Guest Post: State Parks Forever and for Everyone

Ricardo J. Ramirez is a former California Department of Parks and Recreation (CDPR) Assistant Director for Policy and Public Involvement. He shared his views and experience in the desire to see a sustainable, widely-supported, and celebrated state park system that is inclusive of and relevant to all Californians.  Agree or disagree, take the time to read and consider his perspective–and most importantly the work to make parks “familiar and comfortable”, especially through the ambicultural  leaders Latino Outdoors supports and celebrates. 

Ricardo Ramirez 2

Reasons why the California State Parks System (CSPS) is Irrelevant to the Latina/o Community and the Negative Consequences for Both the CDPR and the Latina/o community

The Park Forward Commission (PFC), California Parks Foundation (CPF), the California Department of Parks and Recreation (CDPR) and the CDPR Office of Historic Preservation (OHP) appear to be in agreement with the following PFC executive summary statement,

Long-term (State Parks) success requires meeting the needs of California’s evolving populations.  If State Parks is to be successful moving forward, it needs to be relevant to the citizens it is serving, who will be more urban and non-white.

From this statement we can conclude that the CSPS is now by and large irrelevant to Latinas/os.

A reason the CSPS is not relevant to the Latina/o community, is that, unlike the principal culture population, it did not and does not participate in the development of the CSPS.  Apparently, the CDPR, over the years, did not see this chronic lack of Latina/o participation as a problem.  Beyond being aware and acknowledging the need to engage the Latina/o community, no real action was taken to engage this community; by and large this problem persists today.

In the Recreation in California Recreation issues and actions: 1981 – 1985, final approved Draft July 27, 1981 Issue 3: Cultural and Ethnic groups, one recommendation clearly states:

Representatives of ethnic minority groups should be included in recreation planning and decision-making. 

I believe, this problem stems from the fact that the CDPR did not/does not consider the Latina/o community as relevant to the development of the CSPS (perhaps even its future.)  This long standing CDPR mind-set produced undesirable consequences for the CDPR and the Latina/o community, such as; a CSPS irrelevant in the lives of the Latino community and the loss of the physical and psychological benefits derived from CSPS use, the lack of Latina/o appreciation for the present unfavorable CSPS condition, the absence of a Latina/o community CSPS constituency and stewardship relationship, and the inequitable distribution of CDPR public funds, to name a few.

Correcting the negative effects of a CDPR 20th century mind set will be the challenge for the new 21st century CDPR.

The Latina/o Community Calls for Active Recreation Urban State Parks

Several generations of Latina/o communities were low income, many are low income today.  These communities met/meet their park and recreation needs at home or near home open space i.e. backyards, barrio streets, church fairs (Jamaicas), vacant lots, cultural celebrations, religious holidays, a favorite community movie theater, makeshift dirt baseball diamonds, open fields, tree groves, river bottoms, community organized sports etc..

If not park poor, many Latina/o low income communities were and still are park poor, they ventured to near local, county, and regional parks for day use family gatherings, and various forms of active recreation, some also ventured to near urban area national forests.

Consequently, it is not surprising, that the study of recreation problems in low income metropolitan neighborhoods, initiated by the Governor’s Office in 1969, found that

In these low-income neighborhoods, leisure activities were most commonly engaged in at home. The breakdown of activity location expressed in percent’s was as follows: 52 percent occurred in or near their place of residence, 19 percent at public facilities, 14 percent at commercial enterprises, and 8 percent at local community service agencies. Seven percent of activities was considered non destination.

As a result, to address the problem(s), the 1974 California Outdoor Recreation Resources Plan, (CORRP) page 79, made the following recommendations:

Strategically located recreation areas should be developed. These areas should be in close proximity (less than two hours driving time) to large, identifiable ethnic minority neighborhoods.  Facilities should be constructed that provide for picnicking and other day-use activities

Moreover, because Latina/o communities have historically met their recreation needs in much the same way since 1969, it is not surprising that 47 years later the under sign of the William C. Velasquez Institute letter to the Parks Forward Commission, called for active recreation urban state parks near large urban populated areas.  Apparently, a CDPR facility is relevant to the Latina/o community if it meets their active recreation needs in relatively close proximity to their residence; at least for now.

