Parks for all?

The National Park Service struggles to connect with a changing America.

  • Axel Martinez, left, his uncle, Gabriel Meraz, and cousin Esau Meraz visited Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado last July with a Hispanic church group hosted by Camp Moreno, a program that introduces urban minorites to public lands. The weekend-long outings serve as a crash course in camping for kids and parents alike, says founder Roberto Moreno.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Cliff Spencer, superintendent of Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park, is one of only a few high-ranking African-Americans in the Park Service.

    Andrew Cullen
  • African-American tourists like Daneisha Hazard, center bottom, are scarce at remote national parks such as Mesa Verde, despite decades of effort by the Park Service to encourage diversity among its staff and visitors.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Brothers Eduardo, left, and Steven Mendoza search a stream for insects and fish eggs in Rocky Mountain National Park during a weekend trip with Camp Moreno.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Camp Moreno, founded by Roberto Moreno, has brought about 1,400 kids and their families to seven Western national parks since 2009. "Suddenly they realize there's a bigger world out there; they understand we need to preserve these public lands," he says.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Eduardo Aguilara places luminarias at the Lands End Labyrinth in Golden Gate National Recreation Area outside of San Francisco, one of the nation's first urban parks.

    Jim M. Goldstein
  • The Mendoza family – from left, Eduardo, Steven, Adrian, Diana and Ricardo – in front of their tent while camping in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park with Camp Moreno, an organization that encourages urban minority families to visit public lands.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Mesa Verde National Park superintendent Cliff Spencer stands in front of Spruce Tree House, a popular site in the park. Minorities are under-represented both in the Park Service's workforce and among its visitors.

    Andrew Cullen

Cliff Spencer knows what it's like to be singled out. The tall, slim 54-year-old is superintendent of Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park, and one of just a handful of African-Americans in the upper echelons of the National Park Service. Some years ago, when Spencer ran Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park, he strolled through the visitor center on the way to his office. When he reached his desk, a ranger was on the line: "Cliff, some people want to meet you." It was a black family from Atlanta, visiting several parks on their way to the Grand Canyon. "We've never seen a black person in uniform in any of the parks we've visited," they told him. "Do you mind if we take a picture of you?"

Spencer understood: It was probably the only such photo they'd get. In his 30-year career, Spencer has gotten to know many major Western parks and monuments, including Lake Mead, Point Reyes, White Sands, Petrified Forest and now Mesa Verde. But no matter where he's gone, brown-skinned rangers and tourists have been scarce. Even as the nation becomes increasingly diverse, park visitors and staff remain overwhelmingly white. Spencer's rise at the National Park Service is one of the agency's success stories, but also highlights its struggle to reach more minorities.

"There were two things I knew growing up," Spencer says. "I really loved the outdoors, and there was a whole country out there to see, and I wanted to go." As a child in inner-city L.A., Spencer went to summer camps in Griffith Park and discovered that archery, horseback riding and hiking were more fun than hanging out on the street. He attended college at California State, Northridge, majored in recreation administration, and got chosen for a program that gave minority students a chance to work at the nearby Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

If anyone understands the importance of having Americans of all races appreciating public lands, it's Spencer. "I would love to get to the time," he says, shaking his head, "when a black ranger is not a big deal, not cause for a double take." At Mesa Verde, he's reached out to nearby communities of color – the Navajo, Southern Utes and Ute Mountain Utes on whose ancestral lands the park sits. Tribal representatives helped design the new visitor center, a handful of Native interpreters guide tourists, and Native students have opportunities to intern. And yet Spencer, as the busy overseer of the nation's largest archaeological preserve, seldom writes "increase diversity" on his daily to-do list. "I think about it occasionally," he says, "but there are just so many other things going on. That's not an excuse, but I don't think I'm doing a very good job of promoting it."

Unfortunately, parks and other public lands are facing an array of challenges, and without increased support from citizens, these lands may be in jeopardy. "If Congress decides that it doesn't want national parks, they will go away," warns John Reynolds, who spent 36 years as a Park Service planner and regional director. Just last summer, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., suggested "removing" less-visited parks and putting new parks under private management. During last fall's federal shutdown, states like Utah paid for operations at some national parks, fueling calls from some locals for complete control. In March, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to gut the Antiquities Act, which several presidents have used to protect lands that later became national parks, including Grand Canyon and Grand Teton. And underfunding remains a chronic problem – the agency's budget doesn't even keep up with inflation, and it staggers under a nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog.

