In the summer of 1916, Woodrow Wilson signed into law the National Park Service Organic Act and, with the stroke of a pen, the National Park Service was born. In the century since, national parks have become the backbone of American conservation and recreation. Now, with its centennial on the horizon, the NPS has the opportunity to use this milestone as a chance to move forward by looking back.
Ranger Michael Liang, a Detroit native who works as a visual information specialist for the NPS, is working on the Centennial Campaign, which heralds the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary on Aug. 25, 2016. “We are really trying to reach to create and connect with the next generation of park visitors, supporters, and advocates,” he says. “I get to help inspire people to care about the national parks through visual media. I went to art school, and I like to use publications, photography, video, and social media to help connect visitors to the national parks.”
Liang, who is gay, recognizes that some people don’t necessarily see themselves represented in the National Park Service’s marketing and media. “I’m very conscious of making sure that we have people of color, people of different backgrounds, and LGBT people represented in our photographs on our websites and our publications,” he says. “It’s a federally funded agency and everyone deserves to have a national park that resonates with them.”
In 2014 the NPS announced an LGBT-themed study as part of its LGBTQ Heritage Initiative with the aim to include important queer sites into the National Register of Historic Places.
“This is the first step to having a National Park Service that is dedicated to telling the stories of our community,” Liang explains. “The National Park Service is officially thought of as being an agency that protects our most special physical places — the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite — but the National Park Service also preserves our cultural heritage.”
As a child, Liang became enamored with the outdoors. His uncle was a park ranger, and he invited Liang to visit him at his park and participate in an environmental day camp when he was in elementary school. “Every day we got to go outside, working with the scientists, getting muddy, catching turtles,” he explains. “It was much later that I realized that what was fun and childlike play was also part of what people can get paid for when working for the park service.” After a college internship at the NPS through the Student Conservation Association, Liang worked at the North Cascades National Park in the Pacific Northwest, which he describes as “love at first sight.”
As more sites are being added to the National Register of Historic Places, the NPS is trying to engage with the LGBT community through queer-targeted programs. “In the near term, we are seeing more public programming, particularly during Pride Month. One of my favorites has happened in Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia. They had pre-Stonewall protests that happened right in front of Independence Hall, and so the park rangers give programs telling that story.”