It’s a nasty, end-of-winter night in the coastal Washington town of Ilwaco, but the driving rain is the least of Nancy Fernandez’s concerns. The inside of the Salt Pub is dry but jammed with soggy locals chomping burgers, sipping brews and waiting to check out the night’s entertainment, which is Fernandez, 25. She’s crossed the Columbia River, from Lewis and Clark National Historical Park in Oregon, to present her findings on plants and climate change.
When asked before the talk if she is nervous, Fernandez replies, “Very.”
But as slides of field mustard and skunk cabbage appear on the screen behind her, the crowd is drawn in, and her confidence grows. She is wearing a bright red shirt and flashing an even more dazzling smile.
Relaxing on a lobby sofa afterward, Fernandez contemplates the months she’s spent at Lewis and Clark as an intern. One of her first triumphs there was using her Spanish to convince migrant parents to leave their son for an overnight campout. Since then, she’s picked up frogs with summer camp kids, paddle-boarded the Lewis and Clark River, and hiked a lava tube near Mount St. Helens.
“I never imagined myself doing anything like this before,” Fernandez says. She left her central California home after college, against the wishes of her Mexican immigrant parents, and eventually completed three consecutive internships through the Student Conservation Association, which partners with the National Park Service and other agencies to develop the next generation of public-lands stewards. Fernandez is determined to be part of that generation.
She is just about everything the National Park Service could wish for when it blows out its 100 candles later this month: young, brown, bilingual and bright. She has clocked enough conservation project hours during her internships to earn noncompetitive employment status, which in the arcane federal hiring system is tantamount to obtaining a hire-this-diverse-candidate-free card.
A lot is riding on Fernandez and people like her. For years, the agency has been waging a pitched but mostly losing battle for its future. It is a sprawling institution with 23,000 employees who manage and protect this nation’s most cherished public lands and its cultural history. But it also is a perennially underfunded agency with a gender problem (63 percent of its workforce is male), an age problem (nearly 50 percent is at least 46 years old), and a race problem (83 percent white). All this flies in the face of the changes seizing this country, but none more pronounced than race.
The demographics of today’s park visitors nearly mirror those of the agency’s workforce, cementing longstanding suggestions that the park system lacks relevance to communities of color. This is a sobering realization for an agency that, under Director Jonathan Jarvis, pivoted to a belief that diversity and inclusiveness in workforce and visitation will flow from a focus on relevancy.
Its current racial composition encourages cultural isolation, making it difficult for the agency to retain employees of color. The National Park Service relies on a labyrinthine federal hiring system that favors military veterans and makes it nearly impossible to improve diversity by targeting hires by race. Even if it could, the agency doesn’t have enough jobs to offer anyway. With all the challenges at hand, from infrastructure to wildlife preservation to mitigating climate change impacts, the agency can have a myopic view of issues like diversity, which can seem “nice to have.”
“Everybody commits to diversity intellectually, and they commit to it in their hearts, but they don’t have any idea what kind of work it takes to really get this done,” says Mickey Fearn, who was the highest-ranking person of color in the agency under Jarvis. He likens it to the wine-making process. “When you first bottle it, it’s kind of rigorous and raw. Then it goes through what is called a ‘dumb period,’ when in the bottle it doesn’t really taste like anything. Later on, all those flavors come back somehow. The National Park Service is in what you’d call a dumb period. And the reason it’s in a dumb period is because it’s initiated something. It’s trying to do something, even if it doesn’t know exactly how to do it.”
The Park Service has begun building bridges into communities of color by telling more of their stories. It’s had an enthusiastic partner in President Barack Obama, who not only has protected more land and sea under the Antiquities Act than any other president, but also established more national park units significant to nonwhites, such as Maryland’s Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park and the César Chávez National Monument in California (see sidebar at right).
Yet workplace diversity in the agency not only has failed to improve during the Obama administration, it has worsened, suggesting major, institutionalized impediments. One former intern calls it “the Mississippi of federal agencies,” and others say it struggles to see solutions through the fog of its own overwhelming whiteness. It has a long-ingrained culture that one former employee described as “paramilitary, male-dominated, paternalistically thinking.” Employees have a markedly split view of their calling: About 90 percent believe that what they do is important, according to a 2015 survey conducted by the Office of Personnel Management, but only 50 percent say they’re satisfied with the organization.