Given these threats, "we can't allow millions of people, generations of people, to not experience parks and to have no connection to them," says Spencer. "When those people get into positions where they'll influence policy and hold the purse strings, they won't understand what parks are and how important they are."

Thus, the Park Service's diversity dilemma. Despite years of rhetoric about the importance of the issue, the agency's on-the-ground actions have failed to keep pace. In 2016, the Park Service will celebrate its centennial, and the stakes have never been higher. "Some of the things we are seeing now are symptoms of waning relevancy," says agency director Jon Jarvis. "The flattening of our budget, sequestration cuts, the political pressures on the Park Service to allow everything from extractive usage to more motorized recreation. Rather than continuing to treat the symptoms, we need to go for the cure – and make that connection with all people."

Today, a handful of pioneering urban parks, such as Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area in Massachusetts, and Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, are using innovative programs to reach out to under-represented communities. Can they lead the rest of the massive park system into the future and help a new, more diverse generation find relevance in America's "Best Idea" – before it's too late?

Dennis R Brownridge
Dennis R Brownridge Subscriber
May 15, 2014 12:45 PM
This is a very important story! Having taken diverse groups of young people into remote public lands for decades, I'm convinced that both problems--the under-representation of non-Euro ethnicities and the declining proportion of youths--are primarily cultural. I've surveyed people in detail and have heard many anecdotes like those in your article. We live in a noisy, domineering global culture that is oppressively urban, materialistic, and conformist, glorifying commercial entertainment, sports, popular music, fashion, electronics, wealth, religion, superficial celebrities, constant stimulation, and instant gratification. It's difficult for a person of any background to escape such socialization. The real, natural world we so long inhabited, with its quiet freedoms, has become alien to most people, shunned and feared even by those who may visit the urbanized areas of our parks, earbuds inserted.
Robert L Martindale
Robert L Martindale
May 17, 2014 02:54 PM
Louis F Good
Louis F Good Subscriber
May 20, 2014 06:56 PM
Among the many questionable items presented as facts here is the make-up of the NPS workforce. Employees are asked in surveys, not required, to state their ethnicity or race. Many decline to do so, particularly minorities, because they historically distrust the federal government. In my 23 years with the agency I saw this happen time and time again in such parks as Hawaii Volcanos, Big Bend and Glen Canyon. Hawaiians, Mexican Americans and Native Americans historically do not trust the government and they have very good reasons not to do so. They'd ask why the information was needed, think the request was stupid at best, and then most would decline to answer.

Bob Stanton did make diversity in the workforce a priority, but he wanted the national figures to be used in every park which was a recipe for failure. Regionally the NPS does OK. The southwest has more Hispanics and Native Americans than other areas of the country, the east and southeast more African Americans, west coast more Asians, Hawaii more Hawaiians, etc.

Jarvis may be trying but, if he is, he's not trying very hard. His "Call to Action", at last count, had over 35 goals so the NPS can always point to a desired "goal" in response to questions. Then state how many meetings they've held on the issue under discussion. But not many results.

The media needs to stop taking at face value what the NPS says and start looking where they spend their funding. Way, way too much is spent in central offices in such places as Washington and San Francisco for a bloated bureaucracy that produces very little for the money spent, hand wringing over diversity being a good example, and way, way too little is spent in the field areas which is where it should be spent. The NPS is in a world of hurt as they approach their 100th anniversary and, unfortunately, much of the damage is self-inflicted. If Jarvis thinks diversity of the work-force and visitation is currently the most serious problem facing the agency, he needs to get out of DC more often and face reality.
Alexander Clayton
Alexander Clayton Subscriber
May 20, 2014 08:18 PM
We need to get more kids in general out to various parks, period, and teach them about nature and the fact that there is a great wide world out there for them to explore beyond cyberspace, including our incredible national parks. Back in the early '80s, we had a week of 'outdoor school' in 5th grade where we got to stay in the local mountains, and that was a great experience that, unfortunately, no longer happens in public schools. Unless kids grow up in families (or with friends, like I did) where they are encouraged to really get outdoors, how are they to know what's out there for them?

