Throughout the years of visiting our national parks, we have had the times of our lives. Whether crawling through the depths of the biggest known caves in the world, swimming in the water between the Channel Islands, or running through sacred dunes, we truly celebrated what the national parks have been able to give to us – a sense of freedom, adventure, and connection.
But the more we explored them, the more we realized that not everyone was getting the same opportunity to experience that as we were. We noticed that the faces of the people we’ve met, explored and formed lifelong bonds with, all looked remarkably similar rather than beautifully diverse.
At the end of the day, we didn't see a demographic that seemed to represent what our country actually looks like. It was then that we knew something had to change.
America is widely regarded and known as a melting pot, a place made up of all sorts of different people of varying skin colors, ethnicities, cultures, languages, identities, ability levels, and more.
There is no one monolithic image of an American, because there is no set way to be an American! All of us are vastly different and uniquely us, and that’s what makes this country great. America is its strongest when it embraces its diversity, the fact we are a country of immigrants built by immigrants for all people – regardless of whether they look, sound, or act like us or not.
Why? Because that’s who we are.
However, we’ve come to the realization that our national parks don’t reflect this. Like… not even a little bit. The faces of our country – wonderfully dissimilar and all the better for it – aren’t what we see when we head back to the campground at night or run into a group while journeying on the trails.
Instead, the ones we see are strikingly familiar, belonging to one class of people rather than displaying the broad spectrum of looks that represent our nation. And when we realized this, we noticed something else, too.
The vibe and energy of our parks? That also feels off (hey, white male machismo? We’re looking at you).
There’s little to no interaction between people of different backgrounds and communities. Interracial couples garner prolonged stares as they walk through.
Meanwhile, white parents tightly cling to their children as black hikers pass by, actively protecting against someone who’s just going about their lives and enjoying being out in nature like anyone else.
Other racial demographics see similar clear discrimination, regarded as threats when there is none, and there’s no doubt that queer people, trans folks, women, disabled people, and other minorities don’t always receive a particularly warm reception, either.
We believe this is unacceptable and started to do more and more research after seeing this present in our parks. Turns out, we weren’t alone in our realization. Other people noticed it, too.
We began digging into the statistics once we woke up to the lack of diversity and inequality and discovered some truly alarming information. The first thing that came into attention was the fact that the visitor demographics were dramatically skewed.
According to the US Census Bureau, more than a third of all Americans can be classified as a person of color, which encompasses those who are Black, Native American, Hispanic, and Asian. Yet, 79% of national park visitors and 83% of NPS workers are white.
When comparing that to their share of the US population, white park visitors are overrepresented by 14 percentage points, whereas African Americans were underrepresented by six percentage points.
Some studies even place the numbers in worse positions, with one citing that in some of the more prestigious parks like Yosemite, African Americans comprised only 1% of the park visitors.
All signs point to whites being dramatically overrepresented in our national parks, but visitors aren’t the only ones.
According to a 2013 report by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, white people are also overrepresented as park employees with over 80 percent of NPS employees falling into the category. Those are troubling numbers.
Equally as worrying? The National Park Foundation – whose mission is to support the NPS through fundraising – is similarly skewed, boasting a 22-member board but only with four minorities finding themselves part of these ranks. Yikes, right?
That’s a problem. Simply put, our parks demographics are too white compared to what the numbers should be. There’s no doubt there’s something deeper happening here, and people of color are paying the price – losing out these amazing outdoor spaces and, horrifically, partially because of valid safety concerns.
Now, let’s be clear. Dramatic inequalities like those seen here don’t just naturally happen. There’s always something below the surface contributing to it. And that’s true in this case as well. So, what is happening here?
Honestly, the lack of POC-inclusion is the result of numerous factors, all compounding together and further worsening the issue. To be more specific, our extensive research concludes that there are four main contributing factors here: cost, culture, proximity, and discrimination.
It’s simply too costly – to finances, time, and energy – to visit the national parks, especially for people of color since they generally have more limited economic means.
They usually don’t live anywhere near a park, don’t have as much money to spend on reliable transportation, gear, or accommodations, nor do they have much vacation time or non-working hours to spend on something leisurely like a park trip.
The cultural division between people of color and whites plays a role here, too, constraining outdoor recreation participation and national park visitation as it’s not what Black folks and other POC are “expected” to do.
And why is it not viewed in a positive light? Partially because it’s viewed more as a “white” activity, perceived in a negative light due to the statistics and wealth issues already mentioned.
As we said – it builds on top of each other, creating a horribly self-perpetuating cycle. But make no mistake, there is a central point of origin to the wealth issues, the cultural divide, and the proximity problem.
That’s institutionalized racism. POC earn less because they face discrimination in employment. They live further away from natural areas (on average) and in more urban areas because of gentrification that largely targets Blacks and Hispanics.
There’s a cultural divide because POC were forced into it, forced there by generations of discrimination and exclusion, something which national parks have even participated in.