Of course, some Latinas/os have found their way to CDPR facilities, however, by and large several Latina/o generations did not grow up with a CSPS experience and as such did not acquire a familiar and comfortable relationship with CSPS.  It is unfortunate that a significant number of Latinas/os did not/have not experienced the benefits afforded by California’s world class state parks system, even though, it was and is within their reach.

The Governor’s 1969 Minority Outdoor Recreation Study (G69MORS) found that;

Low-income minority citizens occasionally make sacrifices in their budgets to travel great distances for recreation with which they are familiar and comfortable and for which they have adequate skills for participation.

The CDPR maintains that the CSPS is available to all people, and that CSPS use is a matter of choice; I agree.  However, given that the number of Latina/o CSPS visitor rates are not acceptable, the obvious question the CDPR needs to ask is; why did/do Latinas/os chose not to use the CSPS in significant numbers even though they have been/are within their reach?

From the G69MORS it can be surmised that the Latina/o community did not, and many still do not, use CSPS facilities because they are not familiar and comfortable.  However, this is not surprising since the CSPS was not intended to be familiar and comfortable to the Latina/community, it was intended to familiar and comfortable to the principal culture.  This we learned from PWC Commisioner John Reynolds’s essay: Whose America? Whose Idea? Making “America’s Best Idea” Reflect New American Realities.   He states:

In short, the early development of America’s national parks is a classic example of generally unacknowledged “white privilege “in action.

Note: The NPS was a model for the CSPS.

The question then is, how can the new 21st century CDPR make the CSPS familiar and comfortable for the Latina/o community?  The short answers is; establish a meaningful working relationship with this community, gain Latina/o culture competencies and intimate knowledge of their park and recreation and culture resources needs, and develop CSPS Latina/o culture based products and services that meet the needs of this community and the CDPR mission.

This working relationship might develop Latina/o culture and nature based family user friendly CDPR products and services, for state parks facilities near urban centers with large Latina/o populations, similar to what was recommended in the 1974 CORRP some 40 years ago.  These products and services would be designed to make the CSPS familiar and comfortable to the Latina/o visitor and similar to what they already experience at local, county, and regional parks, however, they would be in keeping with the CDPR mission; this will require some creative work guided with Latina/o culture competencies.  In part, the Carpinteria State Beach Tomol Interpretive Play Area can serve as a small example of how active recreation can be compatible with the CDPR mission.  Mr. Rojas (retired CDPR park superintendent) referenced this state park play area in his presentation at the Fresno, Ca. PFC meeting.

Importantly, to increase Latina/o CSPS visitation, particularly of state parks that are far distant from urban Latina/o communities, these familiar and comfortable near urban CSPS facilities can also be used as gateway parks, to inspire, attract, and invite these communities to visit more distance state parks; apparently they can if they choose too.  This recommendation has long been available to the CDPR, perhaps the CDPR is currently implementing a version of this recommendation.

1974 CORRP recommendation:

These facilities should also be used as centers for the dissemination of information on the entire State Park System; e.g., the location of various State Park System units and the activities available.  The facilities should serve as meeting places where trips to other units of the State Park System can be organized.  In addition, the rental of camping, hiking, skiing, and other outdoor equipment at reasonable cost within these facilities should be possible.

The CDPR does have a program called FamCamp that can be said is a response to the 1974 CORRP recommendation, however, to my knowledge, its effectiveness has not yet been determined.  Perhaps the CDPR has other non-formal programs that in part meet the 1974 CORRP recommendation.  A related topic is bus access to recreation areas and facilities.  A 32 year old, 1982 CDPR report, Bus Access to Recreation Areas and Facilities, lists several recommendations on how this service could be made available; these recommendations are still current today.

Latinas/os can go the Distance

It is a myth that Latinas/os don’t use the CSPS because they are too far and cannot afford the transportation cost.  Since at least 1969 the CDPR has known that Latinas/Latinos do have the capacity to travel long distances and that the CSPS is within their reach.  The reason the CSPS has not and is not used by the vast majority of Latinas/os is because the CSPS is not relevant and familiar and comfortable.  The CDPR can make the CSPS relevant and familiar and comfortable if it chooses too!

