Aug 15, 2023 20 min read

Making State Parks More Inclusive in South Carolina

Image of Paul McCormack with quote from transcript
  • Episode 52, 27 min listen

Hear from Paul McCormack, the South Carolina State Parks Director, as we talk about the actions he and his team are taking to make South Carolina's parks more accessible and inclusive. Along the way, Paul shares a little about what drives his commitment to inclusion and how he came to love the outdoors. This interview with Paul grew out of our 10-week Inclusive Community Outdoor Challenge.  


Listen on Apple Podcasts   or    Listen on Spotify


Learn more about South Carolina State Parks and plan a visit.

Learn more about the SC State Parks partnership with Black Folks Camp Too in this short video.

Learn more about Black Folks Camp Too and Outdoor Afro.

Learn about the Waymaker Offoad Wheelchairs and their partnership with the S.C. State Parks.

Read about Minnesota's expansion of all-terrain track chairs at their state parks.

Learn more about Mobi-Mats, portable, roll-out mats for beach access.


Paul McCormack began serving as the 15th director of the South Carolina State Park Service in June of 2018.  Since arriving he has pushed the Parks to reach operational self-sufficiency, seen a revenue growth of over 19 million dollars annually, begun the planning for six new parks and implemented a merit-based salary increase program. He currently serves on the board of the NASPD

Paul started his career with South Carolina State Parks in June of 1995 at Sgt. Jasper State Park.  He grew up outside of Boston where scouting and summer camp jobs ignited a passion for the outdoors and sharing it with others. After attending The Citadel and earning his degree in Education, he stumbled upon a State Parks booth at a local outdoor event and spoke to the ranger about her career in parks and became hooked.  He started his career as a Ranger and has progressed through the ranks to Park Manager, Regional Manager and since 2018 as the Director of South Carolina State Parks. He has a passion for growing employees and giving them the tools and support to create a positive and welcoming work culture.

Paul is the proud father of three boys Tyler a recent college graduate and Connor and Jordan who will both be married in 2023 to Abby and Joe respectively. He and his wife have been together since college and married for 31 years.



Ame Sanders  00:11

This is the State of Inclusion podcast, where we explore topics at the intersection of equity, inclusion, and community. In each episode, we meet people who are changing their communities for the better, and we discover actions that each of us can take to improve our own communities. I'm Ame Sanders. Welcome.

If you've been listening to the podcast for the last few weeks, you know that along with the podcast, we're following a 10-week inclusive community outdoor challenge. In our week one challenge, I included a link to an article I had discovered about the director of our South Carolina State Parks, Paul McCormack, and his commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. I also included a really beautiful resource that they had developed that honestly shares about the past history of racism in this South Carolina state park system. It's called Remembering and Acknowledging the History of Segregation in South Carolina State Parks. And if you know me, you know I find that honestly telling our history and our truth is so important.

So, fast forward a few weeks, and one of my listeners shared some information about improving park accessibility through an expansion of all-terrain truck chairs in Minnesota. Also, I reflected on Paul's commitment to inclusion, and I decided to just reach out. He was very generous in his response and shared information about what's happening in South Carolina. Well, one thing led to another and so here we are. So today, our guest is Paul McCormack. Paul is the director of the South Carolina state park system. Welcome, Paul. Thanks so much for taking your time to talk with us.

Paul McCormack  01:54

Thank you for having me today. Excited to be here.

-A Word About SC Parks

Ame Sanders  01:57

So, Paul, we have listeners from all across the country. So maybe you could give us--I know this will be hard--a quick overview of the state parks in South Carolina.

Paul McCormack  02:06

Well, in a completely unbiased way, South Carolina has the best Park Service in this in the United States. So, we currently have 47 operational parks. We've had to change our language a little bit around that because we have six parks coming online in the next couple of years. So, we will be able to do about 53 parks in the next couple of years. We have parks from the mountains to the sea.

We're a little bit different than some of our other parks services around the nation. A lot of our parks include DNR and forestry lands. We're a little bit smaller. We have just state parks. We don't have the hunting lands or the game lands that some other states have under state parks. So, we provide amenities such as camping, cabin accommodations. We have beach access, river access, lake access. Our park system started in 1935 much like many of the systems around the country from the Civilian Conservation Corps. So, we're coming up on 100 years of being in parks in South Carolina.

A lot of our infrastructure dates back--16 of our parks date back in the 1930s. So, we have infrastructure and cabins that you can stay in that were built in the 1930s. So, I like to say we have something for everybody in the Park Service. That's great. What's your staff like? Can you say a word about your staff?

