A change in hiring programs cost the NPS a diverse, young ranger

You may never have heard of him, but Masyih Ford is arguably the third most-recognizable African-American ranger in the National Park Service. The first and second are, of course, Shelton Johnson at Yosemite, who appeared in the Ken Burns documentary National Parks: America’s Best Idea as well as on Oprah, and Betty Reid Soskin at Rosie the Riveter in Richmond, California, who is the Park Service’s oldest ranger at 94 and helped light the White House Christmas Tree last year. Ford may come next just because of the ubiquity of his image on Park Service marketing and recruitment materials.

NPS Workforce Diversity

This story is part of a package about diversity in the National Parks workforce. Also see:

Nancy Fernandez: NPS pipeline backup.

Antonio Solorio: Mountains of diversity.

But Ford, 24, has not worked for the Park Service since the summer of 2014. That’s a shame for many reasons, not the least of which is that the diversity-starved agency gained a rare three-for through him: He’s African-American, gay and Muslim. The national parks have been struggling to transform a workforce that is overwhelmingly white (83 percent), in a system where the vast majority of park visitors are also white. Non-whites will comprise the majority in the U.S. within three decades, however, and the agency’s failure to diversify raises an alarming question: Will people of color in the future have the interest and motivation to sustain the public lands?

Ford grew up hiking, camping and visiting national parks with his family, and was an easy recruit at Western Washington University, near North Cascades National Park. That park found him an internship, then hired him seasonally through the Student Temporary Employment Program, which, along with the Student Career Experience Program, gave federal agencies a way to specifically target diverse students and provide a permanent career path. The Obama administration replaced those two programs with Pathways, an internship program intended to provide more equitable and open competition for federal employment, as well as make it easier for military veterans to obtain such jobs.

But Pathways had an unintended consequence: When it ceased targeting diverse candidates and tilted the hiring equation toward veterans, it deprived the National Park Service of diverse rangers like Ford, who once dreamed of a career in the agency. Ford is a smart, disciplined and ebullient young man, of whom public-lands and green organization officials in the Pacific Northwest speak fondly to this day. He’d expected to be re-hired in 2013 at his seasonal post at North Cascades with a pay-grade bump. Instead, he was forced to compete for his old job through Pathways and ended up second in line to a veteran candidate. When the veteran dropped out because of health reasons, Ford got his old job back, but without a raise and mere weeks before school let out for the summer.

This was a wakeup call for Ford, who describes himself as a long-range planner. He’d already given up his dorm room, and his old bedroom in his parents’ home had gone to a younger sibling. Unsure of his fate at North Cascades, Ford feared being homeless and jobless for the summer. He’d also heard stories from friends in the Park Service who were playing the game of park hopping and seasonal work – hanging around for years hoping to land something permanent. Moreover, he wanted to go into law enforcement, and in the National Park Service, candidates have to pay their own way through a certified training academy. All of that discouraged Ford, despite his professed love for being a park ranger. “I just couldn’t see myself there in 10 years,” he says. “There was too much uncertainty.”

Now a Western Washington graduate, Ford has started with the security force at Pierce Transit in Tacoma, south of Seattle. He hasn’t given up on working for the National Park Service, though, and he has a plan: Pierce Transit will pay for his graduate education, he will accumulate law-enforcement experience, and, within five years, he’ll try again to get a permanent position in the agency. In the meantime, he still loves spending time in the parks. This summer he’s taking a large group of friends to North Cascades National Park, where they’ve never been before.

“It will be like going back to paradise,” Ford says.

NOTE: This story was part of our winning entry in Outstanding Beat Reporting from the Society of Environmental Journalists