The 1969 Minority Outdoor Recreation Study (MORS) found that;

Low-income minority citizens occasionally make sacrifices in their budgets to travel great distances for recreation with which they are familiar and comfortable and for which they have adequate skills for participation.

Mr. Ruben Vargas – Unofficial Yosemite National Park (YNP) Barrio Community Outreach Specialist and YNP Ambassador

Attesting to the G69MORS findings, in the early 1960’s some 50 years ago, and with respect to making state and national parks, relevant, familiar and comfortable, Mr. Ruben Vargas, was escorting low income barrio families to Yosemite National Park (YNP); travel time was 6 hours. Mr. Vargas was our community’s YNP unofficial community outreach specialist and YNP Ambassador, who everybody called Yosemite Sam.  For many it would be their first YNP camping experience; this was the time when the YNP featured fire waterfalls and dump site scavenging bears.

For several years, Mr. Vargas, led a caravan of low income barrio families serving as their personal guide to the park and its natural wonders; he even provided some with camping equipment which he purchased at army – navy surplus stores.  To my knowledge, Mr. Vargas, a WWII veteran, was the first in our community to venture to YNP.  On his return he would relish sharing his family’s camping experiences, cajoling, exciting, inspiring and inviting families to join him in a visit to YNP; he favored Wawona campsites.

Even though YNP was completely unfamiliar to these families, they would join Mr. Vargas because they respected and trusted him; he spoke their language, and was one of their own.  He was not aware of it, however, by sharing his experiences, he made YNP relevant familiar and comfortable to these first time YNP visitors.  His stories mitigated barriers that prevented non-park user low income families of color, from having a YNP camping experience; barriers such as lack of information, knowledge and skills, fear for personal safety, issues of race and lack of transportation, discretionary income and camping equipment.  Importantly, Mr. Vargas had the cultural competencies to communicate to the community that a visit to YNP was within their perceived limited, budget and skills capacity, and that YNP was available to all who chose to enjoy it.  On my first visit to YNP I was surprised and pleased to see a few low income Latina/o families; I recall no African American families.

Mr. Vargas, at best, had an eighth grade education, apparently, he didn’t need more education to appreciate nature and people.  In another time and place Mr. Vargas would have made a first class Park Ranger.  We have fond memories of our visits to YNP and Mr. Vargas.

For the mutual benefit of the CDPR and Latina/o low income families (there are thousands) that have yet to experience their state parks, the CDPR should consider making people like Mr. Vargas available to low income Latina/o communities.  Perhaps this program could be an extension of the CDPR Cooperating Associations.

Apparently, 50 years later, Mr. Vargas’s, labor of love, is still needed, valid and recommended. The California Parks Foundation made the following recommendation in their 2011 report, A Vision for Excellence for California’s State Parks, 5 Areas for Action, Action Area 3  

Collaborate with outdoor and recreation groups to create an “ambassador” program to train non-visitors in park use and increase their familiarity with state parks.

I would add that this community outreach service should be made available particularly for the hard to reach non–park user low income families, whose children need a first time relevant state park experience.  National Park Service Director – Jonathan B. Jarvis says;

Making the park experience relevant for visitors is the critical first stage for cultivating individual commitment to park stewardship to set the stage the would plant the seed to grow future state park stewards.

I venture, that there are Latinas/os who would like to serve their community as did Mr. Vargas.  The CDPR can make the CSPS relevant, familiar and comfortable if it chooses too!

Fun in the Sun South of the Border:  Se Habla Ingles

Respective to travelling great distances for recreation it is instructive to note that California Latina/o communities (many low income) have not been sitting at casa not knowing where to find culturally relevant, familiar and comfortable natural and cultural resources based recreational opportunities.  California Latinas/os have a long tradition of travelling long distances to Mexico and the beaches of Baja California, among other south of the border recreational opportunities.  Latinas/os are motivated to travel near and far because these experiences are relevant, familiar and comfortable; they see people that look like them, there is little to no racial tension, the food is familiar and pleasing to the palate.  Spanish is spoken and it doesn’t turn heads and they enjoy the pleasures and comfort of a familiar culture.  For a relevant familiar and comfortable recreational experience, Latinas/os can and do go the distance, however limited their budget.

