Sampson County has welcomed two new rangers in the past year to fill two vacant assistant county ranger positions, roles county ranger Grant Jones called the lifeblood and the face of the local office.
Benjamin Watkins and Roy Jones have been assigned to the North Carolina Forest Service office in Clinton, Watkins having been hired at the end of last year, and Sampson native Jones taking the other position Aug. 13. Both rangers have received fire suppression training as well as incident command training through the N.C. Forest Service. This week, they are attending the Regional Fire School for even more training.
As assistant county rangers, or ACRs, both men are expected to serve in multiple roles, functioning as initial attack incident commanders along with other incident positions for emergency response on forest fires and other natural disasters. Watkins and Jones also will perform a multitude of forest management duties, including collecting forest measurements, inspecting tree planting, site preparation work, measuring areas for cost-share purposes and other related work.
There are just six people in the Sampson County Forest Service office, including one ranger, two assistant county rangers, two FFEOs (firefighter equipment operators) and one temporary smoke chaser position, which is currently vacant.
“We only have six individuals, so the assistant county rangers are my right hand men,” said Jones. “They’re the ones who have to get the work done. They’re very important.”
The ACRs are also responsible for investigating all forest fires within the county and ensuring forest practice guidelines are followed to protect water quality. Additionally, the assistant rangers will conduct fire prevention and forest management programs for schools, civic groups and others.
Jones said both ACRs separated themselves from the pack when the positions were being filled, and he hopes they will continue to meet and exceed expectations.
“The number of applications was numerous for both positions,” said Jones. “We do have to rank (the candidates) and previous experience and the way they conduct themselves in the interviews is very important.”
Watkins moved to Sampson County after being hired by the Forest Service. Originally from Burlington, he and his wife, Chelsea now live in the Turkey area. Jones, originally from Sampson, moved back to the Newton Grove area after living in Raleigh and Virginia for the previous five years.
Watkins is a graduate of Western Carolina University, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in natural resource conservation management, with a concentration in forestry, and a minor in geography. He worked as a temporary employee with the N.C. Forest Service on a hand crew fighting wildfires in the western part of the state while studying at Western Carolina.
Jones, an N.C. State University grad, earned a Bachelor of Science in forest management, minoring in environmental science. He worked for a timber company as a timber buyer for a year before being hired on with the Forest Service.
The ACR position is the starting point for many, where would-be rangers learn policies and procedures, as well as the technical aspects of forest management and fighting wildfires.
“It is a two-year training progression, at best,” Jones said. “It’s a stepping stone for a county ranger position.”
Jones also noted that turnover is a big part of the N.C. Forest Service, with many taking various positions throughout the state and eventually working their way back to a position closer to their hometown. While some ACRs will settle, others will ultimately transfer. “It’s probably going to be like that forever,” Jones noted.
Both Jones and Watkins have a shared love for working outdoors and assisting landowners with all their forest management needs. While they have already been hard at work fulfilling N.C. Forest Service duties — meeting residents of Sampson in the process — both said they look forward to continuing in that effort.
They are still working, learning on the job, as is the case with young assistant county rangers, Jones said.
“They’re doing fine, as expected,” said Jones, noting it is a constant learning progression even for the most grizzled forestry veterans. “I’m still going to training classes and I’ve been here 10 years. It’s not a role you start playing without going through a continual learning curve.”
Anyone with questions about forest management, forestry concerns or other related concerns, can contact the N.C. Forest Service office in Sampson County at 910-592-4515.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at email@example.com.