The Park Service’s response to inquiries about workforce diversity has been awkward at an official level. The agency invited High Country News to a meeting in Washington, D.C., to explain its challenges and efforts. But the meeting time was scheduled over by its four participants, reducing what originally was a four-hour block to about 90 minutes. Half the group did not speak or make eye contact, and the atmosphere seemed tense. No direct contact followed, and further requests for resources, such as partner data and workforce demographics, were referred to the agency’s public affairs office.
Dozens of Park Service rangers and hiring managers throughout the West agreed to be interviewed during the year we followed Fernandez through the system, but only if they were not identified. Several checked back, in fact, to ensure their names wouldn’t be linked to information or opinions. Fearn, a former deputy director, says their fears are justified.
“It would be suicidal for them to criticize the agency in public,” he says. “If nothing else, it’s a very proud agency. … People who become rebels or naysayers can get stuck in place. I don’t think there’s any question about that.”
Now a professor at North Carolina State University, Fearn left the National Park Service in 2013, in large part, he says, because of the “Mickey fatigue” that developed in the agency due to his continually pushing for relevancy, diversity and inclusiveness. Before his three and a half years at the national parks, he led groundbreaking work on race and diversity, including the Race and Social Justice Initiative in Seattle. Cultural isolation also played a part in his leaving, Fearn says: During his tenure, he was the only African-American in the top three levels of the Park Service.
Nancy Fernandez is just one of many recruits summoned to address the kind of change facing Lewis and Clark — a shift that is occurring all over the country, which is projected to be majority nonwhite within three decades. When she arrived at the park just before the summer of 2015, a traditionally migrant Latino population had begun settling in Clatsop County, where most of Lewis and Clark is located. The Latino population is about 10 percent, and growing fast, in nearby Astoria.
Eager to introduce this burgeoning community to his park, then-Superintendent Scott Tucker dispatched two rangers for an entire week to invite the migrant communities to a free picnic. He says he had a “light-bulb moment” when no Latinos showed up. Latino community leaders later applauded his sending rangers, but asked him, “Were they in uniform?” Tucker, who is white, immediately got the point. Most communities of color have a negative association with men in uniform, and National Park Service uniforms are from the same provider as those for La Migra, the U.S. Border Patrol. A Latino staffer might have flagged and prevented the cultural blunder.
Lesson learned, Tucker applied for two bilingual summer interns and felt he hit the jackpot with Fernandez and Sal Ornelas, who also is from California. He supplemented the pair with three Latino seasonal employees, and last year, Lewis and Clark had Latino kids in its summer camp programs for the first time ever. With her teaching background, Fernandez was a natural with children and deft at creating trust with Spanish-speaking parents. Tucker helped her land another SCA internship, shared with San Juan Island National Historic Park.
Before last summer, Fernandez’s attachment to the outdoors had been minimal. She once volunteered for an archaeological survey in Stanislaus National Forest, where she had to camp but had no idea how to pitch a tent. On a visit to Yosemite National Park, near her home in California’s Central Valley, she observed people doing something called “hiking.” The activity, however, drew a blank.
“I never heard of people hiking,” she says. “What is that? I’d heard of long walks.”
Her parents, from Michoacán on the southwest coast of Mexico, were field workers, mostly, and a tough sell, Fernandez says: The concept of outdoor recreation is so removed from Mexican immigrant culture, there aren’t even words in Spanish for basic terms such as hiking, camping and tent. It was bad enough that their daughter had switched majors from nursing to anthropology at California State University, Stanislaus. But after spending the summer in Lewis and Clark, with its coastal forests, meandering rivers and abundant wildlife, she wanted to do the kind of things they’d worked to protect her from — like taking a job outdoors and sleeping on the ground.
“It was a very difficult discussion,” Fernandez recalls. “It doesn’t click in their minds that the outdoors are something to enjoy. Since they were little, they were working outdoors. To them, it’s not a place to have fun. It’s a place for hard work. They wanted me to work in an office, with air conditioning.”
Tucker introduced Fernandez to the first of her “fun outdoors” jobs. His previous career had nurtured a sensitivity to diversity and inclusion. When he was at the National Mall, he encountered a young African-American boy on a field trip with his school. The boy returned that evening with his father and excitedly pointed out everything he’d seen and learned earlier. That image stuck.