Also, instructive to note, is that many whites are also motivated to travel great distances to enjoy Mexico’s much celebrated natural and cultural/archeological resources.  White visitors are attracted to Mexico because Mexico provides these visitors with accommodations that are culturally relevant, comfortable and familiar.  These accommodations are not unlike the accommodations that whites might enjoy in the upscale lodging accommodations as found in places like San Diego and Orange County and other affluent areas.  To further make the white visitor’s visit culturally relevant comfortable and familiar, Mexico, communicates and delivers all its services in English; the visitor’s first language.  These carefully thought out accommodations and methods of delivering client specific products and services are logical and effective strategies for attracting the white visitor.  Perhaps the CDPR and the NPS might use similar marketing strategies to attract Latinas/os and other people of color to the national and state parks.

Learning from National Park’s History

What Mexico did/does to attract white and non-white affluent Americans and foreign visitors is similar to what National Park Service (NPS) Director Stephen Mather did in the early developmental years of the national parks. Stephen Mather built elegant, spacious and grand lodges in national parks, these lodges were elegantly designed to attract and appeal to the sophisticated tastes of the rich and famous.  NPS history tells us this about NPS Director Mathers and the Yosemite National Park Ahwahee grand lodge:

National Park Service Director Stephen Mather viewed the Ahwahnee as a way to attract influential guests who could lend support to the national parks.  It was also a ploy to increase visitors in an era when federal funds were directly tied to the number of tourists.

Beyond the building of grand lodges to attract the affluent and gain an early strong support base for national parks, NPS Director Mather also realized that more visitors were needed if the national parks were to flourish (be sustainable.)  To attract more visitors the NPS (Mather) had to address challenges of visitor accommodations, relevance, accessibility and transportation, and interpretation/education.  NPS history tells us that;

NPS Director Mather introduced concessions to the national parks. Among the services they sold were basic amenities and necessities to park visitors, plus aids for studying nature. Mather promoted the creation of the National Park to Park Highway. He also encouraged cooperation with the railroads to increase visitation to normally remote units of the National Park System.  Automobiles, not permitted in Yellowstone until 1915, would be allowed throughout the system. Hotels would be provided by concessionaires. Museums, publications, and other educational activities were encouraged as well.

NPS Director Mather believed that:

Once more of the public had visited the parks, they would become supporters for the fledgling agency and its holdings.

It’s déjà vu all over again

Ironically, it’s déjà vu all over again.  Today, some 100 years later, the NPS and the CDPR face, the same challenges they did in their developmental years; however with different population groups.  Today, these challenges are more of a challenge because, for the most part, the non-user multicultural population, particularly the large Latina/o community, does not see the national and state parks as particularly relevant in their lives, and as such have not pressed, these agencies, except for a few people, to make these park systems relevant to their communities.  Conversely, over the many years, these park agencies did not see communities of color as relevant in the development and management of these park systems and consequently they lack the multicultural competencies to develop meaningful working relationships with these communities as well as culturally relevant products and services.

To connect a critical mass of the non-user multicultural population to these park systems, the commitment and approach to addressing these new challenges has to be as enthusiastic, deep, bold, creative and sophisticated as demonstrated by Mather, Albright, William Mott (the park prophet) and other genius park pioneers, and given that the target population is multicultural, park products and services need to be multicultural rich.

Cabins? We don’t need no Stinking Cabins!

Today, the CDPR and the NPS do not need to build grand lodges or even cabins to attract Latinas/os; a CDPR 2009 survey found that whites expressed interest in state park cabins; Latinas/os did not.  Currently, CDPR cabins are primarily used by whites, there is little or no cabin use by Latinas/os.  The CDPR 2009 survey found that:

The demographics of the alternative camping (Cabins) visitors (predominately white, aged 35-54, with a combined household income of $75,000 or greater, experienced or occasional campers) don’t reflect the state’s diverse ethnicity or age and income ranges.

For more information see: Alternative Camping at California State Parks: The Cottages at Crystal Cove State Park  A Report on Results of  a 2009-2010 Visitor Survey  and a 2010 Management and Maintenance Survey   California State Parks Planning Division 2011.

