Donning oversized rubber boots, a group of 7- to 13-year-olds squat in the icy, rushing water of a stream in Rocky Mountain National Park. As they lift rocks from the streambed, they hold nets just downstream to capture whatever might have been lurking under the rocks. They empty the nets into plastic trays, and park rangers help them identify the bugs and debris they've scooped up. "What's that little round thing? Yep, it's a fish egg!" When thunderclouds build, one boy plops down on the stream bank and announces that he doesn't ever want to leave. Another studious-looking youngster with Buddy Holly-type glasses is ready to go: "Video games are more fun," he says, frowning.
These multicultural Boy Scouts from inner-city Denver are attending Camp Moreno, founded by Roberto Moreno in 2009, whose camps are meant to help "emerging populations" understand how public lands can enrich their lives. It's one of a handful of recent efforts by the Park Service and partner groups designed to interest kids in parks. After all, a lifelong devotion to anything starts with the children.
Later, firefighter Vidal Carrillo will tell these boys about Park Service jobs; now, Moreno is educating them about their own public lands. "You own something better than a condo at Vail," Moreno says, gesturing toward the magnificent surroundings. "You own this. These lands belong to you, and you should be using them." A few adults nod – parents usually accompany Moreno campers – but most of the kids just stare at him, apparently stunned by the notion.
"You take a family in an industrialized place like Commerce City (Colorado)and bring them to Rocky Mountain National Park," Moreno says, "and suddenly they realize there's a bigger world out there; they understand we need to preserve these public lands." Camp Moreno has operated in seven national parks around the West. So far, about 1,400 kids have been through the program, usually with one or both parents in tow and sometimes siblings as well.
Other types of programs that boast higher attendance but don't provide the same kind of family involvement operate in parks as well. The National Park Foundation offers Ticket to Ride, started in 2012, which gives parks grants to pay for bus rides, meals and educational programs for students. Annually, at least 60,000 kids visit a local national park through this program, many for the first time.
Everyone agrees that these field-trip programs are great, but how do you quantify the results? They can foster excitement and curiosity, and give children outdoor opportunities they'd never have experienced. "Kids who have never been exposed to wilderness come out from (the city) and go home saying, 'This changed my life; I never knew that anything like this existed,' " says Reynolds. "That's the turning point."
The Park Service, for its part, has come to realize that working with partners like Camp Moreno can make a huge difference in its ability to connect with local minority communities. Existing nonprofits, schools and faith-based or youth programs can help the agency reach people who might not seek out a park on their own. "The NPS was a little late in the game in doing community outreach," says Spears. "It's not Field of Dreams; you can't just build it and people will come."
As the Park Service wrestles with its future, Jarvis says, it finds itself considering the theories of influential management consultant Margaret Wheatley, who has promoted the idea that the solutions any organization needs already exist somewhere within that organization. "You need to find that, nurture it and connect others doing similar kinds of things," says Jarvis. "They become the pioneers that lead the organization forward."
And when it comes to the Park Service, the best place to find those pioneers is not in the remote, scenic places that Americans tend to picture when they think about national parks – Glacier, Yellowstone, Arches – but rather in the smaller park properties, the recreation areas, greenways, historic sites and memorials that are close to cities and their diverse inhabitants. More than four out of five Americans now live in urban areas, but 40 of the nation's 50 biggest cities contain national parks, and urban sites draw more than a third of all park visits.
"Our relevance in urban areas will prove critical to the NPS' survival," says Michael Creasey, executive director of the agency's Conservation Study Institute. "How can we organize ourselves differently to respond to those community needs?" The institute is working with agency leaders and partners to create an "Urban Agenda," which will consider how the Park Service can better use its full portfolio of programs to revitalize local economies, connect youth to nature, and make urban parks "portals to diversity."
One of the biggest such portals is San Francisco's Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Seven million people, including large Hispanic, black and Asian-American populations, live within an hour's drive of Golden Gate, one of the nation's first urban parks. The visitors are still mostly white, but the park's holdings, which include headlands around the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island and Muir Woods, attract a lot of local minorities, says supervisor Frank Dean.
He notes that the park brings in youth from under-represented communities, starting with school field trips and progressing to more in-depth experiences. It works with a medical clinic in mostly black Bayview-Hunters Point, and has shuttled residents up to the park for prescribed exercise. The Roving Ranger, a repurposed bakery truck done up in bright orange and green, travels to communities and schools to educate people and entice them to visit. Crissy Field Center is a model of youth engagement, especially a program called I-YEL, Inspiring Young Emerging Leaders.
The program helps build relationships between the park and its neighbors, says Ernesto Pepito, associate director of youth leadership with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. "If you think about why park visitors aren't diverse," he says, "awareness and transportation are small factors. We're missing the big stuff – why is a national park important to me, my family, my future?" Staffers at Crissy Field, says Pepito, go out and listen to what matters to community members, then connect those concerns back to the park. "We can help people come to their own conclusions about this park and why it matters, like for clean air and water."
The kids in I-YEL research a topic that's important to their communities, then present it in a creative way. Last year, they put on a play; this year, they're building an obstacle course with pollution-themed challenges to navigate, such as dangling plastic water bottles. The program also has brought in a more diverse staff, says Pepito, because it calls for unusual skills such as art and media: "We were able to reach a new applicant pool that hadn't thought about working in parks before."
Ultimately, Golden Gate is "a different park from the rest," says Dean, "and we need to provide lessons learned." Those lessons may not always translate perfectly to more remote nature-focused parks, because of the long travel distances and the fact that the local communities are often largely white. But people who get comfortable with visiting a nearby urban park may eventually venture to faraway parks, and outreach techniques developed for minority communities can apply to other communities who may not use even nearby parks, such as ranchers, says Creasey. He notes that it's not only racial diversity that's critical to park success, but also diversity of interests, ideas and experiences: "It's diversity from an ecological standpoint. Homogenous systems die."
Given the outsized challenges it faces today – including institutional inertia, chronic funding shortfalls and the growing appeal of digital rather than natural experiences – the Park Service is unlikely to increase its racial diversity any time soon. But in many ways, urban parks like Golden Gate are already creating a model for the rest of the agency and pioneering a way into the future. "I think it's blending what a new generation might use these parks for and what they might get out of them with what these parks traditionally do," says Pepito. "It's finding that beautiful infusion."
Jodi Peterson is HCN's managing editor. She writes from Paonia, Colorado.
This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.