1 | Field Ranger Program Connects Diverse Communities to Forests in…

The Next Generation of Land Stewards

Field Ranger Program Connects Diverse Communities to Forests in Southern California

Photo by Sabrina Claros

by Casey Schreiner

The beauty of Los Angeles is well-known, but it tends to be framed in human terms: the toned and tanned celebrities captured by photographers and publicists and published worldwide. Lesser known is the fact that the nation’s second largest city sits in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains, home to snow-capped peaks, fragrant pine forests and sage scrub, and over 700,000 acres of wild terrain protected in the Angeles National Forest and San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. It’s common to find long-time residents who have never visited these wild places.

View of Los Angeles County from Mt. Baldy on the Angeles National Forest. Photo by trekandshoot

Felipe Lepe grew up in the Panorama City neighborhood of Los Angeles. The San Fernando Valley neighborhood is only about 10 miles from the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, but those mountains might as well have been a world away. Hemmed in by four major freeways, a bus ride would have taken over an hour and still left him miles from any ranger station or hiking trail. Lepe instead took to skateboarding and didn’t spend time in the mountains until joining conservation groups in college that took him to Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks, hours to the north.

Lepe’s experience isn’t uncommon across L.A. County. In 2016, the County—with 88 incorporated cities and a population of just over 10 million people—released a comprehensive assessment of its parks and recreation inventory and found some tough truths. Over half of the county population lives in areas with high park needs—meaning they don’t live within a half-mile, or a 10-minute walk, of a park.

Source: 2016 Los Angeles Countywide Comprehensive Parks & Recreation Needs Assessment

This county-wide shortcoming is more than just an issue of not having enough playgrounds on hand—the report found that communities with poor access to parks also had higher rates of heart disease and diabetes and were more likely to have childhood obesity and overall economic hardship. Those communities were also more likely to be predominantly Black and Latino.

So, Los Angeles County was looking at populations that didn’t have access to green space, and an enormous National Forest and Monument with plenty of room to roam. The issue seemed to be finding ways to connect the two. Enter the National Forest Foundation’s Field Ranger Program, an effort to help the people of Los Angeles County overcome some of the hurdles to enjoying their public lands in part by forging stronger human connections between visitors and land managers.

When those connections are created and maintained, the payoff can often be larger than anyone might have expected. Lepe’s experience with outdoor groups in college led him to a career in conservation work and brought him back to Los Angeles County, where he is now the Southern California Program Coordinator with the National Forest Foundation in charge of the Field Ranger Program. Lepe describes the Field Rangers as an experiential hands-on learning program, geared toward mentorship, potential outdoor careers, and most importantly, connecting underserved communities with nearby natural areas.

Born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, Samantha Carranza’s parents nurtured her love of the outdoors despite their limited access to greenspaces. “There are family pictures of me as a baby just digging in dirt.”

By high school, Carranza was volunteering at the California Science Center and looking for a career path that could combine science with the outdoors. Her time at East Los Angeles College came with access to greater opportunities and setbacks to her goal—lack of a private vehicle disqualified her from internships and kept her from exploring the nearby mountain ranges. Carranza said those disqualifications were frustrating, but she was able to leverage internships to work as a seasonal technician on public lands, doing research and eventually ending up at Channel Islands National Park, where a private vehicle was not required.

She loved the work, but said she was also often “the odd one out. Coming from a Community College, being the only woman on a team or the only woman of color or from a low-income area, these were all challenges.” She also saw how little the nearby communities were involved in their decisions and said, “This is not enough.”

When Carranza learned about the Field Ranger Program, it was via a mass email, but she said it felt like it was sent directly to her. She applied and was accepted in the 2023 cohort. In the San Gabriel Mountains, she helped design bilingual interpretive events about local wildlife and Leave No Trace principles, but she said the most transformative experience was simply having positive interactions with visitors. “Those really stuck with me.”

Carranza (second from right) providing interpretive education to visitors on the Angeles National Forest with the 2023 Field Rangers cohort. Photo by Sabrina Claros

Carranza fondly remembers teaching children about Leave No Trace principles, then later seeing those same children bring their families back to her to share what they’d learned. She remembers a woman she met near a trailhead who only spoke Spanish and was thrilled to finally be able to speak with a ranger about how outdoor experiences in the San Gabriels connected her to her Mexican heritage. “The only reason we were even able to have that interaction was because I spoke Spanish, too” she said. “She hadn’t had the opportunity to bring up concerns or talk to staff before because she was afraid they might not understand the language or the cultural stance she had coming to the forest.”

Today Carranza is a Senior Associate with the National Forest Foundation’s Southern California Program, focusing on forest health and community engagement. She credits the Field Ranger Program with showing her what was available to her and helping her find her voice in the conservation field. Carranza encourages anyone who’s open to the work and looking to build community to apply. “What I find so beautiful about this program,” she said, “is they try to understand who you are as an individual to play into the strengths you already have and make you even stronger. It’s a challenge, yes, but you get so much guidance and support that you never feel like you’re going through it alone.”

“What I find so beautiful about this program is they try to understand who you are as an individual to play into the strengths you already have and make you even stronger. It’s a challenge, yes, but you get so much guidance and support that you never feel like you’re going through it alone.”

About the Author

Casey Schreiner is the author of three books about the outdoors, a contributing writer to the Los Angeles Times, a television writer and producer, and the founder of Modern Hiker, one of the oldest hiking blogs on the West Coast. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Sam’s story is just one example of how your support can make a difference.

Through the Field Rangers Program and the NFF's other youth conservation programs across the country, we aim to inspire the next generation of public land stewards.

Your contribution will help ensure passionate and skilled people—people like Sam—will care for these vital resources in the future.

Photo by Mason Boring Photography

More about the Field Rangers Program

The Field Ranger Program is an education and skills training program focused on providing diverse Los Angeles County youth with hands-on, employment experience in the Angeles National Forest.

Participants receive an introduction to a wide range of disciplines and federal careers with the U.S. Forest Service including recreation management, engineering, environmental education, habitat restoration, hydrology, public affairs, and wildlife biology.

For the 2024 summer season, the Field Ranger Program will have two crew leads and six crew members.

Discover Youth Conservation Programs at the NFF

The National Forest Foundation engages youth across the United States, from urban centers like Los Angeles to as far out as rural Alaska, to nurture the next generation of community leaders and stewards of our public lands.

Each program offers a unique opportunity for young people to experience these amazing places in their community’s backyard, reconnect with their cultural and traditional values, and participate in forest stewardship activities.

They also learn about a potential new career path, often earn a stipend and, sometimes, college credit.