Miranda Leconte can’t stand litterers. She’s irked by backpackers who camp in Desolation Wilderness without permits, and she’s got a lot to say to people who build fires there, despite the many warnings that it’s forbidden.
If she sounds like a stickler, it’s because she is, but for good reason – it’s her job. The 23-year-old Camino native just finished her first season as a U.S. Forest Service wilderness ranger, patrolling the 64,000 breath-taking acres of Desolation Wilderness area near Lake Tahoe and teaching people how to keep it clean.
Her environmental conservation crusade, much of which she documents on social media, has garnered the attention of 17,000 Instagram followers and some major outdoor gear companies. When she’s not out maintaining trails or restocking permit boxes, she’s most likely blogging about her work or striking a mountaintop pose for the camera.
“I realized that people didn’t really like me when I was in the Forest Service uniform – they just looked at me as someone telling them what do, and I didn’t really like that,” Leconte said. “There are these outdoor Instagrams that people just love, and I thought maybe I could do that. Maybe I could be the cool wilderness ranger – the one people felt they could ask questions of and learn more about.”
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The ranger job is a coveted one, as thousands of wilderness lovers apply every year. Leconte set her eyes on the position at age 19, first joining the service’s human resources department and then earning an environmental science degree to boost her knowledge about the wild. When the service finally put her on a crew and sent her out with a backpack full of work gear, she knew she was on the right track, she said.
Leconte at present is on medical leave from her ranger duties due to a heart condition that prevents her from performing manual labor and hiking for miles a day. But she’s still spreading the word about wilderness from home, she said. She paused while packing for a photo shoot in Iceland to talk to The Bee about tranquil places, rule breakers and getting caught in the rain.
Q: Before joining the forest service, what was your experience with the outdoors?
A: I had been RV camping with my family. We were always up in Tahoe and in the Sierra. I did get to know my surroundings pretty well, and I did start to appreciate it in my teen years. I knew campgrounds, and I thought that was all there was. I had no idea what wilderness was.
Q: What were your first few days on the job like?
A: I got hired on with the Lake Tahoe basin. I had been working at the Pacific Ranger station in Pollock Pines. This was a new station and a new boss. I basically already knew what I was doing, but I had to learn a little bit more about the Tahoe basin. I basically trained for a few hours in the morning, and then they put me out on the trail and I hiked with another ranger for six hours. We cleared the trail and did a lot of maintenance. The snowmelt was crazy, and the trails were covered with water and blow-down. We had to do a lot of work to make it safe for people.
Q: What inspires you to keep doing the work?
A: When I see somebody experience what true wilderness is for the first time, which happens a lot, just to see their reaction, every time, is priceless. Little kids will be running around and see there’s nobody here – there are animals, there are mountains, there’s water. It’s a real thing. There are still wild places. I just want to keep that going for as long as I can.
I love talking to people and helping them truly appreciate their surroundings and find out what they can do to keep it clean and protect it so they can play in the wilderness. My passion is helping others realize that they have a responsibility to respect the places they play in, just like me.
There’s something about a place with no roads, no structures, no mechanized anything. It’s really special. I think it’s something everybody needs a little of in their life to stay sane.
Q: What’s your favorite piece of wilderness?
A: Desolation Wilderness has been my backyard my whole life. I’ve worked so hard to protect that area for the last three years, I just feel a connection to it. If I’m inside the wilderness boundary I’m my best self, and I see that everyone else is their best self, too. It’s an incredible place.
Q: Have you ever felt afraid while you were working?
A: Those are emotions we are taught to listen to, and that happens often. One specific time I was with two other rangers heading into a work project one weekend. We got caught in a massive hailstorm which turned into a lightning storm. It was absolutely wild. It was a downpour. We were out on a ridge, which is the worst place to be. We had to get to shelter at a lower elevation. Everything we had was soaked. There was nothing to do but laugh.
Q: What are the biggest lessons you try to teach people about wilderness?
A: I like to teach people about leave no trace. About 90 percent of people I contact in the wilderness don’t know the first principle of leave no trace. They’re already out backpacking and using our wild lands and they don’t know anything about it. They think it’s about picking up garbage, and that’s good, too. But really the first principal is pack and prepare. They don’t have permits, they don’t know about the water sources. We heavily enforce the camping-100-feet-from-water rule, and many people don’t even know that exists. The other thing is campfire. They’ve been banned there since before I was born, but there are still fires every day.
I like to tell people why there are rules, rather than just tell them the rules. If I can tell them on a personal level how it affects them, it usually works.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: Usually when I’m working full time through the summer I don’t have a social life. I basically trade in my friends for trees. This summer, with me being on medical leave and needing to relax, my friendships have strengthened. But I keep wondering how much work I could be doing at work. There’s a balance to be found, and hopefully I’ll find it.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I know that I want to go back for rangering next season. That’s all that I have worked out at the moment, and I’m OK with that.