“That’s how we get underserved people to the parks,” says Tucker, 42, who recently became superintendent at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan. “Get them early, and keep them involved for life.”
To that end, the Park Service has committed considerable resources to creating a pipeline for diverse young people like Fernandez. Its programs are driven by agreements with 52 partner organizations, which last year employed 4,248 youth interns in national parks. An additional 11,372 were employed in parks last year by commercial services organizations, mostly concessionaires. They have been gateways into the Park Service for the likes of Shelton Johnson, an African-American at Yosemite National Park who may be the agency’s most recognized ranger.
The third-party youth programs help the National Park Service circumvent prohibitions against targeted recruitment of diverse young job candidates, but they are not without their challenges. The Student Conservation Association has been one of the agency’s biggest and longest-standing partners. It founded the NPS Academy, one of the Park Service’s most significant and innovative programs for targeting diverse youth; Fernandez attended it, as both a participant and a mentor. But the SCA also has been criticized in the past for its lack of internal diversity and, more recently, for its higher-than-average overhead ratio, which sources say is about 26 percent. That means SCA interns aren’t paid much and have to play chicken against financial pressures while they await permanent job opportunities. One Forest Service official, for example, mentored a young SCA intern who had to spend a Colorado summer living in her car. Such conditions are why internships often are viewed as “the playground of rich white kids,” whose family support makes the low pay tolerable.
Fernandez lacks that luxury. Her parents work several back-breaking jobs to make ends meet. Even after attending the NPS Academy as a mentor, she still made just $320 every two weeks. At Lewis and Clark, she lucked out on a hostel room when the ranger using it went on leave. But even with park housing, she struggled during her last internship at Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, just outside Atlanta. She was “adopted” by an older couple, who also worked in the park and, she says, “kept feeding me cookies.” It was bitter sweetness.
“For now, I find myself at a crossroads,” Fernandez mused during her final month at Chattahoochee. “On one side, I am tired of living on pennies as if I were still in college. It’s a struggle having to constantly be proving my worth to others. On the other side, I don’t know if I am ready to leave the park life entirely. I am not a quitter. I want to prove to people in my community and my family that it is possible to do the work you love.”
Nancy Fernandez might be one of the lucky ones. At least she’s in the system — even if it’s a complicated and daunting one.
The usual way to apply for a Park Service opening, or any federal position, is through the government jobs website, USAJobs.gov. The basic instructions for finding and applying for openings run 20 pages, and none of them offer suggestions on how to appeal to specific agencies, including the National Park Service and its unique culture and needs.
Even if park superintendents decided today to fill all their openings with candidates of color, they technically could not do so. The federal process of job creation, application and hiring is mostly blind, to encourage equal and open competition. Candidates are rated and ranked according to their responses to questions about their qualifications and skill levels, a method that doesn’t always reward the honest and humble. Military veterans get hiring priority. Only certain hiring authorities (exceptions and noncompetitive status, based on experience such as Peace Corps service, or participation in student programs) can trump a veteran’s place in line. This, one source said flatly, “is killing diversity efforts in the National Park Service.” It’s a sentiment echoed by many interviewed for this story, who point out that military service doesn’t change nonwhites’ lack of interest in Park Service employment.
Depending on your point of view, some or much of the recent backslide in Park Service diversity efforts can be blamed on the changes the Obama administration made in the federal hiring process, which inadvertently neutralized the agency’s not-inconsiderable efforts to recruit candidates of color. Two programs used to target diverse young hires were replaced by one called Pathways, which opened up competition and inserted a preference for veterans –– a preference amplified throughout the hiring process.
Congress presently is clashing in conference committee over a Senate provision limiting hiring preference to a veteran’s first job and not subsequent employment, as is currently the case. Congress also is discussing extending the Public Lands Corps’ noncompetitive status from 120 days to two years. That would give someone like Fernandez significantly more time to find an opening.
If the federal hiring process already is clogging the agency’s recruitment pipeline, it turns into a full-fledged backup when one factors in the lack of openings, especially at entry-level positions. The agency makes 400-500 new full-time hires per year, hardly enough to make a dent in workforce demographics, even if it could fill every single one with diverse candidates for four or five straight years. But the picture will change dramatically, though not completely, if during the next five years, the projected 25 percent of the Park Service eligible for retirement — the so-called “silver tsunami” — is replaced by a significant number of nonwhites.