Accordingly, simply building more traditional cabins may not a good strategy for attracting the non- traditional Latina/o and other people of color visitors to state parks; building more cabins may not even be a good strategy for attracting the non-traditional white to state parks. The CDPR 2009 survey found that: alternative camping facilities are not attracting visitors new to camping. What has changed since 2009 that supports building more cabins?

The Parks Forward Commission (PFC) states that:

Long-term (State Parks) success requires meeting the needs of California’s evolving populations.  If State Parks is to be successful moving forward, it needs to be relevant to the citizens it is serving, who will be more urban and non-white.

For long term success the CDPR, PFC, CPF and its advisors should challenge universities to design and develop CDPR relevant products and services to attract the non-traditional non-white visitor, apparently the future of the CSPS depends on it.

CDPR Community Outreach Specialists:  A Recruitment Strategy

What is needed is, implementation of the long standing recommendation that calls for an aggressive community outreach program that is well funded and staffed with CDPR Community Outreach Specialist who can relate to the life experience of non-state park users of color and who possess the cultural competencies to communicate park information and an invitation to the prospective visitor of color.  Essentially the Community Outreach Specialist’s work is to make national and state parks relevant, familiar and comfortable to non-park users of color.  People of color , even those with limited income, will travel great distances for recreation with which they are familiar and comfortable and for which they have adequate skills for participation; invite them and they will come.

Project Camp: A Program for Compliance with California Recreation Policy

California Recreation policy states that;

It is the responsibility of the state of California to provide leadership to insure fulfillment of the people’s need for recreation opportunities, and recreation facilities and programs should be designated, operated, and maintained to provide access to a wide range of opportunities for all segments of California’s diverse populations, and all citizens shall have an equitable access to attractive recreation opportunities that serve their needs and desires.  Where individuals or groups encounter social, economic, physical barriers to obtaining recreation experiences, special efforts will be made to overcome such barriers.

In 1982, 32 years ago, in response to California Recreation Policy, I developed Project Camp (PC), a family focus outdoor education/recreation program that facilitates a first time state park camping experience for low income families living in the highly urban impacted areas.  PC was modeled after my early 1960’s Ruben Yosemite Sam Vargas camping experience.

PC also served as an example of how non-profit community based family services organizations, nonprofit conservation organizations and the CDPR can cooperate to facilitate an outdoor education/recreation first time camping experience for the underserved hard to reach people of color; at least hard to reach by the CDPR.

I proposed PC to the now abolished CDPR Hispanic Advisory Council (HAC.)  The council concurred and passed a resolution.  In May 1983 I proposed PC to then Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA) park superintendent Robert S. Chandler and Assistant Park Superintendent Mr. John Reynolds (PFC member). I and the proposal were cordially received by these men. I requested and received “seed money” from the NPS for a PC feasibility study; the Department of Education (DOE) also provided some “seed money” for the study.  To implement PC, I wrote a one year grant proposal to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC); the SMMC funded my proposal; the CDPR waived the campground fees the California State University Northridge, Recreation Department provided office space.  Leo Carrillo State Beach was used for the PC program; over 1000 individuals including parents and family members participated in the PC program.  It is true what is said of disadvantage youth; many had never been to the beach, until PC provided the opportunity, even though, they lived less than an hour away!

In the early 90’s I introduced PC to then CDPR Director Donald Murphy.  I produced a PC video and conducted a number of PC demonstrations for the CDPR.  In 1994 the CDPR in partnership with the California Parks Foundation adopted PC and with modifications established PC under the name FamCamp.  FamCamp is primarily a youth focused outdoor education/recreation training program, as oppose to PC, a parents/family focused program.

FamCamp has not grown since its inception 20 years ago, on the contrary, the program has lost staff and park sites locations.  Today, perhaps because of budget cut, lack of interest or other reasons, FamCamp has been down sized from 15 state park locations to nine.  FamCamp appears to be a good youth focus program model, however, to my knowledge, it has not been evaluated since its inception, 20 years ago, to determine if it is meeting its goals, or if any goals were established.