And the whole idea of the commons, of which the national and other public parks are a part, is being eroded across America, as evidenced by many proposals to sell them to corporations to run for profit. Kids are taught to be consumers at an early age, to mistrust any public entity, and to fear the 'other', be that people, places or things. It's a sad state of affairs, but luckily there are many individuals and groups committed to getting our young people outdoors to appreciate the glorious world we inhabit.
Louis F Good
Louis F Good Subscriber
May 21, 2014 05:14 PM
I want to clarify my comment above about "questionable items being presented as facts" in this story. It is not aimed at the author but rather at the Park Service's statements in response to her questions. It is those responses that are questionable, not the author's reporting on them. I want to make that clear.
Richard Schaffer
Richard Schaffer Subscriber
May 23, 2014 08:51 PM
National Parks are changing yet so is America's Demographic. Saguaro National Park, where I used to work, employs a Ranger to work with the local schools in Tucson to take the Park to them and to invite them out for field trips. Many urban National Parks have programs to bring local citizens in, including youth and seniors.
America's National Parks include our most spectacular lands and Civil War Battlefields which must be protected and preserved so our children will see our beauty and our history just as we do today. I hope that our Congress and States will increase funding for these lands, while the cost to visit them will remain low so most all of out citizens and tourists can visit.

Dick Schaffer
National Park Transportation Scholar
Saguaro National Park- 2005/2006
Dawn Boulware
Dawn Boulware Subscriber
Jun 04, 2014 11:10 AM
We were in Zion National Park on the Sunday of this past Memorial Day weekend. The diversity in the park - not only the day trippers but those in the campgrounds - was incredible! There were lots of folks having a wonderful time enjoying the park. Zion's geographical location (close to Las Vegas, NV) I think lends to attracting diverse visitors. Perhaps those parks near cities can create a community outreach program. Engaging urbanites is a win-win situation.
Howard Ahmanson
Howard Ahmanson
Jun 11, 2014 05:35 PM
It's a shame that the proper appreciation of nature seems to be a white "thang." I'd like to revive the FDR era Civilian Conservation Corps, among other things.
Brian Kenner
Brian Kenner Subscriber
Jun 24, 2014 02:49 PM
I have to agree with Mr. Good, particularly when he talks of the NPS continuing to build it's central office bureaucracy at the expense of essential park positions. The NPS has become very much a command-and-control agency where the central offices dictate to the program managers in the field. This seems to be a backlash to the old "fiefdom" days of past superintendents, but we now seem to have a lot of leaderless parks, where the superintendent cannot make the most basic decision without getting the OK from a central office. In turn, central offices make major decisions affecting parks without even consulting the superintendents or park staff. Perhaps this comes from too many superintendents being chosen for qualities unrelated to understanding of NPS law and policy or leadership capability. You need only look at how the NPS fares in the OPM Employee Viewpoint Survey conducted across the federal government for the past few years to see how the agency employees view leadership. A clear problem is apparent in those surveys, and yet the NPS seems unwilling to recognize it, much less try to address it.

Further, it is fruitless for the NPS, or any government agency to attempt to make their workforce reflect the racial makeup of the general population. The problem is more complex. For instance, there are many parks in many geographical areas where certain minorities are absent from the local population. When the agencies entice minorities to take jobs in these areas, they often don't last because they feel isolated, or it's just not where they want to be. Having a revolving door on some of these positions does not contribute to an effective operation. Too much time and effort is spent on training people who don't want to be there. Also, for many of the critical job categories (biology, ecology, etc.) for the parks, the graduates coming out of universities don't reflect the general population. Thus, the NPS is trying to take a simplistic approach to a greater issue, with often unintended and negative results.

