo said, laughing, his braided ponytail sticking out from beneath his ranger hat.
The design took five to seven drafts, Mazzeo said, but going into it, he knew he wanted to draw inspiration from the badges worn by national park rangers.
“That was my first indoctrination to parks,” he said.
Like Whitaker, Mazzeo thinks stepping away from the star badge is a good thing.
“The conversation frequently with the public is that we look like sheriffs,” said Mazzeo, who can usually be found at Doran Regional Park on the coast.