Taking Parks to People

Mobile centers like Roving Ranger and La Ranger Troca
have promise to address National Park diversity struggles

By Glenn Nelson

Earlier this summer in a steamy but shaded corner of Griffith Park in Los Angeles, Jose Garcia has just told a group of third graders that cottontails “eat their own poop.” The revelation draws a consensus, “Ewwwww!” from the group from Mid-City’s Prescott School of Enriched Sciences. And you wonder about Garcia’s options after a statement (and reaction) like that, but he has a plan.

The plan doesn’t involve any more poop, or mention of poop. It doesn’t have to. Garcia, after all, has a colorful and curious vehicle called La Ranger Troca, serving as a mobile visitor and outreach center for Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. It is, for him and two other interns with the national park unit, an attractant, stage, storage unit, information center, and gigantic bag of tricks, all wrapped up into one.

And it’s a glorious one, at that. With its eye-popping graphics, large cutout opening on the side, and surfboard ledge, La Ranger Troca could be hawking, say, Korean tacos down the way in Venice Beach. But charged instead with building bridges to, recruiting, and educating underserved communities, it’s more on the order of a food-for-thought truck.

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“One of the coolest things I heard was a parent saying, ‘I can’t believe the National Park Service is spending money on this – it’s so cool!’ “ said Andreas Stavropoulos of BASE Landscape Architecture, which designed and outfitted La Ranger Troca and its inspiration, Roving Ranger, at Golden Gate National Recreation Area in and near San Francisco. “The irony is that the National Park Service hasn’t been spending money on things like this, which is why it’s struggled with diversity and connecting to young people.”

The good news – and basis for hope – is that the National Park Service did not have to spend money on this, either. Non-profit affinity groups connected to the park units – Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the Presidio Trust in the Bay Area and Santa Monica Mountains Fund in Southern California – footed the bill, a bit south of $90,000 for each mobile unit. The Santa Monica fund turned the unit over to its beneficiary park unit, while the Parks Conservancy retains ownership. Both help with operation and programming by funding interns and other personnel.

Mobility has high potential for helping the National Park Service address its well-documented struggles with diversity. Nonwhite voters polled recently for New American Media cited distance as the top barrier to visiting public lands; the Park Service received a similar response in its own survey. The agency has placed more emphasis on creating more urban park units and the more enlightened units are employing a “taking the park to the people” approach to outreach.

“We are reaching into communities that wouldn’t necessarily get the messages about nature and our parks,” said Charlotte Parry, the executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Fund.

The ancillary benefits of mobility address two other challenges for the National Park Service – lack of awareness (the top barrier in NPS surveys; No. 2 in the New American Media poll) and recruitment to a more diverse workforce.

Melissa Potts, who works as an AmeriCorps intern for La Ranger Troca, said awareness of Santa Monica Mountains typically was low among youth she’s encountered. “A lot of them think Disneyland is part of the National Park Service,” she said.

The promise of the mobile outreach units is the participation of the funding groups, who are far less prone to get entangled in the bureaucracy, funding challenges and inability to target demographics in hiring support staff that would plague the National Park Service. In fact, Stavropoulos said the original effort was to create the trucks for the Park Service, but the project got bogged down in red tape. The agency also could no way match the combined spending power of the Presidio Trust, which has an annual budget in excess of $100 million, and the Parks Conservancy, about $50 million, plus some 400 employees, including seasonals.

“This kind of outreach has been really helpful in finding interns and connecting with communities we wouldn’t normally be reaching about volunteer or even job opportunities,” said Matt Leffert, philanthropic director for the Parks Conservancy.

Golden Gate long has been a model for next-to-urban national park units. It topped all units in visitation from 1980-89, then ranked second to Blue Ridge Parkway, a 439-drive in Virginia and North Carolina, through 2012. It reclaimed the top spot in 2013 and 2014, the first two years of Roving Ranger.

Considered a “mobile trailhead,” the first Roving Ranger launched in April 2013. It has been a smashing success; the Parks Conservancy estimates it has connected with 35,000 people during its existence. So a second was ordered and One Tam Roving Ranger, connected to Mount Tamalpais State Park and more of an interagency effort with national, state and county parks, is expected to debut next month.

The idea for Roving Ranger was born from a story written by Stavropoulos for Dwell Magazine about retrofitting an Airstream trailer. The story struck a chord with Kate Bickert, the director of park initiatives and stewardship for the Parks Conservancy. She eventually tracked down Stavropoulos and found a more-than-willing partner.

All the mobile units are retrofitted bread trucks, made to resemble food trucks because of the latter’s approachability and ability to make a “big splash,” according to Stavropoulos. They tend to take on discernible, celebrity personalities – Roving Ranger has participated in the Pacifica Fog Fest and San Francisco Pride parades, while La Ranger Troca made its debut at this year’s Tournament of Roses parade. They aren’t intended to be self-contained centers, but a base of operations with the outdoors really taking center stage.

And the idea is catching on; Stavropoulos is in discussions to design a mobile center for the Natural History Museum of Utah.

“We need people to take action,” Stavropoulos said of outdoor diversity efforts. “We don’t need any more studies. This is a very small drop in the bucket in trying to push a very large pendulum.”

The results don’t feel at all small to Jose Garcia. He’d worked four previous summers at city parks and boys and girls club and clearly feels at ease among young people. He also is doing something that might have been unimaginable just a few years ago: He’s studying for a degree in environmental biology.

Not long ago, Garcia was falling behind in high school and maybe wouldn’t finish. He took an internship with the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, which paved the way to camping trips at Yosemite and Rocky Mountain National Parks. Once exposed to the outdoors, Garcia says, “I never left.”

Standing beside La Ranger Troca, Garcia looks out onto the intoxicating mixture of nature and youth in an otherwise urban setting at Griffith Park. “All of this has saved me,” he said.