Also, when we talk about attracting a diverse population to the parks, let's first look at economics. Minorities at the bottom of the economic scale cannot afford to travel to distant parks or even pay the increasing entrance fees. I would argue the real problem is economic rather than race. We have to raise up the economic level of the lower end of the population, which is over-represented by minorities. 0nce people have a better economic situation, they are more able to partake of the benefits available in society, including parks. I see more blacks in parks today, but they seem to be more middle class or upper middle class. I think the same was true for groups in the lower economic class in the past---immigrants like the Irish, Jews, etc. Their investment in the parks came from rising up in economic class and the resultant ability to partake---not from some government program intended to make them appreciate what they couldn't afford. There was a time when many people questioned whether this country should have an Irish Catholic president. That question died out when the Irish reached the middle class and thus became fully incorporated into the American fabric. 0ther minorities need an economic boost to attain the same incorporation. The increasing gap between rich and poor in this country is the real problem.

It is also interesting that as we seek to increase diversity in parks, as Mr. Good says, there is no decline in park use. And yet the NPS is actively seeking to increase support from donors (primarily rich white people and corporations) and doesn't do anything to reduce what is basically a subsidization of the tourism industry that brings groups of foreigners to our national parks at the expense of US citizens, who pay for the parks. One need only go to Yellowstone in the summer and you will see large numbers of minority visitors. Unfortunately, they are tour groups bussed through the park, coming from Japan, the Middle East and other countries. By supporting this tourism the NPS is limiting US citizens and allowing impacts from overuse. I don't think many people who have visited Yellowstone multiple times over the past 20-30 years will say that crowding or the visitor experiences has improved.

I'm not arguing against bringing minority kids into the parks, or seeking to hire minorities, but we have to look at the issue in all it's complexity and come up with much smarter strategies. For one thing, I find younger NPS employees, much like surveys show with millennials in general, reject the "check-a-box" ethnicity identification so important to the bean counters. They see that as divisive. They are far beyond the boomers in how they view race, and they see no reason to be constrained by what they consider artificial categories. They see race as an outdated, insignificant idea, and instead embrace the complex mix of who they are. I think a lot of the hand-wringing about diversity is a remnant of the sixties, and is irrelevant to the people who will soon be leading our nation. I certainly hope so.
Wayne L Hare
Wayne L Hare Subscriber
Jun 27, 2014 12:18 PM, this story was actually about ethnic diversity in the national parks. Sure, there are lots of OTHER NPS issues that could have been reported on. But this one reported on diversity. It's strange, but consistent, that whenever a conversation is about race, people - and I'm assuming people of pallor - want to the conversation to be about ANYTHING....SOMETHING else. Sorry. I have no idea what "central office bureaucracy", for instance, has to do with this story. Nor is the lack of power of superintendents anything that I, as a long term NPS employee ever witnessed. Indeed, I never saw any surveys where we employees checked any boxes. Likewise I have no idea what the election of an Irish American president has to do with this story either. Or pretty much any of the other points that this story "should" have been about. Sorry folks. This story is about the thing you hate to talk about. Race.

Jon Jarvis didn't say specifically that diversity is the most important issue facing the Park Service. He said he has been working hard to put "relevance, diversity and inclusion" at the top of the list of the agency's priorities. So you think that if the parks are not relevant to a majority of Americans, that funding and support to address the myriad of other problems - anything but race - will somehow magically be forthcoming? If you want the American people to be relevant to parks and support funding, don't you think the parks will need to be relevant to the American people? That issue of relevancy and support is the entire core of this story. No, Jon Jarvis doesn't think that "diversity of the work-force and visitation is currently the most serious problem facing the agency" as one reader wrote and that "Jarvis needs to spend more time out of DC". I suspect that Jon Jarvis DOES think that the agency has a crap-load of very long term, high priority problems that will NEVER get addressed unless there is an increase of relevancy of parks to the majority of American people. And the skin color of the majority of American people will very soon be brown.

It really does not matter if an EVER INCREASING percentage of an EVER DECREASING group of people are keeping visitation numbers high. If the emerging majority is not connected to parks and not supportive of parks, the multitude of problems that so many of you are concerned about (and give a higher priority to than relevance to the American people) will not get funded and will not go away. High visitation (by white people) does not magically transfer into a high level of support from the American people. For example, there is no shortage of violent white supremacist groups. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, who tracks these things, those groups have approximately quadrupled since we elected a black president. But that doesn't mean that even though there is an increase of racists, that violent racism is generally supported by the American people. Yes, parks have high visitation. No, parks are not enjoying increased support among the American people. Especially the emerging majority. NOW do you get it?

