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Why has the National Park Service gotten whiter?

Agency trying to hire diverse staff, but it can’t make headway

It’s a nasty, end-of-winter night in the coastal Washington town of Ilwaco, but the driving rain is the least of Nancy Fernandez’s concerns. The inside of the Salt Pub is dry but jammed with soggy locals chomping burgers, sipping brews and waiting to check out the night’s entertainment, which is Fernandez, 25. She’s crossed the Columbia River, from Lewis and Clark National Historical Park in Oregon, to present her findings on plants and climate change.

When asked before the talk if she is nervous, Fernandez replies, “Very.”

But as slides of field mustard and skunk cabbage appear on the screen behind her, the crowd is drawn in, and her confidence grows. She is wearing a bright red shirt and flashing an even more dazzling smile.

Relaxing on a lobby sofa afterward, Fernandez contemplates the months she’s spent at Lewis and Clark as an intern. One of her first triumphs there was using her Spanish to persuade migrant parents to leave their son for an overnight campout. Since then, she’s picked up frogs with summer camp kids, paddle-boarded the Lewis and Clark River, and hiked a lava tube near Mount St. Helens.

“I never imagined myself doing anything like this before,” Fernandez says. She left her central California home after college, against the wishes of her Mexican immigrant parents, and eventually completed three consecutive internships through the Student Conservation Association, which partners with the National Park Service and other agencies to develop young stewards. She’s determined to be part of that generation.

She has clocked enough project hours to earn noncompetitive employment status, which in the arcane federal hiring system is tantamount to obtaining a hire-this-diverse-candidate-free card.

A lot is riding on Fernandez and people like her. The agency is a sprawling institution with 23,000 employees who manage and protect cherished public lands and its cultural history. But it also is a perennially underfunded agency with a gender problem (63 percent of its workforce is male), an age problem (nearly 50 percent is at least 46 years old), and a race problem (83 percent white).

The demographics of today’s park visitors nearly mirror those of the agency’s workforce, cementing longstanding suggestions that the park system lacks relevance to communities of color. This is a sobering realization for an agency that, under Director Jonathan Jarvis, pivoted to a belief that diversity and inclusiveness in workforce and visitation will flow from a focus on relevancy.

The National Park Service relies on a labyrinthine federal hiring system that favors military veterans and makes it nearly impossible to improve diversity by targeting hires by race. Even if it could, the agency doesn’t have enough jobs to offer anyway.

“Everybody commits to diversity intellectually, and they commit to it in their hearts, but they don’t have any idea what kind of work it takes to really get this done,” says Mickey Fearn, who was the highest-ranking person of color in the agency under Jarvis.

The Park Service has begun building bridges into communities of color by telling more of their stories. It’s had an enthusiastic partner in President Barack Obama, who not only has protected more land and sea under the Antiquities Act than any other president, but also established more national park units significant to nonwhites, such as Maryland’s Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park and the César Chávez National Monument in California.

Yet workplace diversity in the agency not only has failed to improve during the Obama administration.

One former intern calls it “the Mississippi of federal agencies,” and others say it struggles to see solutions through the fog of its own overwhelming whiteness. The Park Service’s response to inquiries about workforce diversity has been awkward at an official level. The agency invited High Country News to a meeting in Washington, D.C., to explain its challenges and efforts. Half the group did not speak or make eye contact, and the atmosphere seemed tense. No direct contact followed, and further requests for resources, such as partner data and workforce demographics, were referred to the agency’s public affairs office.

Dozens of Park Service rangers and hiring managers throughout the West agreed to be interviewed during the year we followed Fernandez through the system, but only if they were not identified. Several checked back, in fact, to ensure their names wouldn’t be linked to information or opinions.

“It would be suicidal for them to criticize the agency in public,” Fearn says.

Now a professor at North Carolina State University, Fearn left the National Park Service in 2013, in large part, he says, because of the “Mickey fatigue” that developed in the agency due to his continually pushing for diversity and inclusiveness. Before his 3½ years at the national parks, he led groundbreaking work on race and diversity, including the Race and Social Justice Initiative in Seattle. Cultural isolation also played a part in his leaving, Fearn says. During his tenure, he was the only African-American in the top three levels of the Park Service.

Nancy Fernandez is just one of many recruits summoned to address the kind of change facing Lewis and Clark – a shift that is occurring all over the country, which is projected to be majority nonwhite within three decades. When she arrived at the park just before the summer of 2015, a traditionally migrant Latino population had begun settling in Clatsop County, where most of Lewis and Clark is located. The Latino population is about 10 percent, and growing fast, in nearby Astoria.

Eager to introduce this burgeoning community to his park, then-Superintendent Scott Tucker dispatched two rangers for an entire week to invite the migrant communities to a free picnic. He says he had a “light-bulb moment” when no Latinos showed up. Latino community leaders later applauded his sending rangers, but asked him, “Were they in uniform?”

Tucker, who is white, got the point. Lesson learned, Tucker applied for two bilingual summer interns and felt he hit the jackpot with Fernandez and Sal Ornelas, who also is from California. He supplemented the pair with three Latino seasonal employees, and last year, Lewis and Clark had Latino kids in its summer camp programs for the first time. With her teaching background, Fernandez was a natural with children and deft at creating trust with Spanish-speaking parents. Tucker helped her land another SCA internship, shared with San Juan Island National Historic Park.

Before last summer, Fernandez’s attachment to the outdoors had been minimal. She once volunteered for an archaeological survey in Stanislaus National Forest, where she had to camp but had no idea how to pitch a tent. On a visit to Yosemite National Park, near her home in California’s Central Valley, she observed people doing something called “hiking.” The activity, however, drew a blank.

