HYRUM, Cache County — As a state park ranger, Chris Haramoto had become aware of two divergent trends in Utah: As the state had become increasingly diverse, relatively few ethnic minorities were visiting state parks.
When he became manager of Hyrum State Park, Haramoto set about increasing the number of people using the recreational area, with a particular goal of increasing visits by underserved populations such as ethnic minorities and refugees.
"We needed to extend a hand to people who weren't coming to the park," Haramoto said.
As chance would have it, Jodie Madsen, a former middle school and high school teacher who had written her master's thesis on recreational habits of Latinos, was seeking a job in the Utah Department of Natural Resources. A Utah Division of State Parks and Recreation employee who knew about Haramoto's goals put the two together. Madsen was hired as a seasonal employee specializing in community outreach.
Madsen's research determined that while Latinos were frequent users of city parks, they tended to shy away from state and national parks. It was largely due to a lack of familiarity with park resources.
For some, park admission fees were a barrier. Some lacked equipment.
"Some said they wouldn't hike because they were afraid of snakes and other animals," Madsen said.
Madsen and Haramoto's outreach efforts have included face-to-face meetings with potential park users, participating in radio broadcasts, offering discounted park admissions as rewards to businesses that offer employee wellness programs, to hosting a beach party on Cinco de Mayo, a Mexican holiday that commemorates Mexico's defeat of the French in the Battle of Puebla.
The party was called Cinco de Playa. Playa is the Spanish word for beach.
The party featured ethnic food and free use of the park's new concessions, such as the canoe, kayak, stand-up paddle board and float tube rental offered through Utah State University's Outdoor Recreational Program.
"It was a day to get people out to the park at no cost and showcase elements of the park we knew were important to visitors," Madsen said.
Ministerios Zion, a local Christian church, sold food, including papusas, an El Salvadoran dish made from masa (a dough made from ground corn commonly used to prepare tamales), cheese and other ingredients such as pork.
"You'd be surprised. A lot of people know what papusas are," said Amanda Alvizures, whose husband leads Ministerios Zion. She continues to run the church's food concession at the park at least three days a week.
Alvizures said she and her husband moved to Hyrum from Los Angeles about five years ago because they were looking for a less chaotic lifestyle.
While they lived near the state park, they were not frequent visitors until Haramoto's and Madsen's outreach efforts to invite the church to sell food on Cinco de Playa and to try the recreational equipment rented at the beach.
"We had never experienced it for ourselves," she said of the park. "We like it. When it's hot outside, this water is all we need."
On Friday afternoon, Alvizures brought her son and three other children to the park for a day of fun on the beach and in the water. She allowed herself a short trip in an inflatable canoe as her 4-year-old son Frankie waited on the beach with Haramoto.
"I grew up at the beach on the weekends and holidays. This isn't like the California beach, but we enjoy it," she said.
Haramoto said he feels an obligation to taxpayers to increase park visitation because state parks are expected to be as self-supporting as possible. It makes good business sense to tap into underserved markets, he said. But the initiative is also about ensuring all Utahns enjoy state parks.
"I heard something on TV the other day that I really liked, 'Diversity is our destiny,'" he said. "That's true."
Thus far, state parks officials have been supportive of Madsen's and Haramoto's efforts.
Madsen teaches English as a Second Language, which has provided another opportunity to inform her students about the park and its amenities.
One of Madsen's primary responsibilities is to gather data to determine whether the initiative is meeting its intended goals. When Madsen surveys park users, some are reluctant to disclose their ethnicities. "Some just write down 'American' or they say 'What's the point?'"
The point, Madsen said, is to create a broader sense of community.
"We as a park want to be a community gathering place. We want this to be a resource where everyone feels welcome," she said.
There are some indications that a more diverse group of area residents are using the park, Haramoto said.
Dominick Barratt, who works at the watercraft rental concession, said during the school year, USU students and faculty are the primary customer base for the rental equipment.
"I would say the majority of our rentals out here are by minorities," he said of the park concession.
While the data collection is ongoing, Haramoto said he believes he and Madsen are on the right track.
"I know we're making a difference. We've got to stick with it."