Inside man

Does the National Park Service have a youth problem?

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Story highlights

Half of all park service leaders are expected to retire by 2016

Budget problems making it hard to fill all open positions

Junior Ranger program hoping to inspire new generations

CNN  — 

In 2014, America’s national parks attracted a record-setting 292.8 million visits, but the typical visitor to the country’s biggest parks is edging closer to retirement age.

As Morgan Spurlock points out in the latest episode of “Inside Man,” the average age of visitors to Denali is 57 years. In Yellowstone it is 54. But in the past decade, the number of visitors under the age of 15 has fallen by half.

It’s not just the visitors who are getting grayer. According to the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), half of the employees in park service leadership positions are scheduled to retire by 2016, which could lead to even more understaffing for the national parks. Right now, there is one park guide for every 100,000 visitors.

The aging park employee problem is even worse if you look beyond those near retirement age. Seventy-five percent of National Park Service employees are at least 40 years old and only 7% are 29 or younger.

So what’s not attracting the younger generation to having some of the most beautiful offices in the country?

Retired Yosemite Park Ranger Bob Roney (aka Ranger Bob) attributes the decline to a younger generation that is too “plugged-in” to be drawn to the “unpluggedness” of the great outdoors.

“I started in the ’60s and ‘70s, the hippie generation. People were wanting to get back to the land. I don’t see that as much today,” says Roney.

“People want modern conveniences. Young people are more city-oriented and tend not to be wildlands-oriented.”

Jodie Riesenberger, program director for NPCA, says it’s a little more complicated than that.

“The National Park Service gets far more ranger applicants than there are jobs available,” Riesenberger said. “The issue is recruiting diverse applicants who represent America’s demographics. Additionally, our national parks are facing a budget crisis. Even if there are ranger openings, they don’t always have the resources to fill them.”

800,000 new Junior Rangers

As more and more rangers race toward retirement, the National Park Service is looking to inspire a love of the outdoors in new generations.

More than 800,000 children last year got their Junior Ranger patches and certificates. The activity-based program is designed to foster interest and educate kids (typically between ages 5 and 13) about national parks and the park service.

Morgan Spurlock with son, Laken, at Denali National Park

One of those thousands was Spurlock’s son, Laken, who took his oath at Alaska’s Denali National Park.

During the ceremony, a ranger pointed out that Laken’s badge was larger than hers.


“Because you’re more important than I am,” the ranger explained. “Because in 40 years I’m going to be old and retired, and you’re going to be coming to national parks with your kids.”

That’s the plan, at least.