Taking the Park to the People: The Changing Culture of the National Park Service

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by Kimi Eisele

It’s summer time, which means many people take to the roads to visit America’s National Parks. Full of wildlife, remote beauty, and park rangers in Stetson hats, national parks draw deep love and respect from many. But for others, parks have always seemed like places out of reach.

A landscape of Saguaro National Park with saguaros, trees, mountains, cacti, and a vast, cloudly, blue sky.
Courtesy of Saguaro National Park.

A new generation of park rangers is hoping to change that, however, finding new strategies to shift an outmoded National Park culture, while maintaining a long tradition of stewarding and safeguarding public lands and history for future generations.

“Things have been done a particular way in the National Park System for the last 100 years,” says Camiliano Juarez, the community engagement coordinator and public information officer for Saguaro National Park (SNP) in Tucson. Year after year, visitors to SNP are predominantly white, Juarez says. But Tucson is a community of many ethnicities and backgrounds and the park should serve them, too, he says.

Making the park more accessible doesn’t mean tossing out all the existing outreach tactics. Rather, it’s about assessing diverse perspectives, adding new programs, and showing up in the community in different ways. “It’s as simple as recognizing that people of different backgrounds recreate differently,” Juarez says.

While the park is open to all, plenty of barriers limit participation, including transportation, costs, and perceptions about how parks can be used.

“The park has all these signs–stay on the trail, don’t go here, don’t to that,” Juarez says. “We have to see our responsibility for maintaining a wilderness area and the rules that come with that. But we also need to create experiences that invite people.”

The NPS uses the word “resource” for everything from vegetation to cultural landmarks. “That’s a Eurocentric word and concept to some people. We could just say ‘water, saguaro, fruit.’ You have to meet people at eye-level, match the audience you’re engaging.”

Even a park ranger uniform serves as a big stop sign for some audiences, which is why Juarez often wears a ball cap instead of a Stetson.

Saguaro National Park brochure with people hiking in the desert.
C. Harper photo, courtesy of Saguaro National Park.

Since starting his job in 2015, Juarez has helped increase the Park’s community contacts–calculated with a formula that averages face-to-face and indirect contacts–from 8,600 to nearly 33,000 contacts in 2017.

Special events like the Saguaro Sunset Serenata, a collaboration with Tucson Electric Power and Chicanos por la Causa, have helped draw new audiences to the park. The Serenata featured food and drink vendors, desert wildlife demonstrations, short night hikes, star gazing through telescopes, and live Mariachi music offered by youth performance groups.

“Some people said, ‘Why would you bring youth mariachi groups perform?’ But it’s not just about a concert,” Juarez says. “Every Mariachi kid brings three to four people to their performances. And they are predominantly Latino. So this is how we bring those families here.”

Families attending that event received a free park pass for future use and were also invited back to the Park in October for a morning hike with breakfast burritos. “Parents liked it and were asking when it would happen again. So now we have a hiking group that formed out of that,” he said.

As public information officer, Juarez has worked to increase op-eds and media announcement about Park activities on Spanish-language radio and in local bilingual news outlets.

He has also organized tabling events in areas with predominantly Latino audiences as well as at large events like Tucson Meet Yourself and the Tucson Festival of Books. He has also motivated his colleagues to participate in annual Rodeo Parade, the Cesar Chavez march, LGBT Pride parade, and Holiday of Lights parade.

“It’s really about taking the park to the people,” he says.

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area with rolling grassy hills.
Courtesy of Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, National Park Service.

Not Your Ordinary Taco Truck

Juarez takes a lot of inspiration from what’s happening in Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA) outside of Los Angeles, where park rangers like Vanessa Torres are finding creative solutions to reach communities.

Torres, SMMNRA’s district supervisor, has been with the NPS for over a decade, working in places like Grand Teton National Park and the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site on the Navajo Reservation.

“Historically, for many Latinos and Blacks and Filipinos, the outdoors was work, being a sharecropper and picking fruit to make ends meet. Also you look at the history of racism in the South and also in California, where the woods were not good places for people of color to go. There is some history to be acknowledged, and those cautionary tales continue to be told,” she says.

But organizations like Latino Outdoors and Outdoor Afro are shifting perspectives about wilderness and outdoor recreation for people of color, which in turn, shifts NPS culture. “We’re in this unique time where we have these outside groups putting pressure on government agencies or local parks and agencies, for how they want to reclaim their space,” Torres says.

In Los Angeles, connecting people to nature has become an important mission at SMMNRA. “We want to meet people where they’re at to raise awareness about the fact that there are these beautiful places here,” Torres says.

A family poses with props in front of the LA Ranger Troca--a taco truck with info about National Parks
The LA Ranger Troca. Photo by Connar L’Ecuyer, courtesy of Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, National Park Service.

Enter a retrofitted food truck that takes information about wildlife, hiking trails, recreation, and human history in SMMNRA to nearby communities—or the LA Ranger Troca.