Ame Sanders  02:12

That's great. What's your staff like? Can you say a word about your staff?

Paul McCormack  03:22

Yeah, so parks people--and if you have park users around the country, I think this is a universal and I'm glad it's universal when I say this--but we have some of the most passionate people work for parks because you don't get into parks because you think it's going to be a career that you can easily pay the bills with. You get into parks because you love being outdoors and parks in general. You love sharing the outdoors, you love bringing people to the outdoors and sharing what you love about it.

So, we have about 300 full time staff, and about 400 temporary employees. From our maintenance personnel and our housekeepers to our park rangers and park managers. Then we also have archaeologists and biologists on board to help us plan and do things correctly in the parks.

-Learning to Love the Outdoors

Ame Sanders  04:09

Would you maybe share a little bit about yourself, about how you came to love the outdoors and parks maybe specifically and how you became interested in becoming director of the park system?

Paul McCormack  04:22

Yeah, so one of the great things about this job is as you go through your career, you have a chance to reflect on what kind of made you who you are to become a park ranger. I was a young, chubby, geeky kid. The only thing that's changed as I'm older now. I've never really felt comfortable. You know, I tried sports and did these other things. But, I joined Boy Scouts, and Boy Scouts took me camping. Then I went to a summer camp and being in the woods and being outdoors was one of the first places that I felt completely me if you will. I didn't feel like I had to be someone else. I was in the scouting movement. I was surrounded by other people who love the outdoors. We had that in common, and we enjoyed being there. It was a comfortable space for me where I could just unwind, relax and feel good about myself.

So, I worked in Scout camps all the way through college. It was my summer job. When I got out of school, my degree was in education. I wanted to be a teacher. I happened to stumble across a park ranger at an outdoor show and spent an hour/hour and a half talking to that park ranger and about their job. It just struck a chord with me and I thought, "Man, if I could do that, that would be the happiest job I ever had." I filled out an application and took about eight months and landed a park ranger job in South Carolina and South Carolina State Parks and just celebrated 28 years with South Carolina parks. So, really fortunate to have found my passion and spend a lifetime pursuing it.

Ame Sanders  05:55

I think your story really reminds me and talks a lot about how important it is to engage young people with their love of the outdoors and to help them feel welcome and included in outdoor activities and how that can translate into a lifetime of loving the outdoors and engaging in outdoor activities as it has for you and as it did for me as well. So, I think it really speaks to that. So, one of the things I would say in planning to talk with you that I reflected on is very much like libraries, parks are one of these last sort of neutral places where everybody can be welcome, where we are all together. There's no barriers between us.

-Commitment to Inclusion and Equity

So, it's a very special opportunity for people to be in community with one another. I think it's a place where we can, as we just talked about, deepen our sense of ourselves but also of our community and of course of place, which is a big part of that. One of the reasons that made me want to talk with you is you're very outspoken about your commitment to inclusion and equity. I just want to explore that with you a little bit and have you share with us about some of the things that you're doing in your role as director of the park system to make that come to life. What does it look like? How do you make that happen?

Paul McCormack  07:25

Yeah, so a couple points. I am very passionate about inclusion in the outdoors. I feel like your vision like you explained it, I feel it should be is our goal. We're not there. We are not as inclusive as we should be right now, but not out of a lack of a desire not to be. Little children at the beach, at the age of six months old, all grab a fistful of sand and put it in their mouth. Nobody's afraid of the sand. But over time, depending upon how they grew up in the families they grow up in their exposure to the outdoor narrows or broadens and they become afraid of snakes, afraid of spiders, not wanting to go into the outdoors. We can do better is by allowing kids space with their families to explore the outdoors comfortably. We have not traditionally done that. We are inclusive, but it was not until the 60s and 70s that we even opened our gates to certain ethnicities. People of color were excluded from parks historically and given separate but equal spaces that were anything but equal. Their families didn't feel comfortable going to the parks. So, while we're inclusive, we don't have a common experience that makes the parks accessible to everybody from a diversity point of view.

A couple of other things that have made me passionate about inclusion in the outdoors. My father was in a wheelchair. When I was younger, he got into a wheelchair. He had multiple sclerosis. So, at a young age, but still later in life. So, we spent time when he was healthy in the outdoors and all of a sudden, as his lifestyle changed, barriers to him being able to do the things he loved to do weren't in place. This was the 70s and 80s. He didn't live long enough to see barriers come down. For me, it's never been about what's legal. It's been about what's right. It's been about trying to help people access the things that they want to access and make them comfortable.

