Songs of Stewardship

Photo by Liz Chrisman

You might recognize Lauren Ray from social media. She’s a Buffalo National River park ranger, which is a cool, though, inconspicuous job.

Lauren has been stationed at the Buffalo River National Park for four years now. Located in northern Arkansas, the Buffalo River is our nation’s first national river and known far and wide for its natural beauty. Lauren is making it even more well known with her talent for merging pop hits with catchy and informative lyrics about national parks. Her skills are impressive.

For example, in her viral video set to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dream’ she details the problems with stormwater runoff during the dry season, singing, “Ponca only happens when it’s raining; please know what the river gauge is saying.” Or perhaps you’ve seen the one where she writes her own lyrics to “Drop it Like it’s Hot,” turning it into a catchy beat on the benefits of ranger tours called, “Join My Guided Walk.”

My personal favorite is her parody of Adele’s “Someone Like You” that educates park guests on how to find their lost items: “I heard that you dropped your keys; that you cannot find your wedding ring. I heard that you lost your new smartphone gadget things, didn’t you?” She holds up the items as she sings and then points listeners to their lost and found guide, reminding visitors they’d love to put these items back in the hands of their rightful owners.

Connecting people with the park — whether it’s by giving a presentation, a guided tour, or writing hilarious songs to remind you about river safety — is her passion. And, thanks to her clever outreach, she’s finding modern ways to promote Arkansas’ natural beauty to more people.

Lauren spent most of her childhood in Bentonville and graduated from Siloam Springs, but her roots in the River Valley run deep as well. She’s a graduate of the University of the Ozarks and spent a great deal of time in Clarksville and surrounding areas, something she credits for the work she does today. “I never thought that being a park ranger or working in the outdoors or in conservation was a viable career path until I started taking some biology and environmental science classes at University of the Ozarks,” Lauren says. Her professors and classes helped her realize this could be her profession, and she gives credit to the U of O for getting her where she is today.

After college, Lauren began working for the Illinois River Watershed partnership in northwest Arkansas, an organization focusing on the health of the watershed that covers portions of northeastern Oklahoma and urban northwest Arkansas. “I served there as the education outreach coordinator for a couple of years,” Lauren says, “and really fell in love with conservation education and boots on the ground type of conservation work that is so essential to protecting our special wild and urban places alike.” After that, Lauren became involved with the Student Conservation Association as a way to get her foot in the door at the national parks. After filling out a survey to help find a good fit for her work, she ended up at Arches National Park in southeastern Utah. “And that is where my National Park Service career really started,” Lauren says.

Arches National Park is located in the Red Rock Canyon area. The erosional patterns led to the formation of more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches in the red rocks. The Delicate Arch is the primary feature of the park, but only one of thousands of acres to view. The park is filled with hiking trails, wildlife, and camping locations. Surrounded by this beauty, it was here that Lauren made her first parody song.

“I would find myself driving through the park or out on hiking trails,” Lauren says.” And suddenly, I would start rewriting the lyrics to popular songs in ways that made the song fit in with different educational topics or resource management issues that I was working on.” She recalls rewriting the Gilligan’s Island theme song at some point. It had to do with the geology of arches.

“But the one that I actually ended up recording and using for something was a parody of Snoop Dogg’s ‘Drop it Like it’s Hot,’” she laughs. “And this parody I called ‘Join my Guided Walk.’” The song invites park guests to learn more about the geology of the park. She says she was encouraged by her supervisor, who wanted her to use this avenue to educate people about the flora and fauna while also making people laugh.

Lauren may be well known now, but back in 2015, she was trying to find a way to get her foot in the door back home. After leaving Arches in Utah, she knew she wanted to return to northwest Arkansas but wasn’t sure about how to get there. “I called the [Buffalo River National Park] headquarters office and I asked if they had any volunteer opportunities coming up,” she explains. Luckily, they did. The National Park Centennial Year was just getting started and extra help with programs and initiatives was needed. “I told them that I had quite a bit of social media experience, and that was an area where they were lacking,” Lauren says. “So I came to the buffalo in January 2016 as a volunteer,” Lauren says, “helping with social media outreach, and just helping plan some of the special events and programs that went on that year for the National Park Service centennial.” After a couple of months volunteering in the position, she was offered a seasonal position. That turned into a permanent position.

Lauren says she didn’t grow up singing, but she did have very influential musicians in her life including her uncle Darren Ray, a professional musician in Northwest Arkansas. “I would go to a lot of his gigs as a kid and just admire his musical talent, especially his voice,” Lauren says. “Anytime I went over to his house he would let me mess around on his instruments and his music room and stuff.” But Lauren didn’t sing much on her own until she went to college. She never liked performing live. “I have debilitating stage fright,” she says. Lauren prefers, instead, to write and record music and share it through social media.

Though, Lauren loved singing and helping people find innovative ways to connect with the park, she never expected her two skills to take off as they have. But since that first parody video, Lauren has had more than 200,000 thousand videos views and says the park receives a high volume of calls and emails about her songs. Even national media has covered the “rapping ranger,” and her fame leads to recognition when she’s out and about in northwest Arkansas. “I’ve been recognized in a lot of places before where usually I could just kind of fly under the radar,” Lauren says. “So it’s been fun to have people ask for a high five or for a selfie or something.”

When she’s not singing on video, Lauren says there is really no such thing as an average day as a park ranger because everyday is so vastly different. On the day we spoke, Lauren started with checking on Nacho and Pancho, the horses who live at Steel Creek Historic Valley and used to assist with backcountry patrols for rescue missions. Then she had a phone call with a professor from the University of Central Arkansas who is collaborating with the park for an upcoming oral history collection program. After that was the planning of a Leave No Trace container course to keep park visitors educated on how to keep the park clean. Then she turned her attention to planning for the busy paddling season: preparing for boat launches, communicating with visitors about safety, and the Leave No Trace ethics of the park.

As the weather warms, Lauren’s job veers toward even more time outdoors. “I’ll start doing more guided walks once our visitation comes back up.” Really, Lauren’s work is anything to help park visitors connect in more meaningful ways with the park. “That’s what my job is about,” Lauren says.

What’s her favorite part of being a park ranger? “Helping facilitate those ‘aha’ moments that really cause people to feel a deeper appreciation and inspiration for their public lands,” Lauren says.

Lauren says that she loves teaching park visitors about the history of the people who lived in the valley and how they made their living. She likes to ask people to put themselves in the shoes. “It’s more than just about outdoor recreation,” Lauren says. “Especially when we’re talking about the history of this park.”

She also loves promoting scientific discovery on the trails. “Once again, just seeing those ‘aha’ moments when you start describing how these geological formations came to be, the interaction of rock and acidic rainwater, you really see their wheels start turning,” Lauren says. “They say, ‘oh, man, we learned about this in the classroom, but now we’re seeing it; we’re living it.’”

Lauren says that even though this information isn’t new to her, to see it through a new park visitor’s eyes is powerful. “I might have been a small part of a stewardship ethic that they’re going to carry with them for the rest of their lives,” Lauren says. “That is very, very rewarding.”l