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National Park Service Struggling To Improve Diversity Among Superintendents

By Lori Sonken

Clara Wooden joined the National Park Service in Anchorage in 1990 when no one looked like her. She was the only Black woman holding a ranger position in the Alaska Regional Park Office that now supports 15 national parks, preserves, monuments, and national historical parks.

She had no problems with her colleagues. They were like family. They lunched together and occasionally visited one another’s homes. Still, Wooden set a personal goal to diversify the workforce.

“There were few people of color, especially at the higher pay grade levels. It’s not much better today,” she said in an email.

Almost 80 percent of the Park Service’s superintendents and deputy superintendents at more than 400 national parks are white, compared to less than 6 percent who are Black, according to 2022 data the NPS provided. [Agency-wide, roughly 75 percent of the Park Service workforce is white, according to the latest Best Places To Work In Federal Government survey.]

Latino or Hispanic employees hold 7.4 percent of the superintendent and deputy superintendent positions. Asians make up 1.5 percent of the top positions and 5.2 percent are American Indians or Alaska Natives. (Charles F. “Chuck” Sams III, NPS director, is a tribal member, as is Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.)

Women fare slightly better than minoritized communities in the ranks of superintendents and deputy superintendents. Males accounted for 59 percent of the positions in 2022 compared to 41 percent for females in the same jobs.

“For the last three decades at least every director comes in, every [Interior] secretary comes in and says we are going to tackle diversity and they all have a plan, but nothing seems to stick,” said Elaine Leslie.

Now retired, Leslie served in the Park Service for nearly 30 years in several capacities, including as acting superintendent at Colonial National Historical Park (CNHP) in Virginia and Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona before heading the Biological Resources Division in Fort Collins, Colo.

President Biden has issued more than 10 directives building on top of still-standing orders addressing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility, including Executive Order 14035 establishing the Biden administration’s policy “to cultivate a workforce that draws from the full diversity of the nation.”

This fiscal year the Park Service has reportedly reached out to more than 7,000 organizations, including educational institutions, to recruit employees. The agency also hosts twice monthly a webinar on resume writing and navigating, the cumbersome website where federal jobs are posted. It remains to be seen how many people will join the agency in response to these efforts.

Even if the agency wants to diversify its workforce, there are stumbling blocks in hiring rules applicable governmentwide. Veterans and persons with disabilities “may receive preference over non-veteran applicants in the hiring process,” said Cynthia Hernandez, a Park Service spokesperson in Washington, in an email.

Seek Out A Champion

“In the past, when the NPS made an aggressive effort to recruit minorities, the perception was nonwhite males need not apply. This wasn’t the intended message. It’s not that it wasn’t a welcoming place for nonwhite males, it’s difficult to compete for if you have not come up through the ranks or completed details as a superintendent. It’s the same for nonwhite females. There’s a lot of knowledge and skills required to be a superintendent, and if you have not been afforded the opportunity to acquire those, it’s difficult, said Wooden in an email.

She advises those interested in becoming a superintendent to find “a champion, an advocate, somebody that is going to advocate for them, a mentor.”

Overall, the National Park Service is a mostly white organization/Boston Consulting Group. Over the course of her 31-year-long career, Wooden rose from a GS-5 [annual salary about $45,000] to GS-15 [about $189,000] pay grade. She could have become a superintendent but chose not to, she said. Her husband also worked for the Park Service, and she didn’t want to be in a position of managing her spouse.

To recruit employees, Wooden visited colleges, universities, and technical schools. She hired freshmen first as temporary employees and later promoted them to permanent positions.

“By the time they finished their academic requirements, we placed them in a park. We were successful in doing that in my opinion because we were growing the employees, and it was costly. This is why they threw the baby out with the bath water,” she said, explaining that the cost of the effort led to its demise.

Some parks, such as Colonial, have had a diverse workforce. But nonwhite employees often work in maintenance, said Leslie.

“You can hire all the diversity you want. But if you can’t figure out how to make a great office or work environment or field environment or whatever the job is and make sure employees are in the appropriate job where they feel they can contribute and are getting paid appropriately you are going to lose them,” she said.

“We had change agents that would help recruit for a variety of jobs. But I don’t think the agency focuses enough on retention,” Leslie added.


The Park Service can be a difficult place for anyone but white employees. But Michael Medrano said he has not experienced discrimination in the 33 years he has worked for the agency. Medrano is Hispanic and holds a Ph.D. in biology. He became the superintendent at Tumacácori National Historical Park almost two years ago, after completing a five-month-long detail as acting superintendent.