“I never heard of people hiking,” she says. “What is that? I’d heard of long walks.”

Her parents, from Michoacán on the southwest coast of Mexico, were field workers, mostly, and a tough sell, Fernandez says: The concept of outdoor recreation is so removed from Mexican immigrant culture, there aren’t even words in Spanish for basic terms such as hiking, camping and tent. It was bad enough that their daughter had switched majors from nursing to anthropology at California State University, Stanislaus. But after spending the summer in Lewis and Clark, with its coastal forests, meandering rivers and abundant wildlife, she wanted to do the kind of things they’d worked to protect her from — like taking a job outdoors and sleeping on the ground.

“It was a very difficult discussion,” Fernandez recalls.

Tucker introduced Fernandez to the first of her “fun outdoors” jobs. His previous career had nurtured a sensitivity to diversity and inclusion. When he was at the National Mall, he encountered a young African-American boy on a field trip with his school. The boy returned that evening with his father and excitedly pointed out everything he’d seen and learned earlier. That image stuck.

“That’s how we get underserved people to the parks,” says Tucker, 42, who recently became superintendent at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan. “Get them early, and keep them involved for life.”

To that end, the Park Service has committed considerable resources to creating a pipeline for young people like Fernandez. Its programs are driven by agreements with 52 partner organizations, which last year employed 4,248 youth interns in national parks. An additional 11,372 were employed in parks last year by commercial services organizations, mostly concessionaires. They have been gateways into the Park Service for the likes of Shelton Johnson, an African-American at Yosemite National Park who may be the agency’s most recognized ranger.

The third-party youth programs help the National Park Service circumvent prohibitions against targeted recruitment of diverse young job candidates, but they are not without their challenges. The Student Conservation Association has been one of the agency’s biggest and longest-standing partners. It founded the NPS Academy, one of the Park Service’s most significant and innovative programs for targeting diverse youth; Fernandez attended it, as both a participant and a mentor. But the SCA also has been criticized in the past for its lack of internal diversity and, more recently, for its higher-than-average overhead ratio, which sources say is about 26 percent. That means SCA interns aren’t paid much and have to play chicken against financial pressures while they await permanent job opportunities. One Forest Service official, for example, mentored a young SCA intern who had to spend a Colorado summer living in her car. Such conditions are why internships often are viewed as “the playground of rich white kids” with family support.

Nancy Fernandez might be one of the lucky ones. At least she’s in the system — even if it’s a complicated and daunting one.

The usual way to apply for an opening is through the government jobs website, USAJobs.gov. Basic instructions run 20 pages, and none offer suggestions on how to appeal to specific agencies.

Even if park superintendents decided today to fill all their openings with candidates of color, they technically could not do so. The federal process of job creation, application and hiring is mostly blind, to encourage equal and open competition. Candidates are rated and ranked according to their responses to questions about their qualifications and skill levels, a method that doesn’t always reward the honest and humble. Military veterans get hiring priority. Only certain hiring authorities (exceptions and noncompetitive status, based on experience such as Peace Corps service, or participation in student programs) can trump a veteran’s place in line. This, one source said flatly, “is killing diversity efforts in the National Park Service.”

Depending on your point of view, some or much of the recent backslide in Park Service diversity efforts can be blamed on the changes the Obama administration made in the federal hiring process, which inadvertently neutralized the agency’s not-inconsiderable efforts to recruit candidates of color. Two programs used to target diverse young hires were replaced by one called Pathways, which opened up competition and inserted a preference for veterans – a preference amplified throughout the hiring process.

Congress presently is clashing in conference committee over a Senate provision limiting hiring preference to a veteran’s first job and not subsequent employment, as is currently the case. Congress also is discussing extending the Public Lands Corps’ noncompetitive status from 120 days to two years. That would give someone like Fernandez significantly more time to find an opening.

Despite everything, a breeze of change is wafting through the agency, generated not by mandate but by a combination of commitment, innovation, leadership, and, to a certain extent, location. Smaller park units are more successful at hiring diverse candidates because they’re more nimble and experimental, less encumbered by daily infrastructure and personnel demands.

At Lewis and Clark, the seeds that Scott Tucker sowed more than a year ago are beginning to flourish. Half the park’s summer camp slots are filled by Latino children, the result of a cooperative program with Astoria Public Schools. This summer, the youth program has seven diverse staff members, three of whom are bilingual. Last year, the park also hired a permanent bilingual ranger.

It just wasn’t Nancy Fernandez.

During orientation at the NPS Academy in March 2015, Fernandez was told that the National Park Service’s workforce was older, white, male and ready to retire. She was hopeful, because she represented the very opposite. Yet when she applied for an education post at Lewis and Clark, she received an automated message stating that she wasn’t qualified.

Somewhat to her surprise, Fernandez qualified for another 120 days of noncompetitive status at Chattahoochee. She is trying to use that status for the few openings she knows about and for which she feels qualified. She also began applying for other low-paying internships that would keep her in the Park Service or at least the outdoors, as well as for professional development training she could not easily afford. She recently was accepted into the Outdoor Educators Institute in Oakland. It’s not the National Park Service, not permanent or even a job, but it allows her to stay in the game until an opportunity presents itself.

Still, Fernandez no longer is certain about her endgame, or what her tenure in the National Park Service actually represented.

“Either I failed,” Fernandez says, “or the system failed me.”

New, diverse parks

President Obama has designated or expanded 24 national park units under the Antiquities Act, more than any president. Among those units are seven especially significant to communities of color:

Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial (CA)

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial (DC)

César Chávez National Monument (CA)

Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument (OH)

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park* (MD)

Pullman National Monument (IL)

Honouliuli National Monument (HI)

*Originally designated a national monument in 2013.

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