Taking the park to the people

  • Estee Rivera Murdock

    Paul Larmer

There will be no Fiesta Day this year at Saguaro National Park, a mountainous, cactus- and shrub-studded landscape surrounding Tucson. No mariachi band at the visitor's center, no spread of tacos and enchiladas, no candy-filled pinatas for the kids to knock down.

But the cancellation of the five-year running event, conceived by park officials as a way to entice the area's sizeable Hispanic population into the two-unit park, is a good thing, says Estee Rivera Murdock, Saguaro's first-ever "Community Engagement Coordinator." For one, it missed the mark: Fiesta Day largely attracted Anglos, and, as one Hispanic park worker told Rivera Murdock, "I can do this stuff in my own community."

In its stead, Rivera Murdock and the staff at Saguaro have taken a more direct approach to addressing what they call the park's "relevancy discrepancy" with locals (less than two percent of the park's visitors self-identify as Hispanic, though Hispanics comprise 40 percent of Tucson's population): they have taken the park to the people. Rivera’s work is important—and timely: The Census reported last year that minorities now make up over half the babies born in the U.S., so national park officials have made it a priority to figure out ways to get minorities interested in the outdoors. One of the best ways to do that is to get out into schools and communities.

These days, Rivera Murdock, who is bilingual and whose family immigrated to Tucson from Mexico three generations ago, spends as much time outside the park as in it, visiting schools and health centers, judging science competitions, and attending community events throughout the metropolitan area.

"Until recently, the park's standard for involving community was, 'it's OK, as long as it won't interrupt the visitor center too much.' Now it is about getting outside the park to entice people in."

On this February day, as a rare snow melts off the mountains, Rivera Murdock rattles off her schedule: a morning spent reading to pre-schoolers in a Tucson barrio, then back to the park to help a colleague write a grant for an expanded trail system before entertaining questions from a reporter.

"My job is a complete blank slate," she says, noting that only a handful of national parks have a staffer focused on community outreach. "I'm pumped!"

Rivera Murdock's enthusiasm is matched by a vigorous academic approach to her work.  In early 2012, she organized and conducted interviews with eight focus groups comprised of residents from Tucson neighborhoods where the population is at least 40 percent Hispanic. The interviews, which turned into her thesis for a master's degree in Geography at the University of Arizona, uncovered a wide range of reasons why few Hispanics make it to the park.

"Some folks wanted more places in the park for small-group picnics and fun activities for the kids," she says, "while others said they had no way to get to the park and couldn't afford the fees. Only one person said, 'I don't want to pay money to see a cactus!' "

Some of these barriers won't be easy to dismantle: The park has few picnic areas and caters to folks who want to camp in its remote backcountry. Public transportation to the park is non-existent, "and even if there was a regular bus service to the park, what would people do once they get here?" Rivera Murdock asks, noting that there are no hiking trails that take off directly from the Visitor's Center. That's something she'd like to see the park address in coming years.

But better communication can make a huge difference. Rivera Murdock says she spends a lot of time explaining to people that the park is affordable – seniors can get a lifetime pass for as little as $10, and the regular entry fee applies to an automobile load of people, not individuals, so "it's cheaper than taking your kids to the movies." A surprising number of those she interviewed said they just needed a reminder that the park was there to encourage a future visit.

"We have as much a marketing problem as anything else," says Andy Fisher, the park's director of interpretation. "We've been running Saguaro as a wilderness park for so long that we forgot to talk to our community."

Rivera Murdock says her own experience growing up in Tucson has given her insight into the challenges. "I came to the park as a 2nd or 3rd grader on a school trip, but the next time I visited was when I was handing in my job application in 2009." It was only then that she took the time to drive around and actually see the park.

Rivera Murdock's own mother still doesn't quite understand her daughter's job: "She tells her friends that I am a forest ranger." Does her family ever come out to visit her at the park? "No, so personally I deal with the same problem that we are trying to address with the whole public."

"We're not doing a good job of explaining what you can do on the various (public) lands," she continues. "I get questions: Can I cut wood there? Why can't I ride my bike in some places?"

Both Rivera Murdock and Fisher see young people as the key to changing visitor demographics. The park works with a local friends group that raises money for transporting students to the park, and is currently handling about as many students as it can in the park. Outside the park, staffers visit local schools with the hopes that kids will take what they learn and experience back home. They don't always wear their full green uniforms, because they can be confused with the garb of the ubiquitous Border Patrol agents in the area. But Rivera Murdock says she always keeps her nametag on. "When they see Rivera, kids will sometimes say, 'Hey, that's my name, too.' "

With Rivera Murdock leading the way, Saguaro's staff has reached out to other organizations for ideas and assistance. Last October, it collaborated with Team Moreno, an organization founded by Roberto Moreno to get more city kids into Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park. They carried out an Environmental Education program for 60 Hispanic families from the local Tucson elementary schools, teaching basic camping skills and introducing them to Saguaro's Junior Ranger program, which has traditionally only attracted Anglos. After the program, says Rivera Murdock, seven of the camp kids signed up for Junior Rangers. "The parents trusted us with their kids because we spent three days camping with them.  It's all about personal relationships."

Paul Larmer is the executive director and publisher of High Country News.

Photo courtesy Paul Larmer.

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