Biology alumnus Zachary Lunn doubles as park ranger and writer

Zachary Lunn teaches children about wildlife
Zachary Lunn teaches children about wildlife

Today, Zachary Lunn (class of 2016) is a Park Ranger with Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve, but his career path hasn’t been straightforward, nor is ranger the only "hat" he wears. Zachary served in the military, worked as editorial assistant for Pembroke Magazine, co-authored a research paper about box turtles, got married, and earned a graduate degree in creative writing. His writings, which include short stories and fiction, have appeared in SlateOxford American, and The Missouri Review, to name a few. In a recent interview, Zachary shared insights about his careers and offered advice to students:


How long have you been employed, and what are your responsibilities at Weymouth Woods?
I started working for North Carolina State Parks as a Park Ranger in August 2018 right after completing graduate school. I was first assigned to Lumber River State Park but since 2021 I have worked at Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve. My duties involve a broad range of responsibilities centered around the trifold mission of North Carolina State Parks: conservation, education, and recreation. I am responsible for park operations, which includes opening and closing gates; ensuring the facilities are maintained; staffing the visitor center; and assigning daily tasks to temporary employees. As a park ranger I am a law enforcement officer charged with enforcing the law, including park-specific rules and regulations. This enforcement is focused on protecting visitors and the natural and cultural resources of the park. I am the lead natural resources ranger at Weymouth Woods. This means I manage, organize, and participate in all resource management projects, such as prescribed fires, invasive species treatments, timber stand improvement, seed collection and dispersal, species monitoring, etc. I develop and lead educational programs for the public. I conduct professional development workshops for teachers and other rangers. I oversee all trail maintenance in the park. I also have special duties that contribute to NC State Parks as a whole division. I am the current chair of the “Interpretation and Education Council” for NC State Parks and serve as a BLS [Basic Life Support] Instructor for the agency.


What is your typical day like? 

My typical days include a little bit of everything. I will spend some time in the office answering emails, designing educational programs, and/or working on long-term projects with other staff members. Most days I am able to get outside and patrol the park by vehicle and on foot. I am out there to provide a law enforcement presence and keep an eye out for interesting natural resource occurrences or anything else of note. On some days I will lead a guided hike, interpreting the park’s unique resources for members of the public. Then I might bring a couple temporary employees out to conduct trail maintenance. If there is an ongoing special project I squeeze in time for that, too.


What skill sets, research experiences, and education helped you land the job at Weymouth Woods?

I believe my undergraduate education was the first step in getting hired. Very few park rangers are able to get hired without a bachelor’s degree, and I think majoring in the natural sciences made me a desirable candidate. I worked as a field research assistant with Dr. John Roe while at UNCP. This was a formative experience that provided invaluable experience in the discipline. Dr. Roe’s mentorship continues to this day. While in graduate school, I worked for a city park designing and conducting educational programs to the public. My strong communication skills, both oral and written, were a huge asset in the hiring process and should not be overlooked. My military experience did a lot for me as well—both concretely and intangibly.


What’s the best part about your job?

I love being a part of the community of land managers in the NC Sandhills. I take great pride in being knowledgeable about (1) the ecosystem and (2) the tools and techniques for good habitat and wildlife management. It is very satisfying knowing that my management actions benefit wildlife.


What advice would you give students who are interested in environmental careers?

Seek out research opportunities. They are all over the place—find them and apply. Field research in particular gives you a lot of experience that is tremendously helpful when trying to get your foot in the door. You can also look at internship programs with non-profits or government agencies that can give you similar experiences.


How did UNCP influence your career path?

My education at UNCP led me down two divergent paths. After the Army, I started at UNCP with the intention of attending medical school. My early Biology classes got me super interested in the subject, and researching with Dr. Roe made me sure I wanted to work in the field if I pursued a career in the natural sciences. And that’s where it ultimately led me. But at UNCP I also rekindled a love of literature and discovered a talent for writing fiction and poetry. This led me to a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing where I honed my craft and began to publish my work. I was funneled down both paths through my experiences at UNCP.


What are your long-term career plans?

Eventually, I hope to move up to a Park Superintendent position and have even more influence on natural resource management decisions. If I write a bestselling novel and can retire early to go fly fishing every day, I would take that, too.


Footnote: Zachary earned a MFA at North Carolina State University under the direction of novelist Jill McCorkle. His wife Blair is now a PhD candidate in English at UNC Greensboro, but they first met when both were in the MFA program. Zachary and Blair have two sons: Ethan (age 16) and Luke (age 3).