Outdoor spaces are traditionally very Caucasian and traditionally very male. I have two children who are members of the LGBTQ community, but that is not that is not a comfortable demographic for them and many times if that's what they walk in on. So, how do we make all of these spaces for all of these groups that should have access and should go there to be recharged and rejuvenated and enjoy, how do we make that space accessible and comfortable for everybody? So, those are some of my driving forces as to why I want to try to open up spaces for everything.

-Areas of Progress

So, some of the things some of the exciting things that I think we're doing. It started with your phone call about the chairs, so I'll start there. Like I said, my father was in a wheelchair. So, it got to a point in his life, he could never go to the beach. He could go to the edge of the beach, but you can't run a chair on the beach. So, several years ago, we worked with a passionate advocate for people with different abilities and we got wheelchairs at every state park in South Carolina. They're called beach chairs, and we put in these Mobi-Mats, so that you could get over the dunes and over the soft sand on these really large-wheeled PVC chairs. These chairs were designed, you could push them right into the water. So, if somebody had no mobility, you could take them into the water in this chair and pull them out. They are available just to check out at a park. Several years ago, the trend started with a lot of these chairs, like you talked about these all-terrain chairs more or less, that can get you on trails and lots of different places we've looked at we looked at them several years ago, and there were some barriers for us as a state to get involved in them.

But over the last couple of years, because we've had good partners, we've been able to provide those. We have been providing those at three of our coastal parks for a couple of years now, where we don't manage them. An outside partner manages them, and they make the reservations. If somebody needs them, they just come up and give them their name and it's emailed to us, and we give them the keys and away they go. We maintain it, charge it, that kind of stuff with a group, but we don't know the chairs. Now we're looking at trying to get into it and actually owning some of those chairs as well. So, we've made the beach more accessible for people who have mobility issues for sure.

We have a trail at Sesqui that we designed probably 15 years ago that is not ADA accessible. But this goes back to the little steps and trying to do the right thing just because it's the right thing. It is surfaced, so somebody who struggles with mobility, but can still walk can do this trail more easily than a traditional trail. Somebody in a chair can do this trail, but it is not going to be a great experience for them. But it is a step in the right direction. It's in Columbia, so there's a lot of older people like to get out and walk because there are a lot less trip hazards on this trail than on a traditional trail. It goes all the way around the lake and uses some of that reclaimed asphalt to kind of harden the surface there. So, we've done that as well for people with mobility issues.

Then the last four or five years, we've really looked at diversity issues and trying to get people of color into our parks. It started pre COVID. We've done this for 28 years. We've tried to recruit minority applicants, because we feel like our workforce should reflect the demographics of our state, and it doesn't. So, we've tried many things for years to recruit applicants and just not had a large applicant pool of people of color. So, now we're taking a different approach. We're trying to find ways to get families of color and diverse families into parks.

So, we've done a couple of things. We've done some programming and some advertising with a group called Black Folks Camp Too, who are passionate about breaking down barriers for Black folks to get into parks. We got a grant from Duke that we've since supplemented and we're doing monthly programs with groups like Outdoor Afro and Boys and Girls Club that focus on bringing families--not just kids--but families into parks to hike. They do sunrise hikes, camping experiences, paddling experiences, so that they come as a group, and they learn how to use the outdoors so that they want to come back.

Then we're having a lot more conversations with our staff to try and make it a comfortable space for them to have conversations with visitors and guests as they use parks as what is making them feel that they are welcome to come in and use the parks in the way that recharges their batteries and gives them the enjoyment that that we get just from sitting outside and watching birds.

You know, I don't need a lot. I just need to quiet that space in the woods. But for some people that quiet space in the woods doesn't charge them and it terrifies them. They want to be in the woods, but they want music. They want to be in the woods, but they want to be there with a crowd. So, trying to find ways to make those opportunities available for people. But yeah, getting more people into the woods is why we got into-- and I say into the woods--but in the parks is why most park rangers got into this job. Certainly, what has driven me to stay in this career for my entire career.

-Continued Challenges

Ame Sanders  14:31

So, maybe you can tell us a little bit about what things are particularly challenging for you and that you feel are especially entrenched or difficult for you to change. Because you have a strong commitment and you've been working at this for a while. So, what are the areas? You've talked about some of the successes you're having, but what are some of the challenges you still struggle with?