Despite everything, a breeze of change is wafting through the agency, generated not by mandate but by a combination of commitment, innovation, leadership, and, to a certain extent, location. Smaller park units are more successful at hiring diverse candidates because they’re more nimble and experimental, less encumbered by daily infrastructure and personnel demands.
The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, near Los Angeles, seized opportunities forged by its proximity to a growing urban community of color. Santa Monica took its park to the people through innovative outreach programs, such as its mobile visitor center, La Ranger Troca, and it expanded its thinking about youth recruitment beyond employee placement to developing ambassadors and advocates in diverse populations. Saguaro National Park, near Tucson, which is 42 percent Latino, recently hired Cam Juárez, a local activist and politician, as a public information officer and community engagement coordinator. It also started a program in 2015 called Next Generation Rangers, which allows the selection of diverse workers, who are paid through an independent contractor agreement with a supporting nonprofit. The nonprofit — Friends of Saguaro National Park — is not subject to federal mandates regarding open competition or the preference for veterans, so it has more leeway in hiring. The staff at Lowell National Historic Park in Massachusetts prompted itself to reflect the dramatic shift in its surrounding community, which now has the second-largest Cambodian population in the country, as well as significant African-American and Latino populations. Lowell helped fuel the demographic transformation of its staff by making an intergovernmental personnel agreement with the local community health center. This enabled the park to hire Linda Sopheap Sou, the well-connected daughter of Cambodian refugees, as its chief of interpretation and education.
At Lewis and Clark, the seeds that Scott Tucker sowed more than a year ago are beginning to flourish. Half of the park’s summer camp slots are filled by Latino children, the result of a cooperative program with Astoria Public Schools. This summer, the youth program has seven diverse staff members, three of whom are bilingual. Last year, the park also hired a permanent bilingual ranger. It just wasn’t Nancy Fernandez.
Fernandez believes she got a lot out of her SCA internships. “I feel like a more confident and independent person than before,” she says. She’s traveled to eight different states in little more than a year, lived alone, seen the Milky Way in the Grand Tetons, and gone berry picking, canoeing, cross-country skiing, kayaking, mushroom hunting and snowshoeing for the first time. These experiences sparked what is now a raging romance with the outdoors.
But Fernandez still lacks what she wants more than anything — a permanent, full-time job in the National Park Service.
The final weeks during her last SCA internship at Chattahoochee River this summer were anxious, discouraging, and sometimes depressing, she says. She was thousands of miles from her family and her dog, Misty, and the geographic dislocation that discourages many young people of color from a Park Service career was very real to her. She struggled financially and worried about her future.
During orientation at the NPS Academy in March 2015, Fernandez was told that the National Park Service’s workforce was older, white, male and ready to retire. She was hopeful, because she represented the very opposite. Yet when she applied for an education post at Lewis and Clark, she received an automated message stating that she wasn’t qualified. It likely was the result of a misunderstanding about her experience. But Fernandez is part of a community that has come to assume the system is rigged against it, and it did not even occur to her to question the decision. Shortly afterward, her first noncompetitive status lapsed.
Somewhat to her surprise, Fernandez qualified for another 120 days of noncompetitive status at Chattahoochee. She is trying to use that status for the few openings she knows about and for which she feels qualified. She also began applying for other low-paying internships that would keep her in the Park Service or at least the outdoors, as well as for professional development training she could not easily afford. She recently was accepted into the Outdoor Educators Institute in Oakland. It’s not the National Park Service, not permanent or even a job, but it allows her to stay in the game until an opportunity presents itself.
Still, Fernandez no longer is certain about her endgame, or what her tenure in the National Park Service actually represented. Sometimes she wonders if she was just a token intern. She dreads having to return, tail between her legs, to parents who were skeptical about her outdoor career choices from the beginning, as well as to an immigrant community that looks askance at single young women who leave the fold for anything but marriage.
“Either I failed,” Fernandez says, “or the system failed me.”
Glenn Nelson is the founder of Trail Posse, which documents and encourages diversity and inclusion in the outdoors. He is a member of The Next 100 Coalition, which advocates for increased racial diversity in federal land agencies and the environmental movement.
This is part of a special report on the state of the national parks.
- National Park Service
- Social Justice
- Barack Obama