How Do We Make the National Parks More Diverse?

Everyone agrees park visitors should better represent our country’s diverse population. Four experts weigh in on how we can break down the barriers.
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Everyone agrees park visitors should better represent our country’s diverse population. Four experts weigh in on how we can break down the barriers.
National Park diversity

A group of Bay Area hikers, many on their first visit to Muir Woods, try to identify a bird. Photo by Teresa Baker

More than 307 million people visited national parks in 2015, shattering records and setting up the system we love for a banner Centennial. The problem? Seventy-eight percent of those visitors where white. That doesn’t bode well for a country that will be mostly nonwhite by 2044.

Park system officials recognize the challenge. “If I were a business and that were my clientele,” says NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis, “I wouldn’t be in business for much longer.”

The just-launched Centennial Initiative will unite 30 conservation, civil rights, and environmental justice groups in an effort to increase diversity in national parks.

That’s a start, but it will take much more to ensure that every American, regardless of race, creed, or background, sees the parks as his or her birthright. We convened some of the key thinkers in this effort to get their opinions on how to really make the parks for everyone.

Teresa Baker

Founder, African American Nature & Parks Experience

If we provide opportunities, demand is there: “In 2013, I went on Facebook and created a single African American National Parks Event. The sole purpose was just to engage people; it was going to be a one-time thing to bring people out to Yosemite. Now, this will be the fourth year in a row I’ve done African American National Parks events in the first weekend of June.”

Meet the people where they are: “A huge opportunity we are missing is partnering with city parks to become more visible in the outdoors. Folks here have never seen a ranger uniform. If the National Park Service partnered on a city hike with a ranger, that would bring more exposure and that’s what’s needed.”

Make first-timers comfortable: “I get a lot of people who ask ‘how do we prepare for our first camping or hiking trip?’ I tell them to give me the name of the campground and I will personally reach out and put them in touch so [a ranger] can give them a quick tour of the campground or trail, tell them what they can expect. A lot of these places, you’re not going to see a ranger who looks like you. But if you have a name and know someone is going to be waiting to have a conversation and greet you, that helps a lot.”

Glenn Nelson

Founder of The Trail Posse, a website dedicated to documenting and encouraging diversity in the outdoors

Help people see themselves in the parks: “I’m trying to change the picture by showing people of color in the outdoors. We may call them public lands, but to a lot of people they look like an exclusive country club [in the mainstream media]. The NPS is doing this massive Find Your Park campaign for the Centennial, but I wonder if communities of color see this. Did they look into reaching African Americans through the church or Latinos through radio?”

There are many ways to get there:“My wife is an inner-city L.A. native, a Latina. So how did I get her interested [in the outdoors]? We bought our first house and bought a bird feeder, and we were attracting northern flickers, became attached, replanted our yard with native habitat, got a pair of binoculars, started traveling to wildlife refuges and parks for birdwatching. It blossomed out of the simple act of looking up in the sky.”

Prof. Carolyn Finney

Assistant professor of cultural geography at the University of Kentucky, author of Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors

Don’t believe the myths: Black people don’t go hiking. Black people don’t paddle. Those are myths. We do everything like everybody else, though our experience may be circumscribed. Think about Jim Crow segregation—that’s going to limit your ability to go outdoors. Nevertheless, Rue Mapp and Outdoor Afro is big. Groups like that are really getting black folks into the outdoors. There are hundreds that do this. And you have examples like the black mountain climbing team that did Denali and Audrey and Frank Peterman, who went across the country going to national parks.”

Bring it home: “It’s not just about places where we go far away—it’s about loving where we are. Nature is here and now. A number of years ago, I visited an afterschool program. Many of these kids have never gone camping, so we took them camping in Rock Creek Park [in Washington, D.C.]. One or two of them said that in coming home, they noticed the garbage on the street in ways they didn’t notice before, and they’re like ‘How come this place doesn’t look really nice? What do we need to do about that?’”

José González

Founder and director of Latino Outdoors

Recognize differences:“Part of my work is to celebrate the diversity within the Latino identity. It’s different in Texas, California, or New York. There are common markers—family, respect, value of culture. But in one area, the Latino community is professional and middle class, and they’re looking for opportunities to camp. In other places, they might have experienced city parks, but they have never had the need or income to go get a tent.”

Every experience counts: “We were taking a group of families to the closest state park, about 20 minutes away here in California. We had a dad dressed in his Sunday best—because we said ‘Sunday at the park with your family.’ But this was a ‘repair an ecosystem’ day with digging in the dirt. But was he OK in terms of safety and comfort? Yes. So we didn’t say, ‘You aren’t dressed the right way.’ At the end of the day, he played a guitar and sang about parks. It might have been the first time he’d gone to a place that’s so different, but we open up the cultural familiarity so he knows ‘who I am and what I’m bringing is acceptable here.’ And we were having pan dulce, mole, and nopales under the sequoias—which was amazing.”