After three decades as a ranger for the National Park Service, Gary Bremen retired in December.
He served the majority of his career in Biscayne National Park close to Miami where he was raised and Wilton Manors, which he now calls home. The Mirror Magazine caught up with Bremen to find out what it was like to be a gay man in the park service and what’s next for the experienced traveler and storyteller extraordinaire.
How long did you work for NPS; what were your titles and where were you stationed?
I started working for the National Park Service as a ranger when I was still in college back in 1986. I started my career at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, home of the world’s longest cave well over 400 miles now. Since that was only a summer position, it worked out great to come back and finish my degree in biology from the University of Miami. Once that was complete, I became a seasonal employee that bopped from park to park. I did two winter seasons at Biscayne National Park, a long summer season at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (a really under-appreciated area of diverse ecosystems and incredible wildflowers) and then moved to a tiny site called Roger Williams National Memorial in Rhode Island for my first “permanent” position. There I shared early colonial history, especially that surrounding the new idea of “religious liberty for all.”
Next up was Everglades National Park, at the Shark Valley District (still my favorite part of that sprawling park). When another position came open at Biscayne National Park, I went back to the saltwater that I love. I spent a lot of time on Biscayne Bay as a child, and there’s something really special about taking care of a place that you knew as a kid. I was at Biscayne for a continuous 27 years, but throughout that time, I had many opportunities to work at other national parks on a short-term basis.
Tell us more about those short-term assignments, what did that entail?
I used to do a lot of training for the National Park Service, and that meant frequent trips to our main training centers at the Grand Canyon and in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. I had the opportunity to work the lead-up to the New York City Marathon at Gateway National Recreation Area on Staten Island, helped Fire Island National Seashore improve its interpretive program, worked two Independence Day celebrations at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, now called Gateway Arch National Park, spent two weeks helping out at the grand opening of the visitor center at Chicago’s first national park, Pullman National Historical Park, and worked as an interpretive writer for several newer civil rights parks in Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia and Mississippi. Those stories are so important, and I saw many parallels between the African American struggles and those of the LGBT community.
What is your favorite park to go camping and why?
I’m honestly not much of a camper, and I think way too many people think that national parks are all about camping and hiking, and doing dangerous things in the woods with bears! There are 424 national parks, and most of them don’t have anything to do with those things. Each of them tells a small piece of the American story … a story that continues to evolve.
So what you’re saying is our national parks don’t always have to be a grueling test of toughness?
People who think that national parks are only about camping and hiking, and such are really doing a disservice to the places and to themselves. They offer such an incredible opportunity to not only learn the history of an individual site, but also to see how that site connects with other things. I think people who really take the time to visit and understand national parks have a much better comprehension of this nation’s history, and where it fits in with the rest of the world.
Ok, back to your favorites, you’ve gotta have a few?
I am fortunate to have visited 270 out of the 424 national parks. My favorites? I’d be dishonest if I didn’t say Biscayne was number one. Number two is kind of a hard call, but if I was pinned down I would absolutely say Katmai National Park in Alaska. Most people probably don’t recognize that name, but images of the park are quite common in all kinds of advertising. It’s the place where there’s a little 6-foot-high waterfall that during the month of July – the salmon run – bears stand on the lip of that waterfall, catching salmon as they swim upstream. People love the national parks for seeing wildlife, but that wildlife is often just a fleeting glimpse. At Katmai, you can stand for hours and watch the bears feed. You start to recognize their habits, and you can predict what they’ll do next. It’s absolutely extraordinary.
Is there a memorable moment from your career that stands out to you?
Many. I think the many relationships that I made as a ranger have to be near the top though. I started a lot of programs at the park. Family Fun Fest ran for 20 years, and some of the kids that I met as five- and six-year-olds in that program have since invited me to their school plays, their graduation parties, and their weddings. Artists who’ve shown in the gallery I started at the park have gone on to bigger and better things. Biscayne National Park will always be special for them, and I’m proud that I helped facilitate that lifelong connection.
In what way did being a gay man inform your career?
Though I knew exactly who I was from an early age, I didn’t come out until I was almost 30. I knew other rangers who were gay, but nobody ever talked about such things. I decided to come out during a tearful morning watching the sun rise over a snowy Grand Canyon, a story I’ve recounted many times in a program that I do call “Songs and Stories of Our National Parks.”
It was just 14 months later that I took the man who would eventually become my husband to that same snowy canyon, but on the opposite side. Roger was there with me when we marched at the front of the New York City Pride Parade days after President Obama named Stonewall National Monument as the newest national park, and again when employees, partners and volunteers from all four South Florida National Parks marched in the Stonewall Parade in Wilton Manors last June, the first time any of the parks had ever participated in a Pride event.
Do you think coming out at work made a difference?
As many LGBT people have learned, telling our own coming-out stories can help others create their stories. The fact that mine is so intimately tied to the national parks meant that it was appropriate for me to tell that story as part of my work … in uniform. Seeing how that has impacted people … gay kids, parents of lesbian kids, people who never knew anyone gay, and even people who came to realize that their own treatment of gay people was not as kind as it could have been … makes me feel that what I did for 36 years really did make a difference.
If you could change anything about the NPS what would that be?
I wish the agency would worry less about doing things right, and more about doing the right thing, which is something my old boss Bob Showler used to say all the time. It’s true. Some folks are just so wrapped up in paperwork and pettiness that they have totally forgotten the amazing resources under our care, and how exposing people to those resources can be absolutely life-changing.
What are your plans for retirement?
Well, I have 154 of the 424 national parks that I’ve never visited, and that is what I chose to do on my first day of retirement by visiting Cumberland Island National Seashore off the Georgia coast. I am creating a “brand” (The Traveling Ranger) that will include a website offering travel advice and consulting. I am also looking forward to continuing to help people connect to their national parks through storytelling, speaking engagements, and perhaps even enrichment talks on cruise ships.
Will you stay involved locally?
I’ll continue to volunteer at Abandoned Pet Rescue in Fort Lauderdale as I have for the past four years. And don’t be surprised if I’m soon back at Biscayne National Park now and then, guiding a walk or a boat trip for the Biscayne National Park Institute … this time on my own terms, and without the interference of the Hatch Act!
For more information, visit thetravelingranger.com.