And as an aside, I do get tired of the same old saw that minorities are just dying to visit parks, but just do not have the money. Yes, blacks in particular are over-represented in circles of poverty. But yes, plenty of us have plenty of spare cash. Have you really not noticed that there is a large and strong black middle class now? We've been around for quite a while. No, this is not an issue of class. Yes, this is an issue of race.

And again, it is of zero significance that parks such as Yellowstone have a large diversity of visitors from foreign countries. "One need only go to Yellowstone in the summer and you will see large numbers of minority visitors. Unfortunately, they are tour groups bussed through the park, coming from Japan, the Middle East and other countries." We are not talking about ethnic diversity here for the mere sake of diversity. We are talking about the political and financial support of public lands that can ONLY come from the American people. We appreciate the tourist dollars that come from our vast number of Middle Eastern guest. But their support of American public lands is completely and totally irrelevant. Do you seriously not understand that?

No, the NPS is not trying to 'force' any type of particular ethnic make up within their workforce. It is as illegal to discriminate against white people as it is against black people. What the NPS IS trying to do is present the relevancy...the BIRTHRIGHT, if you will....the historical participation....of public lands to ALL Americans. That's pretty different than 'forcing' a specific racial makeup to be involved in something that they have never had any relationship with.

No, the Park Service is not trying to court wealthy white donors. Government agencies are prevented by law from accepting donations. Try donating a dollar to the National Park Service. It's impossible.

An 'no' again. The NPS does not 'entice' minorities to take jobs in places that they do not want to be and then make huge investments in their training - and then they leave because they are not comfortable there. Where are these faraway places full of minority employees that don't want to be there? I've not seen those places. It is very, very difficult to secure a permanent job with the Park Service, as the story pointed out. By the time a person has secured that coveted permanent position, THEY, not the Park Service, has worked very hard to make that happen.

So if you're really concerned about all the problems of the National Park Service that you say you are concerned about, you better put relevancy of parks to American people on the top of your list. Or get used to the continuation of the problems. Think of the National Park Service as the Montgomery City Buses of 1955. As Montgomery discovered, when the Montgomery black minorities decided that the buses were no longer relevant, Montgomery discovered that their buses couldn't operate without financial support from the minority community. So they made them more relevant. NOW do you get it? And what if something really strange happened? What if by coming together and visiting the many and varied national parks, that we Americans discovered that, other than skin color, there’s no damned difference between us? How weird and maybe discomforting would THAT be?

And sorry, but yes, this is a conversation about race.
Brian Kenner
Brian Kenner Subscriber
Jun 28, 2014 06:58 PM
Distorting an argument and twisting it around to your agenda is not an effective strategy. I guess you've never heard of the 0PM Employee Viewpoint Survey or seen the results. Try Google. I guess you've never been asked to check the race/ethnicity box when you applied for a job----lucky you. I guess you've never heard of the National Park Foundation, which not only accepts donations on behalf of the national parks, but has hired an expensive ad agency to solicit corporate donations. I guess you've never worked in an area where minority kids were given an opportunity (not just with NPS, but also USFS and USFWS) and didn't last because they felt isolated; that doesn't mean it doesn't happen. I've met those kids and have heard them. Do you not understand that when visitation at a park like Yellowstone stays at a high level or increases, with a great percentage of those visitors being from other countries it limits the ability of Americans, who support the parks with tax dollars, to visit THEIR national park?

I'm not sure what this article has to do about Montgomery bus boycotts, but, hey that's your deal.

It's sad that you have to attack and distort to push your agenda. The conversation is about much more than race. "Revelance, diversity and inclusion" should be about A LOT of things beyond race. The conversation needs to be broader. It's unfortunate you want to limit discussion of complex issues down to one hot button, and denigrate those who want to broaden the discussion.
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Jun 29, 2014 10:05 AM
Good points by Mr. Kenner and Mr. Good. Beyond race issues, per what they describe about NPS management, and how President Obama doesn't seem that interested in outdoors issues, I dread how corporatized and mismanaged the NPS centennial is likely to be.