Paul McCormack  14:56

We struggle in so many areas. So, here's a great example. We are, like many businesses, our organization is not state funded anymore. We do our operational dollars come from our revenue. So, we don't get state appropriations to pay salaries or to pay the light bills or get lawn mowers. We do get state appropriations to do infrastructure upgrades and the state supports us millions of dollars a year to do that. But we generate about $50 million a year and that's about what it costs us to pay our bills each year. So, we have put things in place to help us generate revenue that also create barriers for families who have used them in traditional ways. In some cases, those steps that we've done to become self-sufficient have felt like potential barriers. We've certainly been called out on that. I don't want to defend our actions, because we're doing what we feel we need to do to run the park service. But I understand their complaint completely, that they have traditionally come with large crowds on these big busy weekends.

Now, because the costs and the way we manage our resources, we allow fewer people into the parks now just for sustainability purposes. So, the traditional large gatherings that a lot of families have had have gone by the wayside and that feels to a degree discriminatory. So, that's a barrier because they look at what some of the steps we're taking as not welcoming them into the park but excluding them from the park. Then for the non-traditional uses, one of the barriers, and I talk about this all the time is if you as a child did not come up using outdoor resources, you are not going to bring your child up using outdoor resources.

My parents spent time outdoors. So, they took us camping. We had a motorhome and did all those RV types of things. People of my generation, people in their 50s, my age, people of color, their parents were excluded from the outdoors. So, they never grew up being told to go and enjoy the outdoors. So, they're not bringing their kids up to do it. So, you have 18-19-year-olds now who are going off to college, thinking about jobs, and their parents have never taken them to the outdoors. So, education is a huge part of it for anybody that hasn't grown up using the outdoors to make them comfortable coming to use it. So that is certainly a barrier.

Then, they are state parks. So, there are physical barriers and limitations for people with mobility issues that we will all the time have to face, including cabins that are 80-something years old right now that have lots of small door openings and old bathrooms and things like that. That are great for a lot of families, but if you've got any kind of a disability or mobility issues, they're not facilities that you can comfortably and conveniently use. So, how do we upgrade those over time, given our budget restraints and other things. So, these are all issues. They're not going away. They're just stuff you've got to continually work at to improve. You've got to have open dialogue with the people that want to use your parks who are having barriers placed in front of them.

I think that's the biggest part is we need users who are struggling to use our facilities to have conversations with us about how we can make it better with the reality that we may not be able to do everything that they need done or want done. But we can certainly find ways to help them access it better than they are accessing now. Sometimes it's just a conversation with the park manager. Sometimes those fixes are so easy, and it's just somebody needs to know what that obstacle is for somebody. So, I think that growing community and growing conversations like you're doing with this a part of the process of helping us improve accessibility for everybody.

-Staff Engagement with Inclusion Efforts

Ame Sanders  19:25

It brings to mind several questions for me. So, I'll start with one which is your staff. So, obviously you are one person, and you have a big impact on the park system. But all of us the impact we have every day as we go about doing our job is perhaps the biggest impact. So, you have a lot of people who are working across the parks--we talked about hundreds of people--and what kinds of things are you doing to help engage them in this objective that you have or this mission that you have to make the parks more inclusive and also to have your staff look more like the communities that they serve?

Paul McCormack  20:04

So, we've done most of our trainings over the last couple of years have included, like Black Folks Camp Too and other speakers who talk about these issues. So, a lot of it is through training and conversations with staff as to what our expectations are on making people feel welcome. If you've been a ranger in the park service for two or three years, you've heard, what our goals are, and what our passion is. Then, supporting them as they make those things happen. We talk a lot about having conversations with visitors who look different.

Five, six years ago, we wouldn't have done that. We would have just avoided those conversations. Now we have rangers who are willing to stop and say, "Hey, just noticed you here then hadn't seen you here before. I want to welcome you and find out what we can do to make your stay better or find out why you haven't been before and what can we do to make you come back again?" We've also been able to couch it, one of the things that I think really helps, especially in places like the South is that we've been able to couch this as an economic issue for us. South Carolina's population is changing. Demographics are changing. Right now, the shrinking demographic is the one that is our customer base and the growing demographic is one that isn't. So, we need to work at making sure we're appealing to the growing demographic and that's just a good business model. So, it's really being able to have those conversations with people too. So, conversations are one way that we're really working to get our staff there.