“We wanted some Spanglish in there,” Torres says. “We get some flack for that every now and then. People say, ‘That’s not proper,’ and we’re like, ‘Yeah, we know, that’s LA.”

The truck’s exterior was designed by a team of youth with support from Santa Monica Mountains Fund, a non-profit organization that supports park activities. It features scenes of the natural landscape, but also images of nearby communities, including people and iconic places like City Hall, Disney Hall, and Griffith Park. “How do you celebrate nature?” is written on the back, with the word “nature” eight different languages–English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Samoan, Thai, Indonesian, Nepali.

“We really wanted to make sure we were representing the communities in an authentic way,” Torres says.

Two dedicated rangers staff the Troca, which  goes out to fairs, special events, community parks, schools, and libraries nearly every day. “Kids no longer run up to us with money thinking we’re an ice cream truck,” Torres says. Instead, kids now come and show others what they’ve learned about urban wildlife.

With the Troca, the public can connect to wild animals through hands-on materials, like bones and pelts. “Some of these animals are in people’s backyards, especially coyotes. No matter where you go in LA you’ll find someone who says, ‘Oh yeah, I saw one running down Alameda or he was eating fruit in my front yard.’ We have raccoons and skunks, too. So people can share stories of how they’ve interacted with those animals. For us, that’s the hook for us to be able to say, ‘Oh in Griffith Park, there’s a mountain lion who lives there, and he’s part of the ecosystem like you.’”

LA Ranger Troca
LA Ranger Troca. Courtesy of Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, National Park Service.

Though there’s no funding for it yet, Juarez is dreaming up a mobile unit for Saguaro National Park. Not a taco truck, but a tricycle designed to look like those used by paleteros, Mexican popsicle vendors, complete with a ringing bell. “We’ll have baseball-card style info, free-day passes, and we’ll be able to reach audiences at libraries and schools. We’ll create mini special events everywhere we go,” he says.

Changing from the Inside

For Juarez and Torres, changing NPS culture is also about creating internal shifts.

As parks work with communities in a different way, they diverge from what Torres calls a “savior complex,” or “We are the NPS and let me tell you how to do it,” she says. “Which creates a huge barrier. We tend not to see communities as assets within themselves.”

Torres and Juarez also work to undo the “culture of no” that often plagues large bureaucracies. “We have a huge problem of saying, ‘No’ or ‘I can’t,’ before exploring options.”

Torres says she’s been fortunate to have supervisors willing to work with her on new ideas. “It’s about being able to approach things from a ‘Let’s see how we can do this’ attitude.”

She sees that new attitude coming as a new generation of rangers comes into the system.

In 2010 and 2011, she helped develop a program called NPS Academy in collaboration with Student Conservation Association, to train college students interested in the park service. A similar program in Saguaro National Park called the Next Generation Ranger Corps (Next Gen) was created in 2015. A joint effort of SNP and Friends of Saguaro, Next Gen rangers are paid interns who learn about how the park works and offer their own skills to the day-to-day operations.

One of SNP’s Next Gen rangers, Tina Vavages-Andrew, is a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation and now holds the position of “Ancestral Ranger,” a new title that allows her to focus on connecting the public to her people and their history in the park.

She speaks to both native and non-native people, sharing the history of the Tohono O’odham in the Sonoran Desert and their connection with the Hohokam people, who left signs of their presence through petroglyphs and other archaeology.

She also works as a liaison between the Tohono O’odham Nation and the park. This year she arranged a visit of Park leadership to the camp of Stella Tucker, a Tohono O’odham elder whose family has been harvesting saguaro fruit in the park for decades.

Saguaro fruit in Saguaro National Park
Saguaro fruit in Saguaro National Park. Photo by Kimi Eisele

“Signing permits, having phone calls is all okay, but having a meet and greet is really valuable. Stella sat with the Park’s superintendent and the chief of law enforcement and they got to try some of the bahidaj. It went really well.”

While Vavages-Andrew is currently the only Ancestral Ranger in the NPS, her work is being used as a model to create similar positions throughout parks in the United States.

Educating native youth about park history is particularly powerful, she says. “Many youth don’t know about the Hohokam. It’s an opportunity for them to understand their own history. They might know the boundaries of their own reservation, but it’s a confidence booster for them to learn that we’ve always dwelled all over these lands. I tell them, ‘Anywhere you go, you are home.’”

And that’s a message Juarez and Torres hope everyone who visit the country’s national parks will feel as well.

2 thoughts on “Taking the Park to the People: The Changing Culture of the National Park Service”

  1. What a great endeavor. Cami et al. are energetic, outside the box thinkers and doers who are helping in a huge way to break barriers & to spread knowledge and exposure.
    In our experience as National Parks volunteers we have been much impressed with many of the Rangers’ enthusiasm and hard work in educating the public and hosting events that include people of diverse cultures

  2. Congratulations to all who have changed the parks in their creative ways to make parks be so inclusive. The parks are so grand n so important for everyone to enjoy.


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