South Walton?s Resident Ranger

South Walton’s Resident RangerPatrick Hartsfield Aims to Educate and Entertain Visitors at Grayton Beach State Park

By Christy Kearney

Acasual drive down the scenic 30A corridor in South Walton County turned into a full-time job and lifelong passion for Grayton Beach State Park’s Patrick Hartsfield. As the park services specialist, Hartsfield is a champion for the local environment, helping to protect the park’s 2,200 acres and teaching others to treasure the area’s unique ecosystem.

After serving in the U.S. Navy and working in the hospitality industry, the Leeds, Ala., native made his move to the Emerald Coast to manage a hotel in Panama City Beach in the mid-1990s. A serendipitous turn into Grayton Beach State Park in 1999 changed his path forever. While checking out the park with a friend, Hartsfield saw a sign posted for part-time help. Nine years later, Hartsfield is affectionately known as “the ranger” by many area residents and is ardent about his role with the state park system.

Emerald Coast Magazine’s Christy Kearney recently sat down with Hartsfield at Grayton Beach State Park to learn more about the park and its popular ranger.

EC: What does it take to run a park such as Grayton Beach?

PH: Like every job, it takes patience. You also have to have an outgoing personality. It’s one of those jobs you do because you love doing it. The majority of people in park service, both in Florida and nationally, will tell you, “You don’t go into it for the pay; you go into it for the love of the job.” A few years back I was walking through the park and a bald eagle flew over Western Lake and landed in a tree. I knew I couldn’t do anything else. My office is the outdoors, and I don’t think I could be cooped up in an office.

EC: What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

PH: Working with the volunteers and the educational training. It’s rewarding when you see guests experiencing what we call the “Real Florida,” and they get it. When I give school and tour groups a nature walk or talk about endangered sea turtles, I enjoy seeing the look in their eyes and the light bulb going off. I’ve reached them.

EC: How is the park active in the preservation of the Gulf Coast’s environment?

PH: We monitor endangered sea turtles and endangered nesting shore birds. We also have a forest area where we monitor other endangered plants and animals. We do prescribed burning to restore habitat and keep down the possibility of wildfires. Another part of our job is to protect the dunes and educate people about the dunes.

EC: How can locals take advantage of what your park has to offer?

PH: The locals really do take advantage of the park. For people in other parts of the county or neighboring counties, there is so much to do here, and we’re within a short drive. When Mom and Dad have a chance, they can come down here with the kids and do our hiking trails. We have camping and canoes on Western Lake, a rare coastal dune lake, and access to the Gulf of Mexico. Across the street in our forest property, we have a 4.5-mile hiking/biking trail. Our nature trails are interpretive trails with rest areas, signs and displays to educate guests on the plants and animals of the area.

EC: What can guests expect when they visit the park?

PH: If you love nature of any kind, you need to come down and experience it. You never know what you are going to see. In my years here, I’ve learned that you don’t look for nature. If you look for it, you are never going to see it. The moment you stop looking for it, it’s like your mind clears, and it’s all around you.