The criticism I have regarding, FamCamp, is that it is primarily a youth focused program.  I believe this focus limits the program’s capacity to meet its intended audience; the family.  Young adults participate in a basic outdoor and recreation education training program and are encouraged to return to their communities and recruit participants to duplicate the FamCamp experience for themselves and others.  Perhaps some do, however, most limited income disadvantaged youth, don’t have the resources, sophistication, community standing or interest to carry out the request.  To my knowledge, the CDPR does not follow-up to determine whether FamCamp participants actually accomplish their assigned task.  Also, the CDPR should evaluate FamCamp with respect to user friendly issues.  Of course, these programs should continue, they do provide a needed experience and service for the participating underserved low income youth.

It was encouraging to hear former CSP Director Jackson say at a Parks Forward Commission meeting that FamCamp will be greatly expanded because everybody likes it!  The director said, they want to go nationwide with the program in cooperation with BLM, NPS and other nationwide government agencies, however, now that the Director has resigned, it is uncertain, if any of this will take place.  If FamCamp is being considered for a nationwide program, I recommend that it first be evaluated to determine if the present model has the capacity to facilitate a first time camping experience for the thousands of underserved limited income families.

Other CDPR Underserved Youth Programs

The CDPR, to a limited extent, mostly by providing a park facility and limited staff time, participates in other underserved youth focus programs  These much needed, small scale and infrequent programs primarily serve to acknowledge the need, they do not meet the need nor are they the solutions; of course I am not saying that they should be curtailed.  The criticism I have regarding these underserved youth focus programs, is that, while they provide a much needed state park experience for underserved youth, the experience more often than not, becomes a onetime event, not to be duplicated again unless the participating non-profit organization(s) repeats the program and the previously participating youth is fortunate enough to be invited again.  Other more consistent, user friendly, underserved youth program models are needed.

Focus on the Parents/Family

It has been my experience that a program model, such as PC, which empowers limited income parents with CSPS access information, basic outdoor camping skills and the actual first time state park camping experience, is a more effective model for duplicating the camping experience for themselves and others.  Parents, having experienced the camping experience can be more effective and persuasive program recruiters; parents have a higher trust level and credibility, as opposed to youth;  Also,CDPR Community Outreach Specialists can use the many non-profit family services organizations and former PC program parent participants, who have access to underserved families, to recruit participants.

The author "back in the day."

The author “back in the day.”

Mr. Ramirez has a degree in Natural Resources Management with emphasis in park management and graduate work in behavioral science. Mr. Ramirez worked for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as a Desert Ranger, BLM Visitor Center Manager and BLM Resources District Interpretive Program Manager. Mr. Ramirez served as California Department of Parks and Recreation (CDPR) Assistant Director of Policy and Public Involvement with emphasis on increasing state park access and services for underserved populations groups. Mr. Ramirez served as a Chairperson and member of the past CDPR Hispanic Advisory Council. Mr. Ramirez strongly believes in the health, recreational and spiritual values of a natural resources based experience. Committed to his believes, Mr. Ramirez created Project CAMP (PC) an outdoor education and recreation program to provide limited income families living in highly urban impacted areas with a first time state park family camping experience. PC became an official CDPR program under the name FamCAMP. Mr. Ramirez is currently advocating for a NPS historic barrios/colonias survey and feasibility study for the establishment of a Historic Barrio/ Colonia National Historic Park.

One comment on “Guest Post: State Parks Forever and for Everyone

  1. Richard A. Rojas Sr. Reply

    I met Ricardo Ramirez early in my career with CA State Parks (aka California Department of Parks & Recreation (CDPR)) and was impressed with his vast knowledge of park and natural resources, his incredible passion for connecting underserved communities; especially Latino communities, with CA State Parks and his influence for creating Project Camp, the precursor to FamCamp, a successful model for building self-esteem and outdoor awareness for youth. After reading Ramirez’ essay, I would encourage college students & young park professionals interested in pursuing park and recreation careers and every member of the newly appointed CA State Parks Transformation Team to read it and to use it as a primer for understanding the evolution of one Department’s journey for expanding access, diversity and inclusiveness in its parks, programs and workforce.

    As I look to the future, I remain hopeful that agencies like CA State Parks will learn from its own past, embrace the recommendations of its Parks Forward Commission and seek the involvement of people like Ricardo Ramirez, José González and others as they prepare CA State Parks for the next 150 years!

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