Jefferson County Open Space parks cover more than 56,000 acres, include 27 parks, and a trail system that spans 265-plus miles. Bikers, hikers and horse enthusiasts soak in the tranquil serenity as well as the challenge many of the trails offer. And who isn’t in awe of wildlife encounters? Our foothills parks impart the quality of life for many, especially JeffCo Open Space Park Ranger Jason Hamburg.
Raised in western Nebraska, Jason’s playground included the North Platte River. “My childhood friends often referred to me as ‘the park ranger’ many years before I became one because I scolded them when they were irresponsible in the woods. I was born a naturalist, thanks to my dad who took me hunting and fishing. My mom loved being in nature, watching wildlife, and was a genuine people person,” Jason explains.
As a teen, rebellion struck a literal chord with Jason. He says, “I was running the straight and narrow until becoming a teenager. Motorbikes and rock music persuaded me to grow my hair as long as I could, play the guitar, and join a band. I was influenced by ZZ Top, Van Halen, and Boston during the ’70s and ’80s. Although I embraced the blue collar hardworking lifestyle, I followed my dream of becoming a musician. Playing in a band is what brought me to Denver. After exploring the musical opportunities Denver offered, I decided to follow a different path, which is how I hired on with Adolph Coors Brewery. Having previously worked in a sugar beet factory, I quickly realized I wanted to follow my dream of becoming a park ranger when I stumbled upon this ad:
Wanted: Seasonal Park Ranger
$6.50 per hour.
“As my soon-to-be supervisor gave me a tour, we walked past a John Deere 1070. I asked, ‘What do you use that tractor for?’ He replied, ‘We rough mow the area so our visitors can see the rattlesnakes easier.’ Then, he added, ‘You’re hired,’ impressed I knew the tractor’s make and model. Instantly, I was where I belonged. When I enrolled in the Red Rocks Community College’s Park Ranger Technology Program, I met the JeffCo Open Space ranger team, who encouraged me to apply, which I did in April 1997. From my first day as a park ranger to this, I realize I have the dream job.”
I met Jason 26 years ago and can vouch that the enthusiasm for his job is just as strong, if not stronger, as it was back then. When asked how he keeps his passion stoked, Jason replied, “I experience the serenity of love being in nature, having daily encounters with wildlife, and working as an Open Space ranger. I experience a tremendous sense of satisfaction and gratitude creating a cohesive environment so everyone can share the park and protect the wildlife that call it home.”
Jason has countless stories of incredible wildlife encounters, and these are among his favorites: “I saw something in the willows… I discovered an elderly bear sleeping soundly. Sensing I was there, he awoke. We had a nose-to-nose encounter before he slowly ambled. He was more afraid of me than I was of him. I also stumbled upon four playful coyote pups enjoying a warm summer day. They reminded me how vitally important it is to remain playful.”
Of the emergencies Jason has faced, he reveals, “A few years ago, we combined emergency services to help three rock climbing victims on a cold winter’s day. We had to stage medical services, as daylight was quickly fading and snow started falling. Our teams, which included Flight for Life, Alpine Rescue, JeffCo Rangers, and Inter-Canyon Fire Protection, had to split taking stages from top to bottom at the site as the victims were stranded on the north face. All three were critically injured and barely conscious and needed to be medevacked. Teams united to transport them to the waiting Flight for Life helicopter that landed 1 1⁄2 miles away from the site. Daylight was all but gone. Thank God for headlamps. This, among countless other stories I could share, reveals how various agencies work together for a successful rescue.”
When asked about the toughest part of his job, Jason’s smile quickly faded. “Without a doubt, it’s being first on the scene to find suicide victims. I’ve also talked with a few intent on ending their lives. I have to think they’re hopeful, in their darkest hour, to find the light, and believe that being in nature is the light they seek. No one is immune to depression and despair. I have found that to be true and fully believe they’re hopeful a ranger or naturalist will stop to offer encouragement and, most importantly, listen. Being in nature often reveals, revives and renews our will to live.”
Educating newcomers how to live with wildlife is “part of a park ranger’s job,” Jason claims. “Teaching people how to live in bear country and securing your doggie doors so wildlife doesn’t amble into your home is vastly important. It’s as redundant as it is to tell people to keep your dogs leashed, but it’s part of educating folks new to the area. I will never tire of telling people to slow down on roadways so deer and elk don’t get hit, or secure your trash and food to protect wildlife. Newcomers are often challenged how to share their mountain environment and responsibly live with wildlife.”
Jason’s ranger credo has never changed in the nearly three decades that I’ve known him. “We all need to bring peace, respect and serenity to our open space parks as a means to create unity, stewardship of the land, and respectfully share the trails. Sometimes, the hardest thing we do is respecting other people’s perspective. Visiting public parks requires each of us to practice good stewardship of the land. Stewardship of our Open Space land and trails is everyone’s responsibility when visiting the parks. I enjoy riding with local mountain bike teams to encourage trail courtesy. Our goal, as rangers, is to excite, instill a sense of respect, and collectively love, nurture and respect our Open Space as well as one another.”
Jason suggested our interview take place at the picnic site at the west entrance of Elk Meadow Open Space during the peak hiking hours. As numerous people passed us going to and from the trails, Jason spoke to each one. His genuine passionate/compassionate persona never faded, and nearly everyone on foot or straddling a bike stopped to talk to him. Jason’s passion for his work is evident—even more so is his passion for nature. “I had to stop a woman who picked a bouquet of what she thought were wildflowers. She had picked a few poisonous species as well as protected wildflowers, so she received a written warning. It’s of paramount importance that we strive to protect all that is wild so future generations can treasure it as much as we do,” he says. Follow Ranger Jason’s ongoing adventures on Twitter: @jcosrangerjason