One of the reasons I'm so passionate about this is I don't have an answer for how we're getting our staff to look more diverse right now. In 28 years, I've seen so many applicant pools, we've done career fairs, we've gone to HBCUs, I don't have a diverse applicant pool to choose from. So, the things we're trying to do with families and getting families into the parks, for me is that planting of the seeds, so that 20 years from now, these kids who are starting to come to these programs with their families and their parents, they're going to elementary school, middle school, high school, and they're still using parks. They all of a sudden are like, "Maybe I'd like to work in the outdoors" so that the applicant pool can change over time.

No one has been able to find that the secret bullet for changing this applicant pool and what our workforce looks like overnight. Happy to hear any suggestions if anyone's got them. So, that's kind of my approach at this point in my career is let's plant some seeds and see if we can get them to grow so that we can change this for the future.

-Seeds for the Future

Ame Sanders  22:38

So, you're a shepherd or a steward for the park system for a period of time. I'm sure you're keenly aware of your 100 years of history, and hopefully, many, many years into the future. So, the question I have for you is, what are the things in the near-term future things that you see or have in mind to do to make the parks more inclusive? Then like you were talking about the staff, are there other seeds that you're planting for the next generation?

Paul McCormack  23:09

So, I like to think that the next generation is already here--that we've hired the next generation. It fills me with so much hope when I go out into parks and I meet with our staff. Well, we don't have a diverse people of color staff. We have such a more accepting, welcoming--the gender demographics of our staff have changed dramatically and representation in the LGBTQ community who are out and open about being in the community. So, I feel like our staff has progressed. Seeing what's coming behind me to take over the reins, I'm hopeful and optimistic that they will.

I tell younger rangers all the time, "I hope that you will do something that I can't even dream of doing right now. I hope your park service is so different than the one that I'm in right now that I can't even fathom how you got there." I hope we're hiring the right people to do that. Traditionally, parks or park services run managers, it's all promoted from within. You need a little bit of experience to jump into a management ranks running a park for us. So, hiring practices are certainly top of the list for what I hope will make sure that this trajectory continues.

We budget each year, and I don't know that I'll have any control over that, but for now we budget marketing to different demographics each year. That's a part of the tourism agency. That's helpful because the tourism agency does the same thing. Who's spending the money in the state? Who do we target to get to spend more money into this state? So, because we're part of the tourism agency, some of our marketing dollars are going into communities and targeting communities that haven't traditionally used parks in the past and I think that will help grow our use and our family use as well. We are going to follow society. As our society grows and changes, and this becomes a bigger issue as it has over the last couple of years, I think we have an opportunity to be at the front of that, and to continue to do the things that we can do. I make no illusions that I'm here to change the world. I'm here to change the little corner of the world I have influence in and I hope that influence carries on and that the people who come after me continue to want to change it and steer the ship in the same direction.

-Final Points and Conclusion

Ame Sanders  25:35

Before we wrap up, I want to give you an opportunity, is there anything that we haven't talked about, that you wanted to cover?

Paul McCormack  25:42

You know, I think we've covered a lot. I'm very passionate about this subject and could talk all day about it. I do feel like it's important for us to recognize that the outdoors are for everybody and that I have been privileged to have grown up knowing that loving that and living that and that some people haven't. I need to recognize that as well and to try and make that a reality for people that it hasn't been a reality for. I think that's the people who listen to your show or probably have the same mindset, so how can we how can we find that one person in our lives that the outdoors isn't that space for them, and nudge them in that direction to let them know that it's there for them?

Ame Sanders  26:26

Thank you so much for the work that you do in South Carolina every day, and for your commitment to inclusion and equity in the outdoors. And thanks for talking with us this afternoon.

Paul McCormack  26:36

My pleasure. I appreciate the time. Thank you.

Ame Sanders  26:39

As I mentioned at the beginning of this episode, my interview grew out of the 10 week inclusive community outdoor challenge. If the outdoor challenge intrigues you, head on over to and follow along. Or better yet, join us and begin your own challenge. Be sure to share about your experiences. This has been the State of Inclusion podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, the best compliment for our work is your willingness to share the podcast or discuss these ideas with others. If you'd like to hear more about the practice of building an inclusive and equitable community, head over to and sign up for our newsletter. Also, feel free to leave us a review or reach out we'd love to hear from you. Thanks so much for listening and join us again next time


Guest: Paul McCormack

Host: Ame Sanders

Social Media and Marketing Coordinator: Kayla Nelson

Podcast Coordinator: Emma Winiski

Sound: FAROUT Media

Ame Sanders
Founder of State of Inclusion. A seasoned leader & change-maker, she is focused on positive change within communities.
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