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Park Service aims for diversity among visitors and workers; Conference explores methods to attract nonwhites to national sites


SAN FRANCISCO -- For most of this century, the National Park Service has worked hard to preserve the country's natural resources and history. But for whom?

Responding to criticism that its work force is mostly white and the vast majority of park visitors are too, the service held its first conference on diversity here.

About 550 people from across the nation, many of them from community organizations representing blacks, Asians, Latinos and other ethnic minorities, gathered for a traditional blessing by an American Indian of the Pomo tribe before attending workshops last week with such titles as: "National Parks: Places of Isolation or Inclusivity?" and "Achieving a National Park System Relevant to All Americans."

"We need to continue our efforts internally and to work with other organizations to assure that all citizens of the United States understand that these parks are being preserved for their benefit," Park Service Director Robert Stanton said in an interview.

Appointed in 1997, Stanton is the service's first black director. He sees a link between the relatively small number of ethnic minorities visiting the parks and the fact that only a handful of minorities work for the park service. Nonwhite visitors may feel more comfortable in the parks, he and other officials have said, if they see employees who look more like them.

Of the park service's 15,929 permanent employees, 79 percent are white and 11 percent are black. Few of the service's black employees serve as park rangers, where they would come into contact with the public. Fewer than 5 percent of the service's work force is Latino, fewer than 3 percent are American Indian and just 1 percent are Asian.

Just two years ago, the park service's Western Regional office compiled the organization's first list of media outlets aimed at ethnic communities and distributed it to the parks. Park superintendents have begun to refer to the list when they send out news releases, contact reporters about articles or send notices of job openings.

The service also has begun recruiting temporary summer employees on traditionally black college campuses and in inner cities. Stanton began his park service career more than 30 years ago as a summer hire in Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park.

And the service is conducting more surveys of park visitors. A 1998 survey of five sites in different regions disclosed that groups of whites constituted at least 85 percent, and as much as 95 percent of the visiting groups.

Such findings endanger the future of the 378 parks, historic sites and monuments under the service's jurisdiction as the nation's ethnic makeup shifts, said John Reynolds, director of the service's Pacific West Region.

Conference participant Earlice Rupp agreed, saying that fear of eventually losing congressional funding is pushing the park service to change.

"We're talking money now," Rupp said. "The color of interest is the color green."

Rupp is president of the Nicodemus Historical Society. Nicodemus, a tiny, northwest Kansas town founded by emancipated slaves after the Civil War, has been preserved as the oldest black town west of the Mississippi. The town, which still has 35 residents, was named a National Historic Site and added to the park service last year.

Several other sites commemorating cultural diversity have been added to the park system in the past 10 years. For example, the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site marks the previously all-white school that was integrated by nine black students in 1957. The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Alabama preserves Moton Field, the training base for an all-black air corps unit of World War II.

Because of its low rate of staff turnover and funding shortages, the park service faces difficulties in aggressively recruiting minorities and mounting costly outreach programs, officials concede.

Pub Date: 1/18/99

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