There has been quite a bit of media coverage on Oprah Winfrey’s visit and camping trip to Yosemite National Park. Oprah’s stopover in the park was prompted by an invitation from Park Ranger Shelton Johnson who is the only African-American Ranger at the park, an author, and a featured voice in the Ken Burns documentary on the history of the National Parks. Oprah’s visit was intended to inspire minorities to develop and interest and then visit our National Parks. This is truly a noble effort that will hopefully generate interest in the parks for a large part of our population that is not often seen on hiking trails, in campgrounds, or in visitor centers.
During my career with the National Park Service there was a constant concern and emphasis on developing a more diverse workforce to protect our parks. In 1999 I conducted research and wrote an academic thesis on recruiting of seasonal employees for the National Park Service. At that time those of us in the field attempting to fill summer temporary positions had seen a sharp decline in the number of applicants. This concern spurred my interest in the recruiting process and a component of the resulting research was to determine what had attracted those persons working as seasonals in the National Park System. One common thread that became quite apparent was that most individuals were exposed to National Parks as children with their families. This early exposure to the concept of National Parks and working or living in either the outdoors or in culturally significant sites started for most at an early age.
My parents taking me to visit National Parks strongly influenced my own desire to become a National Park Ranger.
Should Oprah’s visit to Yosemite influence people to visit parks, the National Park Service could see a golden opportunity to not only improve the diversity of visitors and supporters of the system but the chance to influence future career choices that could ultimately lead to the diverse workforce objectives the agency has strived toward for years.