Project goal: Educate and inspire new environmental leaders through interconnected UC Merced–affiliated programs.

Why this work matters: National parks need the next generation of engaged supporters, advocates and leaders — and champions who reflect the nation’s diverse population.

In partnership with the University of California, Merced, the park is working to educate, inspire and, ultimately, employ new public lands leaders. Many UC Merced students come from populations that historically have been underrepresented in Yosemite and other parks; more than 70% are first-generation college students.

Interconnected programs create links among the park, UC Merced and neighboring communities, while shaping the next generation of environmental leaders:

  • Student rangers based at the on-campus UC Merced Wilderness Education Center help their community connect with Yosemite through educational resources, field trips and stewardship projects. They also lead activities for thousands of local schoolchildren through the National Park Foundation’s Open OutDoors for Kids initiative.
  • The academic-year Yosemite Leadership Program encourages undergraduates to become lifelong stewards through four semesters of environmental studies, personal and professional development, and hands-on projects.

These programs have widespread, long-lasting impacts. Yosemite Leadership Program students mentor participants in other Conservancy-supported Youth in Yosemite programs. Wilderness Education Center rangers — who are often YLP internship alumni — explore careers while working in summer positions in Yosemite. Program graduates follow paths to full-time roles with the National Park Service and other public agencies; in Yosemite, you might run into former YLP and WEC students conducting educational outreach, protecting visitors and resources, and more.

2020 Recap: In 2020, these UC Merced-based programs adapted quickly to the COVID-19 pandemic, by moving campus-based programming to virtual platforms and canceling or modifying in-person events and activities.

Before the pandemic took hold, Wilderness Education Center student rangers led eight Yosemite trips for UC Merced students. Once the campus (and park) closed for safety, the WEC team shifted to focusing on longer-term projects, such as developing and delivering a virtual program for local fourth graders; building a support network for current and former Yosemite Leadership Program participants; and helping conduct outreach to Spanish-speaking communities about the temporary Yosemite National Park reservation system that was put in place in summer 2020.

While some Yosemite Leadership Program hikes, events and travel were canceled, the program successfully shifted to virtual learning. In the spring, YLP students completed seven capstone projects, from helping rangers at Cumbres de Monterrey National Park educate visitors about impacts of off-road vehicles, to working with Project Grow to reduce food insecurity in Merced. After congratulating the 22 YLP students who graduated in spring 2020, program leaders recruited 23 students to start the two-year YLP program in fall 2020.

The Yosemite Leadership Program summer internship was canceled for 2020, due to COVID-19 concerns, but the team hopes to bring it back for the 2021 season.

Your donations are crucial to the continued success of programs that are shaping the next generation of environmental stewards. With your help, these  programs give college students opportunities to gain the skills, experience and passion necessary to take on the challenges facing our public lands.

Project partners: Yosemite National Park and University of California, Merced, as well as Yosemite- and Merced-area schools and numerous local, regional and national organizations.

Jesse Chakrin

Yosemite Leadership Program and Wilderness Education Center Director, National Park Service

Project Notes

"These programs represent multiyear, multigenerational programs that effectively address the long-term, growing challenges of relevancy, inclusion and leadership development facing national parks."