Historically, this support has looked like celebrating White histories and heritages more than POC (Taylor 2000), legally barring or segregating Blacks prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Shumaker 2009; Lee and Scott 2016) and maintaining a proprietary attitude about the public places they occupy and rules for appropriate behavior that are typically aggressive towards non-Whites (Carter 2008).
These have had an impact and the echoes of it still ring true today, impacting how different races are treated in our parks. And in turn, this culminates in these minority communities having little connections to these spaces. It makes sense, though.
As Shelton Johnson says, “When you come out of a history where you could be violently treated to be at a place that was determined to not be for you, why would you choose that place to relax?”
Great, we’ve identified what seems to be the root of the problem! What’s preventing things from changing? For starters, the fact that this is a symptom of a significantly broader, deeper, more complex issue.
Not mincing words, racism is the root and that’s simply a root too deep to pull anytime soon. If we’re talking about on a smaller-scale, practical level, it appears that the biggest challenge facing NPS may be political. It is noteworthy that people of color are far more likely to visit parks that are relevant to their historical and/or cultural heritage.
For example, data collected by VSP showed that Asian Americans comprised one-third of all visitors to Manzanar National Historic Site, a unit that interprets the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II (US Department of the Interior 2005).
Likewise, Blacks made up 17% of all visitors to Booker T. Washington National Monument, a historical park established to honor the birthplace of one of the United States’ most prominent African American educators and orators (National Park Service 1996).
However, as we have noted, many Whites regard national parks and other recreation areas as White spaces.
They might not want NPS and other agencies to highlight non-White legacies or reach out to minority communities. Given the widespread antipathy many people of color encounter in everyday life, NPS will need strong and influential allies and partners as they continue to seek to make the agency relevant to more Americans.
Without allies and political support, NPS’s effort to diversity will stall, and many people of color will continue to encounter formidable constraints to visitation. (Scott and Lee).
Being the individuals and true team that we are, we refuse to just passively accept that POC won’t have access to the same spaces as others.
We refuse to accept that our Black, Hispanic, and Native American friends must face aggression and fear every time they walk around the bend of a trail or by someone at the campground. The national parks should be better than this, we should be. That means change – something we recognize is very hard, especially with so many barriers standing in our way.
However, not going to stop us from trying to make headway. It’s not an excuse for passivity. In response, we’re seeking to diversify our national parks by using a three-layered approach: awareness, education, and action.
Our initiative calls for attracting people of color to the parks, developing programs, offerings, and content that are relevant to a broader spectrum of Americans – to the beautiful, colorful, and diverse humans that make our country thrive.
In addition to new programs, however, we also believe that the current ones offered desperately need a figurative facelift, changed up to be more affordable, more accessible, culturally-relevant, safe, and welcoming for all who wish to access them.
We call on the NPS to do just this and to train its employees appropriately, fostering a workforce and culture where bias, discrimination, and prejudice against people of color – and any other minorities – has a strict, zero-tolerance policy.
Education also needs to be made a major priority, spreading resources like this and getting the word out. After all, it has a responsibility to its people and its parks. This is another aspect of that, one that needs worked on immediately for the good of us all.
The NPS isn’t the only one with a job to do, though (although that is admittedly a large part of this). Every single one of us has a part to play, too.
It’s our job, especially those of us who are white, to recognize our privileges and be fully aware of the problems happening within our national parks.
Turning a blind eye to this won’t solve it. It never has and never will. What will is facing it head-on.
So, here’s our challenge to you: take action. Join, donate, or volunteer in groups like those mentioned here. Invite your POC friends to join you out in one of the parks.
Help make the people around you, those who look like you and not, feel equally comfortable. Call out racism whenever you see it. We share these public spaces.
It’s about time we started acting like it. And finally – follow us, spread the word, and start taking care of each other today. It’s the least any of us can do.
Our initiative is to diversify our national parks by using a three-layered approach:
Awareness - get people to stop and realize there is a problem here
Education - give them exposure to first hand experiences
Action - take action by donating, volunteering, or spreading awareness
We're focused on connecting to more diverse audiences and creating content with this audience in mind. Join Our Facebook Group below to join the discussion, share information, and connect with like-minded individuals.
Black History is rich in the National Parks and is seldom recognized. We aim to educate the community about the vibrant history and get park attendance up for this demographic.LEARN MORE NOW
The Park's existence alone has directly related to the dispossession of Native American land throughout the United States. There was a clear system for this that we will go into further detail about here.LEARN MORE NOW
While the Asian community is well-represented at the Parks, most are not Asian-American and little of the Asian American history is discussed when focused on the National Parks.LEARN MORE NOW
Women have been an instrumental part of the Park's history and have long had their achievements ignored. Read more about how the tough, gritty women of the past have paved the trail for the current women of the outdoors.LEARN MORE NOW
As an outdoor enthusiast, you may be wondering what you can to do support diversity, equity, and inclusion in the outdoors. The recent prominence of the Black Lives Matter Movement has brought issues of inequality and racism in the outdoors to the forefront and has made us question what we can do to be better allies and help drive change.
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