National parks head visits Patchogue for Latino Conservation Week

Linda Leuzzi
Posted 7/23/20

“We’re going to Yellowstone National Park,” said David Vela’s father.

Those words and that trip changed Vela’s life. Around the late 1960s, Vela’s dad …

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National parks head visits Patchogue for Latino Conservation Week


“We’re going to Yellowstone National Park,” said David Vela’s father.

Those words and that trip changed Vela’s life. Around the late 1960s, Vela’s dad wanted their family to experience its grandeur. “We were teens and had no exposure to national parks,” he recalled of his Wharton, Texas, upbringing. “The first park we went to was [nearby] Grand Teton. We didn’t see visitors or rangers who looked like us as Latinos, but we were able to enjoy it, and to understand it was part of our birthright.” Vela joked that his mother made Frito sandwiches to save money for the vacation. But that trip was pivotal. He learned all he could about becoming a park ranger, then became one. And then some.

Vela is now deputy director who exercises the authority of director for the National Park Service, and the first Latino to lead the agency, overseeing more than 20,000 National Park Service employees, stewards of 419 national parks. He stopped at the Fire Island National Seashore headquarters in Patchogue on Tuesday to promote Latino Conservation Week with FINS superintendent Alexcy Romero. “This is an opportunity for us to access the country to engage what’s in the realm of possibilities for the NPS and visit its units,” Vela said.

What is Latino Conservation Week?

Overall, the event week, July 18-26, hopes to engage more Latinos in outdoor pursuits at national parks as well as partner Hispanic communities with conservation issues and make policy makers aware of the Latino community’s views on important local and national conservation issues. (The website offers national information on specific park sites and activities available.)

Vela spoke of his passion for the overall parks system, including the commemoration of the first African landing at Fort Monroe, Va., where descendants of those first slaves attended, to Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, which has the oldest masonry fort in the country, to sites honoring the 19th Amendment, women’s right to vote.

“This is an opportunity to expose Latinos on the world breadth of our national parks,” he said.

Romero, who took over the role as FINS superintendent in 2018, explained he didn’t attend parks in Flushing, Queens, and Brooklyn growing up; there was fear associated with local parks in the city at the time and the NPS was hoping to change that experience. Romero worked for Nassau County as a public health sanitarian; his next position was at Gateway National Recreation Area in a similar position, then acting superintendent.

Latinos in NPS

Are there more Latinos in NPS than when Vela started 30 years ago?

“There were more people of color then than now,” Vela said, surprisingly. He mentioned George Melendez Wright, the American biologist who started as an assistant park naturalist for the NPS and who went on to conduct the first scientific survey of fauna for the National Park Service between 1929 and 1933 that helped change ingrained practices; he funded the study with his own money. (Ken Burns chronicled his efforts in a documentary.)

Vela said he had never known about Wright until the documentary. “We had no clue because it was always George Wright, not George Melendez Wright,” he said. “How can that be, a potential mentor? Why was it excluded? Today, you have the George Wright Society. That’s the value of stories and internship programs,” he said.

“Between 1980-‘84, 90 percent of the staff in the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park, a World Heritage designation, were Latino.” Superintendent Joseph Cisneros ensured that the language and culture of the missions were honored.

Latino Internship Program

So what are the programs out there that encourage more Latinos and diversity?

“There’s Mosaic in Science Internship Program [youths study with educators and scientists],” he said. “And the Latino Internship Program that started around 2012-2013.” LIP intern Jhulian Guttierrez, 22, from Miami, was now at Watch Hill conducting outreach and educational duties, creating educational videos and online outreach of virtual tours and nature information. It was his fifth day on the job. “My aunt was a ranger who worked for the Washington, D.C., office in Youth Development,” he said. “She told me about the opportunity and ever since I was little, I wanted to be a ranger and a marine biologist.”

Guttierrez, who attends Broward College, has volunteered at Biscayne National Park. Marine science is his field of study and is he’s hoping to become a ranger one day. Watch Hill was one of his top 3 choices. Last year, he interned at Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site in Pennsylvania.

“I had no idea something like this existed,” Guttierrez said. “Most Latino youths don’t know there are opportunities like this.”

A quick but impactful tour

Vela toured Sagamore Hill on Monday; Tuesday morning it was the William Floyd Estate, and after Patchogue it was a two-hour boat ride that included a stop at Watch Hill. He was off to Gateway National Park in Jamaica the next day.

“One of the many reasons for this visit is to have face time with staff and also find out what the challenges and opportunities these parks face,” he said.


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