North coast park interpreter’s videos make a huge splash with lockdown viewers
After a video of a Utah trail runner’s encounter with a mountain lion went viral last year, John “Griff” Griffith went on Facebook Live the next day to offer his take on the episode. Kyle Burgess’s YouTube video captured six agonizing minutes with the cougar, prompting the Internet to explode with headlines about the “stalking.”
“Y’all see that video?” Griffith asks, surrounded by giant coast redwoods and ferns in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. “That was not a mountain lion ‘stalking.’ That was a mama mountain lion trying to get someone away from her cubs.” His eyes widen as he defends Burgess for doing “almost everything right” —maintaining eye contact, being loud, and backing away slowly rather than running. Griff’s video has amassed 540,000 views.
An interpreter at Humboldt Redwoods, Griffith likes to take on thorny issues and defend maligned creatures. His goal is to circumvent “dialogue stoppers” and spark curiosity. He’s instantly familiar, like that slightly over-caffeinated friend who is always excited about something. He also knows what he’s talking about. And the Internet and TV love him, conferring celebrity status with millions of views, 13,000 Facebook fans, and a gig hosting a season of “Wild Jobs” for Animal Planet.
“Griffith is the perfect person to have at Humboldt Redwoods because he knows the park inside and out,” says Marnin Robbins, Interpretive Program Manager for the North Coast Redwoods District of California State Parks.
Roots in the California Conservation Corps
Through most of his 30s and 40s Griffith served as a crew supervisor for the California Conservation Corps (CCC), leading habitat restoration projects in many North Coast parks. A 2012 video of Griff dancing “like a boss” with two of his crew members in the CCC kitchen went viral, garnering nearly 7 million views and eventually leading to the opportunity on Animal Planet.
His facility with social media has come in handy since being hired in January 2020. After the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered all of California’s state parks, Robbins directed his interpreters to broadcast daily on Facebook Live. Since March 2020, the videos have reached close to 2 million people. They also began virtually presenting to students stuck in their homes throughout California and beyond through Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Students (PORTS), a program hosted by California State Parks.
“We have done some pretty innovative things, including a tremendous amount of digital communication during COVID,” says Robbins. “It’s offered a way to connect Californians to the healing power of nature during a difficult time.”
Griffith says a good video is short, entertaining, and not too polished, but the message needs to be on point. A video on the relationships among spotted owls, flying squirrels, truffles, and redwood trees ends up a sermon on “survival of the most cooperative.” For Bat Week, Griffith introduces the hoary bat, which is declining because of collisions with wind turbines.
Griffith studied interpretation at Humboldt State University, but he really honed his skills by teaching the 18-to-25-year-olds who joined his CCC crews.
“I didn’t want them to come to salmon habitat restoration and work in these beautiful parks and not learn anything,” says Griffith.
Many had never camped before. They were afraid of bats. The forest understory plants merged into a homogeneous “green blur.” For Griffith, every salamander under a log and flushed fledgling was an opportunity for on-the-spot interpretation. He made his stories relevant, acting out characters—the more animated, the better.
Redwood trees were a metaphor for resilience. Spawning became a “heterosexual cis-gendered love story” featuring Salvador and Sarah Salmon.
“Griff is wonderfully accessible and funny,” says Robbins. “Anymore, people don’t want the old wooden ‘sage on a stage,’ speaking with the authority of the government. They want a trusted friend to help guide them to new experiences and self-discovery.”
A leader in diversity and inclusion
Griffith is a CCC veteran. He was 18 when he left the San Francisco Bay Area for Mendocino County, where environmentalist Betty Ball became a mentor. She encouraged him to recruit people of color from the CCC to participate in Redwood Summer, a campaign to halt clear-cut logging of old-growth redwood forests. Early on, Griffith noted the exclusive role of affluent white men in leading and supporting the American conservation movement. So too have they historically shaped parks, excluding other cultures and voices.
“Betty agreed that conservation needs to be a people thing, not just a white people thing,” says Griffith. “It was one of first conversations I ever had about diversity and inclusion.”
Now, Griffith is on first-name basis with leaders in the movement for diversity and equity in parks, says Robbins. “He’s been a leader in the movement, long before it became popular.”
In 2015, Griffith served on a steering committee for Outdoor Afro, a national nonprofit dedicated to connecting Black people with outdoor experiences. He also received the first Outdoor Afro Inspiration Award. In 2015 and 2016, Griff served on the advisory board for the Humboldt State University Chapter of Latino Outdoors, which engages Latino communities in nature.
Griffith’s first salmon restoration project as a CCC supervisor was in Humboldt Redwoods on a dry, shallow stretch of Bull Creek. His crew built boulder structures and planted trees on the denuded banks. In summer 2020, he escaped the heat by dipping in a deep pool of clear, cool water full of salmon, just minutes from the park housing where he lives.
“My swimming hole as a state park employee interpreter is my first salmon habitat restoration project,” says Griffith, who turns 50 this year. “There are really powerful memories here for me. That definitely motivates how I do interpretation because I want everyone to have a powerful connection to this park.”
You can view Facebook Live videos by Griffith and other California State Park interpreters on the North Coast Redwoods Facebook Page.