Beach Access and Park Issues
November 22, 2011

Award-winning Ocracoke ranger is known for
his boundless energy and gregarious nature

By CONNIE LEINBACH

Ocracoke park ranger supervisor Kenneth C. Ballance never expected to be honored with a national award for excellence in the field of rangering.

Kenny, as everyone on Ocracoke knows him, received the National Park Service’s Southeast Region Harry Yount Park Ranger Award earlier this month. It’s a distinction awarded one ranger yearly in each of the seven regions of the National Park Service.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” he said in a recent interview about that day in the Manteo office.  “In walked my supervisor, other officials, and family members. I thought, ‘Uh, oh. Something bad happened.’”

Instead, he was surprised with an award given in honor of the very first NPS park ranger.

“It’s a great honor to get the Harry Yount Award,” he said.

Kenny, whose ready smile, boundless energy, and gregarious nature have made him an integral and cherished member of the Ocracoke community, is modest about the honor, saying he hasn’t accomplished all that he has wanted to as he looks toward retirement next October.

“He’s the go-to person for park issues on Ocracoke,” notes Paul Stevens, the chief ranger for the Outer Banks Group of parks and Kenny’s boss, as well as the person who nominated him for the award.  “Superintendent Mike Murray relies heavily on Kenny for his knowledge of the island.”

Stevens explained that Kenny’s career path is not typical of park rangers.

“It’s unusual to have a ranger start out as a seasonal employee and work his way up to district manager in one park as Kenny has,” Stevens said, adding that most rangers who get to supervisory positions have to transfer to another park.

Kenny says he had no desire to ever transfer from this warm, seashore community, but he hoped he would still become a district supervisor.

His position as a life-long resident of Ocracoke has enabled his numerous accomplishments in 35 years of keeping the peace, aiding visitors, and developing this most southern portion of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

He has assisted in the creation of the bike lanes on Highway 12, the sidewalks in the village, and the expansion of the water treatment plant, resulting in more water for housing development.

Helping to coordinate the installation of new bridges in 2008 along Highway 12 was a big project.

He works closely with the local fishermen to support their interests.

One of his chief loves is the Ocracoke pony herd, as they are a main tourist attraction.  They number 16 now, and Kenny is working toward bringing in a chestnut stallion with the right bloodline from the Corolla herd in the spring to build the herd to at least 25.

“One of the things I’ve wanted to do was create more parking at the lighthouse,” he said. “We have 1,000 visitors a day there.”

He also would have liked to have seen a public boardwalk encircling the harbor.

Every day on the job is different and varied.

“I like to go out in the field for a few hours every day,” he said in his distinctive Ocracoke brogue, as he drove his truck to the northern end of the island to patrol the 13-mile beach.

“We’re on the beach constantly,” he said, making sure beach users obey the rules and overseeing the wildlife management.

Daily, he checks in at the NPS Visitor Center, the ferry docks, the NPS campground, all of the NPS housing.

“And I have lots of meetings—the Ocracoke Civic and Business Association, the N.C. Department of Transportation, the Ferry Division,” he said.

Since the federal government owns 90 percent of the land on the island, there’s a lot of ground to cover, and the Park Service interfaces with many agencies and groups.

“What’s so special about Ocracoke is the fact that the government owns the beach,” he observed. “It’s one of the few natural beaches we have and what brings tourists.”

Park Service personnel respond to all emergencies on the beach.  Drownings are especially stressful and heartbreaking, and Kenny recalled a time 18 years ago when a father and his two sons were swimming at South Point.

The oldest child, aged 7, got caught in a rip current, Kenny explained, and the father went in to save him.

“Both drowned and left the other son, a 5-year-old, alone on the beach,” he said. “We had no way of knowing how to get in touch with the mother.  We kept the child for a weekend in various homes on the island before his family could get here,” he said. “It was the longest weekend of my life. I often wonder about that boy.”

A level-one law enforcement ranger, Kenny wears a sidearm and a Taser. Fortunately, he has never had to fire his gun, but he has come close.

Once, some rowdy fishermen docking at the harbor ended up in a fight. One man pulled a knife on another.

“I was there and about to pull my gun,” Kenny said. “It got to the point where I told the man, ‘If you don’t put that knife away, I’m going to have to shoot you.’”

The man saw reason and calmed down.

Ironically, being a park ranger was the farthest thing from Kenny’s mind after he graduated from college in 1977  with a degree in psychology and returned to Ocracoke.

He was hoping to get a job working in the psychology field somewhere, but life had other plans.

“I was working at the Pony Island Restaurant,” he said. “My brother and cousin told me there was a position open in the Park Service. I didn’t want to interview for it.”

But they talked him into going for an interview.

“I told Jim, the supervisor at the time, that I hope I don’t get the job,” he says with a laugh. “It paid $3.19 per hour and it was collecting fees at the campground. That interview was on a Sunday and the following Thursday he hired me,” he said.

Nevertheless, he has found that his psychology degree has indeed served him well.

“I use it every day on the job,” he said. “It’s the way you handle people.”

A compassionate soul, Kenny has through the years been the ranger who comforts family members when tragedy strikes, while his co-workers handle the fallout.

His people skills were especially needed on July 4, 2009, when fireworks in a truck at the ferry docks exploded, killing four of the fireworks company’s workers.

“I knew all of them,” he said, with a sigh. “I held one of the men in my arms as he was dying.  One of my co-workers asked me why I wasn’t helping elsewhere, and I told him, 'No. You don’t understand.  I have to be here for this man.’ My co-worker understood after that.”

Amazingly, Kenny himself escaped serious injury or even death that morning.

“I was heading down to the dock to oversee the unloading of the fireworks when I stopped to answer a phone call in the office,” he said, shaking his head.  “If I hadn’t done that, I would have been right there when the explosion happened.”

Beach access and the pending new off-road vehicle plan are another aspect of his work.

By early next spring, the new plan will be in place, and those who want to drive on the beach will have to pay a fee, which is something that has been controversial.

But Kenny thinks the plan is fair -- or “fahr,” as he says in his brogue.

“The superintendent has been very fair to all who want a slice of the pie—drivers, pedestrians, and environmentalists.”

Charging fees for beach access is a sign of the times.

“We have beaches north and south of us collecting fees,” he said. “People are going to have to adapt.”

When this unfolds, Kenny will no doubt have to use his outgoing personality and psychology skills with unhappy visitors.

But he’s okay with that.

“I love to be out in the field,” he says. “I’m a people person.”  


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