Cliff Spencer knows what it's like to be singled out. The tall, slim 54-year-old is superintendent of 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, in the southwest corner of Colorado. 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," he 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."
Lands in jeopardy
Parks and other public lands are facing an array of challenges. 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.
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 took over some national parks, fueling calls from some locals for permanent 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."
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?
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 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 on right). 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 apparently bypassed minorities. 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.
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. 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.
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 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 youths 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.'"
The agency is now trying to employ more minority youths 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.
"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."
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. Still, opportunities may increase over the next few years, as roughly a quarter of agency staffers begin retiring.
On a blue-sky October day in 2012, thousands of people of all colors lined up amid the golden hills and oak trees of California's San Joaquin Valley. They were there for President Obama's dedication of the first national park site honoring a contemporary Latino, the César E. Chávez National Monument, named for the labor advocate and founder of the United Farm Workers.
The new monument demonstrates the Park Service's determination to tell the stories of all Americans, not just whites. And it's an acknowledgment that perhaps the park system has to make some changes in order to draw more diverse visitors.
That's a subtle but important divergence from the old belief that it's the people themselves who have to change, and that low visitation is due simply to the mistaken idea that minorities lack an interest in the outdoors.
In fact, Hispanic, black and Native people tend to be deterred by more practical factors, including the expense, time and distance involved in traveling to parks. And some may not be aware of what's available, according to a 2011 University of Wyoming study. The study also found that minorities were more than three times as likely as whites to say that parks provide poor service and are not safe places to visit. "They think they're going to get attacked by mountain lions, killed by avalanches, eaten by bears," says Moreno ruefully.
Last spring, the agency released a study of American Latino accomplishments with an eye toward locating possible future national historic sites or landmarks, similar to the Chávez monument. Such sites provide a way to attract new visitors, says Spears. "Will 30 percent of them suddenly become park enthusiasts? No, but maybe 2 or 3 percent will, and then we can talk to them about how great it would be if they protected parks."
Other recently added sites include the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland and Virginia's Fort Monroe National Monument, both of which recognize the history of slavery. "Some of the areas that the Park Service commemorates reflect on difficult periods in our history," says Stanton. "They are not places to wallow in remorse but rather places to strengthen our resolve."
Still, less than 10 percent of park sites commemorate minorities or women. And that includes places like Mesa Verde, which focuses on ancestral Native Americans but has not always done so in a culturally sensitive way. Mesa Verde and several other parks sit on land taken from tribes, but in only a few of those parks, such as Arizona's Canyon de Chelly, do they have a major voice in park management.
The parks' diversity problem is compounded by an age problem. Annual attendance at national park sites has decreased by about 3 million visits since 2000, and the proportion of 48- to 66-year-old visitors is increasing as the share of 16- to 20-year-olds declines. "We're losing a generation," says Spencer.
Parks can appeal to a younger, more urban audience by providing services such as wireless networking and rethinking the traditional visitor center. To that end, the Park Service, National Park Foundation and other partner groups are kicking off a major campaign next year. Called "Find Your Park," it's designed to help people, especially youths, become aware of park units in their own communities, not necessarily the big, remote nature parks but the smaller, more conveniently located places.
Park officials might also consider expanding their vision of how parks are used. The younger generation wants something more thrilling than just hiking and camping: bike races through Colorado National Monument, say, or BASE jumping in Utah's Zion National Park. While parks can't — and shouldn't — try to accommodate all such activities, they might stretch the rules a bit to allow a few, and even market them.
At the same time, attracting new visitors shouldn't involve alienating those who already love the parks as they are. And there are legal considerations, too: The 1916 Organic Act, which established the Park Service, limits drastic changes to parks and how they are used. Each site has something unique to offer, says Neil Mulholland, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation, and parks don't need to create a lot of new activities to draw visitors; mostly, they just need to do a better job of marketing what's available. "Just talk to me about why I should care," says Roberts.
'Homogeneous systems die'
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.
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. "You own this. These lands belong to you, and you should be using them."
Camp Moreno has operated in seven national parks around the West. So far, about 1,400 kids have been through the program.
The Park Service 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 youths 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. Homogeneous 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."
This story originally appeared in the May 12, 2014 issue of High Country News (hcn.org). It was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.