On the other hand, Wooden said she experienced racism on three occasions. Twice she heard that colleagues badmouthed her. On the first occasion, she learned the associate regional director in Alaska told her colleagues in human resources she was a “mediocre” employee undeserving of the award her supervisor wanted to give her.

Wooden filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint. Rather than following through with a lawsuit, she confronted the offender, a GS-15 employee 20 years her senior in age and 10 pay grades above her. She demanded he apologize and send a letter correcting the lie he had told.

“You know you might be the Cadillac, but I’m the key. And the Cadillac goes nowhere without the key,” she reportedly told him.

Eventually, the two became friends. He was one of the more than 400 people who attended her virtual retirement party during the Covid pandemic in 2021.

Another time Wooden warned a colleague she would file a discrimination complaint if she heard he was spreading rumors about her. This person too ultimately became Wooden’s friend.

“The other person who offended me greatly was the regional Equal Opportunity manager. She selected me as the federal women’s program manager and later asked me to resign so that she could give the position to her white employee and get her a higher grade. I refused and she was not pleased,” said Wooden.

Women working at the Park Service have experienced sexual harassment as the Traveler recently reported. Sue Fritzke, retired superintendent at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah, said she and her management team had to stand up to a male employee questioning their judgment.

Leslie agrees that women employees have challenges. “You don’t hear about them en masse like you did at the Grand Canyon, but I certainly think it exists in certain pockets of the National Park Service. I’m not saying we have gotten away from a good ole boy attitude. We could certainly use more women and diverse superintendents, across the agency,” she said.

Diverse Skills

The former and current superintendents contacted by the Traveler offered suggestions for employees seeking to become superintendents.

“Move around. Get a diversity of experiences. If you have an opportunity to work in different divisions, that is beneficial,” said Fritzke.

Fritzke also recommends employees seek out temporary opportunities to work at other agencies, such as with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, or U.S. Forest Service, to get a better grasp of what they do and why — skills she honed while negotiating an access agreement with the U.S. Army to enable the public to visit Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial in California. Honoring the 320 men — mostly Black sailors — who died during an explosion while loading munitions destined for the Pacific theater during World War II, the memorial is located on an active U.S. Army Base in the east San Francisco Bay Area.

Developing the access agreement required multiple meetings over several years between the Park Service and the Army. Attendees discussed many issues, such as whether the arc of potential detonation included the memorial or not, digital security, the military’s security needs and the Park Service’s interest in facilitating visitation.

Fritzke was determined to get the U.S. Army “to understand that the story the Park Service is telling there is actually also telling the story what they do today and how careful they are to make sure that that kind of thing does not happen again.” Eventually, she was successful.

Like Fritzke, Wooden agrees that employees accepting details where they are temporarily dispatched to another job is an excellent way to gain experience.

“I believe for the most part the Park Service wants to diversify. But if you have never been a superintendent and you apply for a position, and there are other superintendents who have years on you, the likelihood of that is very low. Wherever you want to go, do details that you are interested in,” she said.

Rhonda Loh, superintendent of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, identifies as an Asian American woman. She grew up in Hawaii and holds a Ph.D. in conservation ecology. In an email, Loh said “[H]aving role models that look like you can be a powerful influence, it makes more tangible the possibility that you can achieve similar success.”

She also recommends employees desiring to be a superintendent be open to new experiences and opportunities and take on new assignments or pursue details to expand their skill set.

“White males gave me my start,” said Linda Mazzu, former superintendent at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. She began as a volunteer, then became a seasonal employee and eventually worked in natural and cultural resources, holding such positions as botanist and outdoor recreation planner before joining the superintendent ranks.

“I told staff over the years to make yourself indispensable. Every day you work you are in a job interview for your next job. Advocate for yourself,” she said.

Mazzu also suggests employees reach out to hiring managers and let them know one’s interest in a position. She said aspiring superintendents should be flexible in where they are willing to go — a viewpoint shared by Fritzke.

“One of the steppingstones for women and minorities is to shoot for these less complex parks as a way to get to the big ones,” said Fritzke.

Wooden received the Secretary of the Interior Diversity Award in 2021 when she retired from the Midwest Region as associate regional director for equal employment opportunity and recruitment position in Omaha.

Her fondness for the Park Service is palpable. She said she had a “fantastic” career.

“It was so good I never wanted to work for any other agency but the National Park Service.”

Despite years of promises, diversity among the superintendent ranks of the National Park Service remains lacking.