Within 30 years, according to the Census Bureau, more than half the nation's population will consist of people of color; about one-third will be Hispanic. Those demographic shifts will affect how parks are visited, valued and developed. But today, you'd never know: The visitors and staff of our national parks are about as diverse as your average 1960s country club. At least 80 percent of the agency's roughly 22,000 employees are white; for administrators, it's more like 85 percent (see graph, facing page). It's the same for park visitors. In 2013, national parks were visited 274 million times. But in a 2011 survey, Hispanics accounted for fewer than 10 percent of American visitors. Blacks made up just 7 percent, Asian-Americans 3 percent and Natives 1 percent.
The national park system was created to preserve our most iconic landscapes, but from the start, for better and worse, it also reflected the nation's character – including the discrimination prevalent at the time. Such fathers of conservation as Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot and John Muir held opinions that today we'd consider unabashedly racist; the national parks were, in part, envisioned as a refuge where white urban-dwellers could find respite from cities increasingly being transformed by immigration. Some parks had designated "white only" picnic areas until World War II. "Those concerns (of segregation and not being welcome in public places) don't simply vanish when the signs go away," says Alan Spears, director for cultural resources with the National Parks Conservation Association. "It takes generations for those memories of discrimination to work themselves out."
The Park Service first began to worry about diversity in 1962, when the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission realized that minorities visited national parks and forests at much lower rates than did whites. The early '60s "outdoorsy is sexy" movement that swept the nation – selling everything from cigarettes to adventure travel – apparently bypassed minorities. During the ensuing decades, the Park Service wrung its hands about its racial homogeneity in conferences and symposiums. In 1997, the agency's first (and only) black director, Robert Stanton, made "seeing the face of America in every park and every office of the NPS" his mantra. Over the next several years, the agency commissioned reports, assembled task forces, implemented diversity hiring initiatives – all to no avail.
As the Park Service heads toward its second century, it still hasn't made much progress. Even the agency's employees think it's falling down on the job. The 2013 "Best Places to Work in the Federal Government" survey placed it a dismal 258 out of 300 in how well its leaders "promote and respect diversity," with "diversity" here referring not just to race and ethnicity, but also to religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and so on. "We've had any number of successful initiatives," says David Vela, former associate director for human resources. "But we haven't sustained them. The needle hasn't moved much."
Jon Jarvis, NPS head since 2009, has been working hard to change the agency's priorities, putting "relevance, diversity and inclusion" at the top of the list. That reflects national priorities as well; President Obama issued a 2011 executive order promoting diversity and inclusion across all federal agencies.
But the Park Service is a gigantic entity, made up of what veteran employees call "400 little fiefdoms," each with its own, entrenched culture. Jarvis acknowledges his "limited power to turn this battleship." And the agency can't do it alone – "it's a very, very slow cultural change that's going to take decades," says Roberto Moreno, founder of a program that brings minority families to national parks. "It's not just the NPS' job, it's the whole outdoor community's job to change the social context of our entire industry" – an industry that all too often depicts only whites in outdoors settings.
Still, Jarvis is trying. A Call to Action, issued in 2011 and updated annually, is Jarvis' blueprint for renewing the agency's commitment to stewardship and getting the public more engaged in parks. Noting that millennials will soon eclipse baby boomers in purchasing power and social influence, Jarvis says he's targeting the 18- to 35-year-old market. "They don't see diversity the way we do," he notes. "They grew up in multicultural families, have friends from different groups – that's just how it is for them."
The plan, which includes a promise to fully represent the nation's ethnically and culturally diverse communities, remains a work in progress, but Park Service leaders point to specific actions now being taken, such as contracting with minority-owned businesses and updating training programs.
Yet getting a handle on the agency's progress is like nailing Jell-O to a tree. An enormous stack of reports and PowerPoint presentations has been churned out over the past few decades, but coming up with hard numbers isn't always easy. The Park Service doesn't track visitor race and ethnicity, instead relying on academic partners like the University of Idaho to obtain data. Nor does the agency know whether it is meeting its stated goal of giving 10,000 white and minority kids per year a "multi-year progression of experiences" leading toward employment. "Our metrics/measurement system is being redesigned currently," the agency's chief spokeswoman, April Slayton, emailed High Country News. "We will have more accurate numbers when that is complete."
