This story is shared by African American Nature and Park Experience.

by Teresa Baker

I recently spent time on Mount Tamalpais with Ranger Matt Cerkel of the Marin Municipal Water District. I wanted to get a different perspective of the mountain and his opinion on matters of diversity in outdoor spaces.

I have made countless trips to Mount Tam, which is just north of Golden Gate in San Francisco, and I very seldom see people of color. This too once was a reality for Matt, but he is starting to see a change: More families of color are out on the trails, especially along Cataract Falls, a popular waterfall hike on Mount Tam.

As Cerkel and I patrolled the mountain, it became very clear to me just how much pride Cerkel takes in his job. I felt his viewpoints were that of an ambassador, as he talked about his day-to-day interactions with the public and the environment.

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African American Explorations (AAE): Matt, what is the most satisfying part of your job?

Cerkel: I love sharing my passion for the park with others. I’ve spent over 20 years, so far, protecting Mount Tam, and I want to share what I’ve learned in that time.

AAE: Matt, in your opinion, what can state parks do to draw more diverse families to Mount Tam?

Cerkel: While I don’t work for the state parks, I have a few ideas based on my 25 years in the parks profession and the observations I’ve made in that time. First, I think state parks should make sure that fees for day use and camping do not price some families out of the parks. Maybe they should also establish several fee-free weekends a year to encourage new visitors to the parks.

State parks should also partner with city, county and other local park agencies, especially where there is little or no state park presence, to let the public know what state parks can offer them. This could be part of a larger outreach program to reach all Californians. State parks could follow the lead of Golden Gate National Recreation Area and have Roving Ranger Stations. These Roving Rangers Stations could be sent to community events, fairs, farmers markets, etc., and bring the state parks to the people. State parks could also learn from New York City’s Urban Park Rangers, who have a very successful outreach program, including camping with the ranger program. State parks could also continue and expand their Hewlett-Packard grant program of bringing youth from urban and underserved schools to state parks for day use and overnight activities. State parks could also partner with REI, or another outdoor equipment vendor, to have camping or outdoor gear available to rent at low cost for those who might not have the proper gear and/or are new to the parks. The state parks through podcasts and in park events could also have staff teach outdoor ethics (along the lines of Leave No Trace-Outdoor Ethics) to new visitors.

I also think state parks should make an effort to get their rangers and other uniformed employees out of their vehicles and on to the trails and into the campground to be available to the public and help them enhance the visitors experience. A real effort should be undertaken to improve customer service. The move the state park is considering to a park police model is likely a move in the wrong direction. Visitors want park rangers who can keep them feeling safe and protect the park, but they also want park rangers who are approachable, friendly and knowledgeable. A move to a park police model or rangers who will only do “law enforcement” may actually create barriers. I’ve been a park ranger-peace officer for 20 years and it is possible to be both a professional law enforcement officer and approachable, friendly and knowledgeable, uniformed representatives of the park.

Finally, state parks should reform their hiring practices and view their seasonal positions as a stepping stone to permanent positions. They should also reach out to high schools and college students statewide to recruit for seasonal and permanent positions to help create a diverse workforce that represents the state and its people. Young people of all backgrounds should see state parks (and other parks) as a desirable place to work or have a career.

AAE: Matt, what would you like to share about the watershed that the general public is not aware of?

Cerkel: What I like people to know about the Marin Municipal Water District’s Mount Tamalpais Watershed is how it played a key role to shaping all future land preservation and park formation in Marin County. The Mount Tamalpais Watershed is the keystone for all land preservation in Marin. Marin would be a very different place today if MMWD didn’t act 100 years ago to preserve and protect Mount Tam.

AAE: Having shared the park through the eyes of a ranger, I now have a different appreciation for the beauty of this place. I encourage everyone to hike the trails and take time out to chat with the park staff as you happen upon them. I’m sure you’ll walk away with a different impression as well.

Thanks, Matt.