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National Parks and Minorities

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Grand Teton National Park

Glenn Nelson challenges the National Park Service to do more to welcome minorities. He notes how very few visitors to national parks are people of color and the very strong disconnect between these central places in the American experience and minorities.

The place to start is the National Park Service. About 80 percent of park service employees in 2014 were white. The parks’ official charity, the National Park Foundation, has four minority members on its 22-person board.

Minorities did not exceed 16 percent of the boards or staffs of some 300 environmental organizations, foundations and government agencies included in a 2014 study for Green 2.0, an initiative dedicated to increasing racial diversity in such institutions. Minorities hold fewer than 12 percent of environmental leadership positions, and none led an organization with a budget of at least $1 million, the study found.

The National Park Service is the logical leader to blaze a trail to racial diversity in the natural world. It has a high public profile, and its approaching centennial can serve as a platform for redefinition.

But the agency has so far missed the opportunity. It doesn’t even know how many minorities visit the parks these days because it doesn’t routinely track such information. Its initial centennial-related campaign, Find Your Park, includes but doesn’t specifically target minorities and was delivered mainly to the already converted.

Efforts like handing park passes to fourth graders and their families, firing up Wi-Fi in visitor centers, and holding concerts on seashores or valley floors will similarly miss the mark. The park service should use its resources and partnerships to execute an all-out effort to promote diversity within its ranks and its parks. Its outreach should be tailored to minorities and delivered where they log in, follow, Tweet, view or listen. The park service needs to shout to minorities from its iconic mountaintops, “We want you here!”

There are good points here, but there are a couple of issues worth noting. First, the NPS has done a lot to include minority voices and perspectives in the parks. It has worked very hard on this, to the point where nearly every park has signage about minorities who lived there and points out a lot of the uncomfortable racial past of our history. But a lot of this takes place at the national historic parks, as opposed to the classical national parks that make up the jewels of the NPS. Nelson uses Mt. Rainier for an example. It’s been awhile since I’ve been to the visitor center up there so I don’t know if it discusses how Native Americans thought about the mountain for instance. But even if it does, does that resonate with African-Americans in Seattle? No.

But the NPS does actively recruit minority populations and tries to get them into those parks. In 1999, I spent a long summer working at the Martin Luther King National Historic Site in Atlanta. Most of my co-workers were African-American. There was an effort within the NPS to get African-Americans out of just working the urban parks and, specifically in this case, to get them to apply to work at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. My coworkers were not having it. They simply had no interest in living in rural Kentucky around what they felt were hostile white people. And who could blame them? Nelson discusses this in his article and in the end, most of these park jewels in rural places are coded white in many ways. They are largely surrounded by white populations in the small towns around the parks. They were defined as sublime places by whites and preserved to serve white tourists. John Muir in Yosemite and the U.S. Army in Yellowstone fought to keep people of color from using these places in their traditional manner. Hiking and camping and climbing are almost exclusively white activities in our imaginations. Visits to national parks (or national forests or a lot of other nature-based activities–or even Cape Cod) means being surrounded almost exclusively with other white people. So there are a lot of issues here. And there’s no easy answer. It might be that the NPS more directly targeting minority populations would help, but Nelson’s ideas don’t exactly seem to be that well-developed. Tweeting isn’t going to make African-Americans more comfortable in small town Wyoming.

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