Don't Care About National Parks? The Park Service Needs You To The National Park Service has a longstanding diversity problem in its workforce and visitors. As the Park Service celebrates 100 years and looks to its next 100, it wants to change that.

Don't Care About National Parks? The Park Service Needs You To

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As we've mentioned on this program, the National Park Service is turning a hundred this year, celebrating its sweeping vistas and historic buildings. The Park Service is not just basking in the glow of its centennial. To last another 100 years, it will have to overcome some challenges, like how to get all kinds of Americans to visit its attractions. NPR's Nathan Rott has more on the Park Service's diversity problem.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: No matter where you are in Tucson, Ariz. - anywhere in Tucson Arizona - you're no more than a 45-minute drive from Saguaro National Park. The park and its tall, pronged namesake cactus literally surround Tucson and its million or so residents. But if you go around town and you ask some of those people about their neighboring national park...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Saguaro High School or...

ROTT: Saguaro National Park...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Park.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Saguaro National Park.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I don't know anything about that. Do you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I don't.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Laughter) No.

ROTT: Of course many Tucsonans do know about Saguaro. Many visit. But a huge number of people here, especially in certain demographics, feel disconnect. Just ask Saguaro National Park superintendent Darla Sidles.

DARLA SIDLES: The type of people that are coming to the park versus the people just five minutes away is really an issue for us here because...

ROTT: The people coming to the park don't reflect the type of people in the community.

SIDLES: The demographics here - about 44 percent Hispanic, and meanwhile, Saguaro National Park - we receive maybe 4 percent diverse visitation.

ROTT: About half of that are Hispanic or Latino. Put another way, that's nearly a half a million people - almost an entire demographic group - living within view of a national park who aren't connecting to it. Sidles says that has to change.

SIDLES: In order, you know, for us to be relevant down the road.

ROTT: Now, this is not an issue that's unique to Saguaro National Park. It's everywhere. The National Parks saw a record 307.2 million visits last year, and it's fair to assume that most of those visitors were white. The National Park Service doesn't track the demographics of its visitors. Saguaro did its own study. But the most recent survey on visitation released in 2011 found that fewer than 10 percent of American visitors to national parks were Hispanic. African-Americans were just 7 percent, Asian-Americans 3. And that's despite the fact that those groups made up nearly 40 percent of the country's total population.

JONATHAN JARVIS: We know that visitation does not reflect the diversity of the nation, and that's a concern.

ROTT: Jonathan Jarvis is the director of the National Park Service. He says it's concerning on a couple of levels. From a survival standpoint, he says the Park Service is acutely aware that the country is becoming more diverse, more urban and that soon, younger people, multicultural millennials...

JARVIS: They will assume all seats of power and responsibilities for the nation. So connecting to that generation is essential to the Park Service's ability to thrive in our second century.

ROTT: More importantly, though, he says the Park Service has to connect to young, diverse people and tell everyone's stories because it's their mandated responsibility.

JARVIS: And that's our job.

ROTT: To that end, Jarvis has made increasing diversity at the National Parks a top priority, figuring out why diverse people aren't coming at the same rates and what the Park Service is doing that keeps them away. Answering those questions is Cam Juarez's job. Juarez is from Tucson. He's a leader in the Hispanic community here, and he recently started working for Saguaro National Park as its outreach coordinator, trying to figure out why the divide between the park and the community exists and how to remedy it. We're doing that now, visiting a couple of area schools where some people don't know about the parks and, frankly, don't really care.

CAM JUAREZ: It's like we're out there selling snake oil, almost.

(LAUGHTER)

ROTT: In a way, Juarez is the perfect person for this job. He never visited national parks as a kid either.

JUAREZ: It just wasn't something we did.

ROTT: His family was poor, working-class. So growing up, he said he always thought of the national parks as something for rich people or outdoorsy guys.

JUAREZ: They have the scruffy beard, you know, the denim shirt, you know, the trucker hat.

ROTT: A lot like what I look like right now.

JUAREZ: Exactly (laughter).

ROTT: Basically, Juarez says he thought the parks were meant for white dudes like me.

JUAREZ: Hey, guys - digging the mask, Man.

ROTT: At our first stop at a local charter school, we hear something similar from Luis Perales, the school's chief academic officer. He says Latinos want to go outdoors as much as the next guy. Go to any park or hiking trail in Tucson, and you'll see that's the case. But when it comes to national parks...

LUIS PERALES: Spaces either are inviting or rejecting in many ways. And I think a lot of what's been created is this idea that this is not your space.

ROTT: For example, Perales says look at the messaging and mythos around parks and what they offer.

PERALES: Like, go out on your own. Enjoy nature. Don't harm it.

ROTT: It's the solitude and quiet of a John Muir photo. Perales says that doesn't necessarily work with a lot of Latinos. He's seen it tried in advertisements floated before Latino focus groups.

PERALES: First ads was, like, this big, brawny kind of Mexicano dude, you know, out in the forest. And the first question the focus group asked was, where's his family? Why would this guy go by himself? Like, what's the matter with him? If you're going...

JUAREZ: What's he running from?

PERALES: Yeah. He's either running for something, or he's up to no good if he's out there on his own, you know what I mean? So the rugged individualism just doesn't apply

ROTT: Of course, that's not universal, but we heard a lot of stories like this talking to people in Tucson, stuff like there not being enough picnic tables to accommodate big, extended families at Saguaro National Park, a lack of Spanish translations or pamphlet and signs. But there was also another reason that people gave, one that was most succinctly said by Saguaro National Park intern Bella Furr.

BELLA FURR: Well, I mean, the other thing is that the Park Service is full of white men.

ROTT: Which doesn't exactly scream diversity welcome. According to the most recent survey, about 80 percent of Park Service employees around the country are white. Here at Saguaro National Park, Superintendent Darla Sidles estimates it's about 75 percent.

SIDLES: We don't have as diverse of a staff as we should have. We have to reflect the face of the people that we want to attract.

ROTT: Efforts to do that nationally have been around for decades, but little has changed. Federal hiring practices and resistance to change make it difficult to have a workforce that looks like the country. But the bigger issue is low turnover. People just don't leave these jobs. That could be changing soon, though. The Baby Boomer generation is nearing retirement, and Sidles says that presents an opportunity. To take advantage of it, they've partnered with an outside group to hire young, diverse people from the community - so-called next-gen rangers like 21-year-old Yesenia Gamez Valdez.

GAMEZ VALDEZ: Can you guess what it is by looking at it?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: A sabertooth.

VALDEZ: No.

ROTT: Gamez Valdez and her fellow rangers work at the Park Service visitor centers in the field and increasingly in the community, like at this recent health event in downtown Tucson.

VALDEZ: I love doing events like this just because you exposed people that are usually not exposed to the park. It's kind of like we're bringing the park to them.

ROTT: By doing that and by presenting a relatable face, the hope is that the national parks' visitors and workforce will start to be more representative of the people they serve in the future. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Tucson, Ariz.

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