The demographics of the United States are becoming more and more diverse, but the National Parks Service wonders why it is not seeing more minorities applying for jobs—or visiting. Can the parks thrive if they aren’t relevant to a rapidly changing U.S. population?

The Intermountain Region headquarters of the National Park Service (NPS) is your standard federal office building in Denver. In this urban environment, concrete, glass and steel house office cubicles where government employees administer the parks and monuments of eight western states. Here in the city where he grew up, Dwane Matthews, 22, rides a desk in service to wilderness. Answering phones, drafting documents and preparing presentations, this young African-American college student looks forward to a long career in outdoor recreation.

“I don’t want to work outside so much as I want to work with the National Park Service,” he says. “I mainly want to work with youth and expose a new generation of kids to the outdoors.”

Introduced to nature himself through the Colorado-based Environmental Learning For Kids program when he was 12, Matthews is among a growing number of African-Americans who aim to join the National Park Service workforce. He’s also the NPS Intermountain Region’s student training administrative Assistant. The job’s part of the Student Career Experience Program (SCEP), an initiative that helps college students establish their careers while at school.

Matthews, who majors in business at Metro State College, works in human resources, helping to place young people in jobs that may lead to full-time positions. SCEP is just one initiative the NPS hopes will seed its workforce with qualified candidates for employment who never thought they would have anything to do with parks. Through these programs, the NPS hopes more minorities will fill its ranks.

“A lot of people out there think, ‘because I’m a minority I can’t do this kind of work,’” Matthews says. “I see people of color in the outdoors and say, wow! We can do this.”

As as the demographics of the U.S. continue to change, inspiring those like Matthews will be about more than promoting diversity—it may be critical to the long-term survival of the National Parks themselves.

The Changing Demographic
“One in three U.S. residents is a member of a racial or ethnic minority group. Forty-five percent of all children younger than six are ethnic minorities,” says Cheryl Armstrong, the workforce enhancement specialist to the Intermountain Region. “The country is changing. Our population is aging. The era of the white majority is coming to a close. And if we do not make parks relevant to a changing demographic in America, who will be our environmental stewards, our advocates in the future?”

Go to a National Park anywhere in the United States and you’ll find very few people of color. Either as visitors or park employees, relative to their percentage of the population a disproportionate number of African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, Native-Americans or other ethic minorities frequent these wild and scenic places. A 2003 NPS survey revealed that issues such as distance of travel, overall costs and lack of information on what to do inside parks contributed most significantly to limit minority attendance.

But it also revealed that African-Americans were “more than three times as likely as whites to believe that park employees offer poor service to visitors, and that parks were uncomfortable places to be for people similar to themselves.”

Mountains to Climb: Bill Gwaltney wants the NPS to ensure parks are more inviting to people from diverse cultural backgrounds.

What Diversity Looks Like
A long-standing history of segregation and racially motivated violence in rural areas throughout the U.S. have impacted negative feelings among minorities toward the natural world. In order to change these perceptions the Intermountain Region of the NPS is taking steps to proactively reach out to communities of color. With training in cultural competency, interpretation programs and exhibits that offer a variety of cultural perspectives and direct interaction with community leaders, the NPS is learning to relate to the interests of a broader cross-section of the population. While federal law prohibits discrimination or hiring preferences toward any particular race or ethnicity, workforce enhancement specialists like Armstrong are providing park managers with tools to create a more inclusive environment.

“We’re affecting systemic change,” Armstrong says. “We have two issues here, visitor diversity and workforce diversity. One helps the other. It’s comforting for people of color when they come to visit a park to see a person who looks like them in a Park Service uniform.”

At National Park Service units near Native-American lands, for example, managers intend to develop a workforce that reflects the cultural heritage of the region.

“We’ve had visitor feedback from places like Mesa Verde or Canyon de Chelley in Arizona that has said they want to hear from interpretive rangers who are members of the culture that the parks’ ruins or resources are representing,” Armstrong says.

“Just like in a park in Texas that has a lot of Hispanic and Mexican culture and history, it’s important to have an interpretive staff that has a connection.”

“The National Parks can only survive if all Americans understand, appreciate and cherish their natural, cultural and outdoor heritage,” says Bill Gwaltney, the assistance director of workforce enhancement for the Intermountain Region. “As the African ecologist Baba Dioum said, ‘In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.’”

Gwaltney says its possible to help build those relationships through skilled and culturally sensitive interpretation.

“It’s not our job to shove anything down anybody’s throat,” he said. “Our job is to be available, to be receptive, to be open and to be welcoming to everyone. We’ve got to find ways to make sure that everyone understands that these places are for them.”

New Faces: Cheryl Armstrong has been entrusted with finding ways to encourage more minorities to consider NPS jobs.

The Future
Despite his urban upbringing, Dwane Matthews had many positive experiences outdoors. When he was a child, he was given the opportunity to find a place for himself in the natural world. And as an adult, though an African-American, he can envision a future in outdoor recreation and find confidence in his job prospects.

Over the next ten years 70 percent of the federal workforce, including the NPS, is expected to reach the age of retirement. In this recovering economy and with a desire to diversify its ranks there has never been a better opportunity for qualified applicants regardless of race or ethnicity to build a career at the National Park Service.

“I was asked to work in interpretation,” Matthews said. “The job is interpretation and education division park ranger youth program assistant. And that’s a route I’m looking to take.”•

James Edward Mills reports on the people and issues of the outdoor community at the Joy Trip Project (joytripproject.com).

Read This!
Two books that explore the African-American experience in the American wilderness

Gloryland
In his premiere novel, veteran National Park Service ranger Shelton Johnson, who was featured in Ken Burns’ National Parks documentary, chronicles the path of an African-American man born mere hours after the abolishment of slavery at the end of the Civil War. Narrated by lead character Elijah Yancy, the story unfolds in the years that follow to track his life’s course to become empowered by the liberty to be found in service to his country and communion with nature. From their military service in the Philippines and Cuba to their deployment to patrol the newly designated National Parks of Yosemite, Yellowstone and Sequoia, African-Americans played a pivotal role in protecting the freedom we enjoy today. In Gloryland, Johnson defines the legacy of their service that was instrumental in the creation of the National Parks and endures through the present to inspire future generations.
sierraclub.org/parks/gloryland

Rooted in the Earth
The modern African-American experience is typically urban. After the Civil War, freed slaves fled from farms to populate the industrial cities of the north. Leaving behind forced labor on plantations and racially motivated violence in remote wooded areas, African-Americans also shed much of their connections with the natural world. In her new book Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African-American Environmental Heritage, Morehouse Colllege professor Dianne Glave explores the importance of environment as a natural part of any human experience.

“We hold on to the past. That past includes the middle passage, being snatched from Africa and their known environment and being transported to another environment,” Glave says. “This was a very traumatic and painful transition.”

As a student of history Glave looks to the past in order to explain a modern African-American cultural aversion to nature. “In the United States, racism became violent in the woods and in the swamps,” she says. “These were places where African-Americans were lynched, often from a tree. There are still very negative connotations related to woods and swamps.”

Despite this tragic history there remains an indelible tradition of African-Americans in positive relation to the land. In her book Glave shares a history of conservation and stewardship, though often hidden, which stands as an important part of our national heritage. The book is due out in August 2010.