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By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Sam Wetzel doesn’t have any trouble meeting new people.
Her job at Fort Kearny State Historical Park and Recreation Area introduces her to travelers from across the globe, especially during sandhill crane season.
“There are people from a lot of different places,” said Wetzel, who met tourists from Colorado, Florida, Texas, Missouri, Wisconsin and New York during Saturday’s shift at the park’s visitors center.
Thousands of bird watchers, including many visitors from foreign countries, flock to the popular viewing site along the Platte River south of Kearney each year to get a glimpse of the world’s largest concentration of sandhill cranes.
During the height of crane season, which runs from late February through early April along a 90-mile stretch of the river, an estimated 500,000 to 600,000 of the birds – about 80 percent of the total population – stop here to fuel up on corn missed by farmers during last year’s harvest before continuing their annual migration to northern nesting grounds.
“We’re one of the top 10 birding spots in the world,” said Gene Hunt, superintendent at Fort Kearny State Historical Park and the nearby recreation area.
The spectacle is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many photographers, journalists and nature lovers.
For Wetzel and other University of Nebraska at Kearney students, working at Fort Kearny is an opportunity to prepare for a lifetime of experiences.
Wetzel, a construction management major with a minor in recreation and park management, knows she wants a career that gets her outdoors. The state park job, which she started in August, puts her on that path.
“I grew up being outside all the time,” the UNK freshman from Ravenna said. “I just did not want a job where I had to be inside all day, every day.”
Fort Kearny employs around a dozen workers during the busy season, with most of them coming through UNK. Three current UNK students work there now and two recent graduates are also on the staff.
The interns and work study students do a little bit of everything, from mowing grass and trimming trees to manning the pay booth and visitors center, where they share information about Fort Kearny’s history and amenities with those who stop by.
UNK senior Paul Clement signed on because he enjoys the outdoors and social interaction.
Clement, who planned to study wildlife biology before switching to a recreation and park management major, said the experience he’s gaining while working at Fort Kearny is “huge” for his career plan.
“It definitely opens a lot of doors,” he said. “It can continue to take you places.”
Long-term, the 26-year-old Grand Island Senior High School graduate has his sights set on a ranger job at a large national park outside Nebraska. He already has an interview lined up for a conservation job in Hawaii, where he lived before moving back to Nebraska to attend UNK.
“I can definitely thank this program for that,” Clement said.
Countless other Lopers can say the same thing.
STATE PARKS PIPELINE
UNK’s recreation, outdoor and event management program has been a feeder system for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission over the years, landing graduates jobs all over the Cornhusker State.
“UNK has been the school to go to for Game and Parks,” said Hunt, who graduated from the school in 1970, when it was known as Kearney State College.
Hunt began his studies in the pre-forestry program before earning a degree in biology. He planned to pursue a master’s degree, then a seasonal job at Windmill State Recreation Area near Gibbon changed his mind.
“I started working over at Windmill and I just fell in love with parks,” said Hunt, who served as assistant superintendent at Fort Kearny from 1972-82. He’s been the superintendent since.
He credits the quality of the program and leadership of longtime professor Marta Moorman with establishing the pipeline between UNK and Game and Parks.
UNK’s recreation, outdoor and event management program is unmatched in Nebraska, offering specialization options in recreation management, event management, natural resources and park management and outdoor pursuits.
The accessibility of internships at Fort Kearny and other parks only strengthens the relationship between the university and state commission.
“A lot of times that leads to full-time employment as soon as they’re done,” said Aric Riggins, a regional park superintendent for Nebraska Game and Parks.
Riggins started as a wildlife biology major with a minor in criminal justice before working two seasons at Fort Kearny during college.
“Gene steered me toward the parks instead of wildlife,” he said.
The reroute has worked out well for Riggins since he graduated from UNK in 2000. He’s been employed full time with the Game and Parks Commission since then, serving as superintendent at Red Willow Reservoir State Recreation Area near McCook before taking his current position last summer.
As a regional park superintendent, Riggins oversees 10 state recreation areas in southwest Nebraska, as well as Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park in North Platte.
Four employees under his supervision also came through UNK.
“We’ve relied really heavily on UNK and this program to get future employees,” Riggins said.
Laura Rose followed a similar path to her position as superintendent at Mormon Island State Recreation Area, located along the Platte River south of Grand Island.
She was interested in pre-veterinary studies, then switched to recreation and park management after landing a seasonal job at Fort Kearny.
“I think Fort Kearny is an excellent place to learn. It has a little bit of everything,” she said of the park and recreation area that features sandpit lakes for fishing and swimming, camping, nature and hiking/biking trails and the historic fort that protected travelers along the Oregon-California Trail, served as a base for Pony Express riders and the Pawnee Scouts and sheltered crews building the Union Pacific Railroad.
After graduating from UNK in 2003, Rose spent another 14 years at Fort Kearny before the superintendent position opened at Mormon Island last fall.
JOB DEMAND HIGH
For high school and college students interested in the outdoors, Rose says it’s a good time to consider UNK’s recreation, outdoor and event management program.
Historically, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s employee turnover rates have been low. However, that’s about to change.
According to a Game and Parks report, 22 percent of the agency’s 418 full-time employees are currently at or near retirement age and another 27 percent will be there within the next 10 to 15 years.
“There’s going to be a lot of jobs coming open within the next 15 years,” said Rose, adding that UNK can be a gateway to those positions.
“This is what they’re going to school for and we’d love to keep them in the state,” he said.
UNK graduates about 10 to 15 students from the recreation, outdoor and event management program each year in all areas of emphasis. This includes students who may be looking for careers with city recreational programs, YMCAs, camps and organizations such as the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts.
The major, Moorman said, tends to be one students discover after they enroll at UNK and realize it aligns perfectly with their passion for the outdoors.
“It’s a wonderful profession, that you get to help people enjoy themselves,” she said.
That’s what drew Riggins and other UNK graduates to the program.
“I enjoy what I do,” he said. “You’re working outside with people and you see something different every day. It’s very rewarding.”