The National Park Service Is Trying to Change Its Vanilla Reputation

Nearly 80 percent of park employees are non-Hispanic whites.

August 20, 2013, 11:17 AM
PHOTO: Tourists look at Spruce Tree House in Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.
Tourists look at Spruce Tree House in Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.
Witold Skrypczak/Getty Images

Aug. 20, 2013— -- 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.

The fund has turned in part to social media, where Hispanics congregate in large numbers, to achieve that. They host regular Twitter town halls and encourage people to share their park photos on sites like Instagram.

This summer they launched an “expedition” to get more minorities, especially Latinos, into the parks, rolling out the all-expenses-paid contest on social media sites. Winners got a trip to a park, where they met park employees and learned about the site’s history, and in turn are encouraged to blog, tweet and chat about it with family and friends.

Midy Aponte, executive director of the American Latino Heritage Fund, said during an interview with Fusion that the outreach campaign proved “really successful,” with more than 200 people applying in groups of four.

One of the groups has completed its tour of Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, another is currently at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Arizona and Utah, and the final group is set to depart later this month to Washington’s Olympic National Park.

Yvonne Condes, editor and co-founder of, traveled to the Colorado park with her husband and two sons. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona but didn’t see the nearby Grand Canyon until she went with friends at age 19.

“Growing up,” she said, “it wasn’t something we talked about.”

A trip to a national park seemed too daunting and too expensive to her family, she said. The idea of sleeping outside on the ground didn’t sound so appealing, either.

But not all parks are rustic like that and the foundation has tried to prove that. At Mesa Verde, for example, Condes and her family stayed in a hotel that came with wifi and a nearby Starbucks.

Condes brought her family along, but several of the other winners were going with girlfriends as scouts to see if their families might like it.

Chelle Roberts, another participant, says she agrees cost and the logistics of transportation and lodging probably serve as barriers for a lot of people, but said social media is a way to show people they can visit the parks because it’s real, it’s not a glossy brochure.

The park system itself is also slowly joining the 21st century when it comes to visitor centers and social media presence. There are federal regulations on social media use, but Vela said the park service recognizes that minorities, especially Latinos, tend to be “high tech and social-media savvy.”

Vela’s first park experience came as a kid in the 1960s, when his parents piled him and his siblings into the car and drove to Yellowstone from southeast Texas. No one looked like him and it all seemed a little foreign, he said, but it didn’t matter. People were nice and he wanted to wear that Smokey the Bear ranger hat, too. The childhood fascination stuck and he’s been with the park service for decades. His son, who grew up in the parks, is a U.S. law enforcement ranger.

“We want to go there as an agency,” Vela said. “Even though these might be foreign, first-ever experiences, the parks are welcoming, they are safe, and we will engage you.”

Disclosure: Fusion Vice President of Digital Miguel Ferrer is on the ALHF Board.

Update, 2:15 p.m.: The number of people who applied for the ALHF's expedition has been clarified.