The National Park Service Is Trying to Change Its Vanilla Reputation

PHOTO: Tourists look at Spruce Tree House in Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.

Go for a hike in a national park, and you’re probably surrounded by non-Hispanic white people. Take a ranger-led nature walk, and you’re likely to be led along the trail by a Caucasian guy.

That’s because minorities just don’t visit places like Olympic National Park at the same rates as Caucasians, and they are even less likely to consider park service a viable career path.

For a long time, that wasn’t a real concern. But when former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, one of the only Latinos in President Obama’s Cabinet, took the job, he vowed to make it a priority. After all, with unemployment at higher levels for minorities than for whites, why wouldn’t people of color enter a government-sector job with high security and decent benefits?

Countering the park system’s vanilla reputation has been slow-going, though.

Of the 16,523 permanent workers in the National Park Service last quarter, 79 percent were white, 10.5 percent were black, 10.7 percent were Hispanic and just 3.6 were Asian, according to David Vela, the NPS’s man tasked with increasing diversity at the parks.

“Clearly, it’s not where we need to be,” he told Fusion in a phone interview.

It’s a tall order: Convince minorities who seldom see the national parks as a vacation destination to not only give them a try, but consider working in them, too.

To do that, he’s aware that the park service has got to make it clear that minorities matter to the parks. That sounds obvious, but it’s hard to convince a Latino kid to become a park ranger when he’s never seen anyone who looks like him in the uniform and he only sees stories about old dead white men like John Muir on trail signs.

That’s if he even makes it outside in the first place; much of the US’s national park space tends to be in rural areas where minorities settle in fewer numbers -- and may not always feel welcome.

“We’ve got to make ourselves relevant,” Vela said.

They’re working on it.

The park service has looked for ways to incorporate lessons about the important roles minorities played in the history of the area at various national parks and monuments. They’ve also launched National Park Service academies aimed at recruiting mostly minority youth to join the workforce.

They’ve worked on getting minorities, who are more likely to be urban, interested in urban parks and monuments like the Statue of Liberty and Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, New Jersey. There’s an ambassadorship program aimed at getting minority young people who have had a chance to visit the parks to, as Vela put it, “take [the message] into places we can’t go,” living rooms and neighborhood centers.

That last point is critical, because while the parks may be welcoming to minorities now, they haven’t always given off that warm fuzzy feeling. Minorities are more likely to worry about safety and think they’ll be mistreated at the parks. Many don’t see the appeal of sleeping on the ground with nothing but a thin layer of fabric between themselves and the wildlife.

That’s where groups like the National Park Foundation, the park system’s official charity arm, come in.

The foundation’s American Latino Heritage Fund aims to ensure the parks recognize and give voice to Latinos as an important part of the country’s history and story, and encourages Hispanics to give the parks a chance.

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