Although the number of minorities who work for the agency remains disappointingly low, a young man named Vidal Carrillo offers some hope. On a July afternoon in Rocky Mountain National Park, the 20-year-old seasonal firefighter, well over 6 feet tall, stands in a grove of ponderosas talking to a Boy Scout group about working for the Park Service. The otherwise rambunctious kids, mostly black and Hispanic, listen quietly, captured by his serious yet humble demeanor.
Carrillo was born in inner-city L.A. When his brother and nephew got into gangs and drugs, his mother sent the two boys to Eagle Rock, an alternative high school in Estes Park, Colorado, aimed at troubled teenagers. Carrillo, then 15, came along to support them. Eagle Rock offered programs that took students to Indian reservations to build housing, and also brought them into Rocky Mountain National Park to work.
"I had never been in the mountains before, only in a city park with pigeons and squirrels," he says. "Camping seemed so remote. We didn't even know this was here." On a wilderness course in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, he decided that the outdoors provided the respite he needed from the turmoil of urban life. "All my troubles go away when I step out on the trail. I feel absolute tranquility." He worked a variety of summer jobs at Rocky Mountain National Park while going to school, but always had his eye on the fire program. When an opening came up, he snagged it; he's now in his third season as a Hotshot.
After graduating from Eagle Rock in 2012, Carrillo is majoring in biology and pre-med at Colorado State University and hopes to go to medical school in Cuba through a program for low-income Hispanics. Ultimately, he'd like to return to the West and treat injured firefighters. But he's paid a personal cost for the choices he's made. "My family back in L.A. doesn't understand what I like about it," he says. "They had a bitter feeling, like I was abandoning them."
People like Carrillo can serve as excellent role models, encouraging youth to consider Park Service careers. "It's good for kids to see someone in a national park who looks like them," says Spencer. "It opens their awareness to think this is a job I could do, this is something that could be for me."
The agency is now trying to employ more minority youth in parks through several programs, most in partnership with universities or nonprofit groups like the Student Conservation Association. The Historically Black Colleges and Universities Initiative gives students summer work experience in parks, and is being expanded to Hispanic and tribal colleges. The Cultural Resources Diversity Internship Program, begun in 1999, has provided internships to 260 students from various cultural and ethnic groups; seven have been hired permanently.
More recent efforts include Pro-Ranger, begun in 2010 to help replace retiring law enforcement rangers. At two universities with large black or Hispanic populations, students receive specialized training and admission into the Park Service law enforcement academy. So far, 36 have gotten full-time jobs. "It's a good program," says Hayley Mortimer, vice president of the Center for Park Management. "But it needs to be improved and taken to scale."
The same can be said for the National Park Service Academy, now in its fourth year, which annually serves about 125 diverse college students. The program aims to help students obtain a parks job through workshops, internships and mentoring. So far, roughly 25 have gotten seasonal employment, with one hired permanently. (See sidebar.)
"The expansion of different types of academic internships is where part of the future lies," says Nina Roberts, associate professor of recreation, parks and tourism at San Francisco State University. "But don't promise jobs that don't exist; there has to be a light at the end of the job tunnel."
And that's the catch: Last year, thanks to shrinking budgets, the National Park Service offered just 425 full-time openings nationwide. Such intense competition, along with the fact that park managers often like to hire from within, makes it even harder to find a foothold: Less than 20 percent of recent new hires were minorities. Byzantine personnel systems and preference points given to veterans also make it harder for managers to tap promising young people. "For groups that have been traditionally under-represented in the NPS workforce," writes Slayton, "the ability to find full-time employment has greatly diminished." Still, opportunities may increase over the next few years, as roughly a quarter of agency staffers begin retiring.
It should be noted that outdoors-loving students can find work in other places besides parks. "I hear NPS people saying, 'Why are we working so hard to bring in these interns when we don't have the jobs?' " says Roberts. "That's so selfish." She advocates educating kids about opportunities on other public lands, like national forests and wildlife refuges, or with park partner groups. It might not be the dreamed-of job at the Grand Canyon, Roberts says. "But if you've got passion for public lands, you can start somewhere."