As for attracting more youth, so NPS users don't age out, and to get a more diverse ethnic profile, I do not want national parks to be just another Internet hot spot, albeit one with prettier wallpaper. Per writers like Louw on nature deficit disorder, we need to be getting people to disconnect from all the electronic toys, at least on occasion, in order to appreciate nature.
Wayne L Hare
Wayne L Hare Subscriber
Aug 01, 2014 01:50 PM
Well sure - and once again - the NPS has many ‘issues’ that it needs to contend with. I suppose that if HCN were going to write a story that was dozens or hundreds of pages long, it could address all of those issues. But – and again – the demographics of this country are rapidly, un-controvertibly, and irreversibly changing. So it just does not matter if the parks are being ‘loved to death’ and supported by what is becoming a minority of the population. If the parks, despite all of this love, are under-funded NOW, what will that look like in 50 or so years when the majority of the U.S population has brown skin – and for whom the parks have little relevancy.

I have no idea if the Park Service gave HCN accurate statistics or not. Quite often when I have written or spoken about the lack of diversity in parks, people have asked to see the studies that prove this. And I used to provide them. But now I say simply; “Go to the park. Open your eyes. Look around. Tell me what you see.” It is diversity among Americans – who vote and in affect, approve funding for parks - that is being discussed here. Yes, there are many foreign visitors. Although since the parks do not have a quota on numbers of visitors, I don’t see how that limits opportunities for Americans to visit their parks. The experience may be degraded, but not the opportunity. Sure, I’ve seen the boxes that are provided for applicants to note their ethnicity. Dunno if folks check them or not. And neither does anyone else. But I have eyes and I have looked around. For decades. Yes, I have seen some slow change and I am immensely gratified that parks such as Zion and Bryce, close to urban areas, have seen an increase in ethnic diversity. I am pleased that some parks, close to ethnic communities, have seen an increase in hiring. Although as the superintendent of Mesa Verde noted, Mesa Verde is not one of them. But it remains true that when a visitor opens his or her eyes at an icon, natural park, they mostly see folks who’s ethnicity as a majority of the population, will not be available in not too many more years, to vote to support parks.

Public lands, parks or otherwise, are under attack EVERY day. In 2006 an Under-Secretary of the Interior, Paul Hoffman, came frighteningly close to re-writing the NPS Organic Act, and the mission of the Park Service, to change our parks into something that would have been un-recognizable and, to most of us current users, un-enjoyable. Thanks to the work and sacrifice of mostly one man, J.T.Reynolds, a ‘non-traditional’ park superintendent, Hoffman’s efforts were killed. An eye opening, frightening, and interesting read in Vanity Fair at[…]/nationalparks200606.

Sure, I’ve seen many minority and urban kids camping in the wild. I even volunteered for several years at a Park Service run camp, called ‘Old Stories, New Voices’ in the San Luis Valley of south central Colorado. A free camp open to urban kids – most of whom had brown skin. And in almost all the situations where I’ve seen or worked with urban and minority kids in the backcountry, by far, MOST of those kids were having a great time. For those folks who would say, “Well SOME of those kids feel isolated and uncomfortable, so we should terminate these programs. They don’t work.” To them I would suggest that if you always do what you’ve always done, the you will always get the results that you’ve always gotten. Nothing will change, which is maybe what some folks want. And in some number of years, public lands will receive even less support then they do now to address all those ‘other ‘ problems’. It’s really not hard to understand. Do the math.

Yes, I am well aware of the National Parks Foundation – which is not the National Park Service. And so it remains true that the National Park Service does not solicit funding from wealthy white guys. But hey, I’m all for wherever the NPS or the NPF can get funding in support of public lands.

At least one woman let her subscription to HCN expire because the magazine had the temerity to write a story about race. I don't admire her thought process, but at least she got it right, even if she is yet one more person who can’t tolerate talking about race…it MUST be about something else. This is a story about how public lands need the support of the majority of American to stay afloat. And in our children’s’ lifetime, the majority of Americans will have brown skin.