A ranger’s many roles at Sonoma County Regional Parks

Park Ranger Ilana Stoeling handing out a sticker to Kassidy Carty, 3, of Napa at the closing of the interactive campfire program held each Saturday at Doran Regional Park's amphitheater. The program runs until Thanksgiving weekend. May 27, 2017. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)


The Doran Beach camper’s hand was swollen, hot, red and almost visibly pulsing.

“I’d never had a reaction to a sting like that before,” he mused as Sonoma County Regional Parks Ranger Ilana Stoelting carefully nestled his injured paw in a cold pack. “That feels a lot better,” he added gratefully.

Stoelting packed up her first-aid gear and hurriedly prepared for her next duty: a presentation on tide pools and intertidal ecosystems at the park’s amphitheater, just east of the Bodega Harbor breakwater.

There isn’t a lot of downtime for Stoelting, who at 29, is a fresh face among the county’s next generation of rangers. Doran Beach is the county’s oldest park — the only one in existence when the agency was formed in 1967 — and one of its busiest. It draws up to 550 campers and 2,000 visitors on the busiest days, which keep rangers walking briskly, if not running. Medical calls, it turns out, take up a significant chunk of time.

“Doran Beach is the safest beach in Sonoma County because it’s protected by the bay and Bodega Head,” Stoelting said. “That’s one of the reasons visitation is so heavy.”

Stoelting is one of more than 20 full-time rangers assigned to the county’s 56 regional parks and trails. Doran and Spring Lake — the county’s most visited park in Santa Rosa — typically have one or two rangers each, while rotating rangers staff the other destinations.

Smokey Bear headgear may be standard issue for rangers, but in practice they wear multiple hats. They serve as medical first responders, law enforcement officers, wildlife authorities, public relations specialists — even family counselors.

“Our rangers are often the ‘face’ of parks, the main point of contact for visitors,” said Melanie Parker, deputy Regional Parks director. “They are there for public safety as well as public benefit.”

Stoelting is well-equipped for the diverse roles. With a degree in biology from UC Davis, she has worked as a field biologist at Point Reyes National Seashore, an interpretive ranger in Oregon, a lab assistant at UC Davis, a lab tech for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and a medical first responder for an ambulance service in Israel.

At Doran, she started marine wildlife talks for visitors as well as a junior ranger program.

“I really like the county ranger experience,” Stoelting said. “We’re a much smaller organization than our state or federal counterparts, and I know everyone personally, including the director. All the rangers train together, and we all share the feeling of being part of a strong, supportive team.”

Sharing both her love of nature and her encyclopedic knowledge of marine life is one of Stoelting’s favorite parts of the job. For her tide pool presentation, she lugged a big ice chest to Doran’s modest amphitheater. Inside the chest were various live critters, including mussels, oysters, sea snails, sea urchins and sea stars. About 20 campers and day trippers showed up, more than half of them kids. The children crowded around the ice chest as Stoelting talked and carefully displayed the animals. She held up a bat star, a small, red sea star with distinctive webbing between its arms.

“Who knows how sea stars eat?” Stoelting asked.

“They put their stomachs into the oysters,” a preteen boy immediately answered.

“That’s right!” exclaimed Stoelting. “They pry open the shells with all these tiny suckers you see on the underside of their legs and extrude their stomachs right into the tissues. It’s super weird, isn’t it? I think we have an up-and-coming marine biologist here!”

The child beamed at the praise, and Stoelting seemed genuinely moved by the exchange.

“I really love it when kids show an awareness of the natural world,” she said. “There are a number of studies that show significant physical and emotional health benefits from simply spending time outside. So we’re devoting a lot of time and resources to nature walks and other programs for different visitor groups, including families, seniors, people with special needs and underserved communities. When people are connected to their parks, it benefits both the people and the parks.”