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Image: Shelton Johnson
Courtesy of National Park Service
Shelton Johnson, a park ranger in Yosemite who grew up in inner-city Detroit, said African-Americans were among the park's first rangers but constitute just 1 percent of Yosemite's visitors each year. “If you don’t know you have cultural roots in the parks, then you’re not going to feel a sense of ownership in them.”
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/3/2011 7:23:32 PM ET 2011-08-03T23:23:32

The National Park system is often called “America’s Best Idea,” but according to a new report, it remains more like terra incognita for many people of color.

Released Wednesday, “The National Park System Comprehensive Survey of the American Public,” conducted by the Wyoming Survey & Analysis Center at the University of Wyoming, is a follow-up to a much-cited report on race/ethnicity among park visitors conducted in 2000.

Taken together, the two surveys show that while the American public has grown increasingly diverse in the last decade, black and Hispanic-Americans remain underrepresented in visits to the 394 National Park Service (NPS) properties.

“Despite efforts by the National Park Service and its partners to engage underserved populations,” wrote the researchers, “visitation differences by race/ethnic group seem not to have changed much over the past decade.”

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Conducted by telephone in 2009, the survey queried 4,103 respondents across the U.S. The results showed that non-Hispanic whites comprised 78 percent of park visitors in 2008–2009. By comparison, Hispanics accounted for 9 percent of visitors, while African-Americans were 7 percent of visitors.

In contrast, the U.S. population in 2010 was 64 percent non-Hispanic white, 16 percent Hispanic, 13 percent African American and 5 percent Asian, with American Indians, Alaska Natives and Pacific Islanders accounting for less than 1 percent each.

“The national parks represent the American story, and there are groups of people who don’t identify with that,” said Carolyn Finney, assistant professor in the College of Natural Resources at the University of California, Berkeley. “For some people, there’s a sense that the parks are pretty white.”

Visitation figures are skewed even further when the visits in question are to parks that showcase wilderness and outdoor recreation. For example, at Yosemite National Park in California, a 2009 visitation survey showed that African Americans totaled just 1 percent of visitors, compared to 77 percent white and 11 percent each for Hispanics and Asians.

The reasons would easily fill a book — Finney, in fact, is currently completing one called “Black Faces, White Spaces: African Americans and the Great Outdoors” — but the end result is that the national parks run the risk of losing their connection to the American public.

The past as prologue
Sixteen years ago, Audrey Peterman experienced that disconnect when she and her husband, Frank, loaded up their pickup truck in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and embarked on a 12,000-mile, eight-week tour of the country. “I’d never been to a national park,” said Peterman. “I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a National Park system.”

For Peterman, that all changed at their first stop, Acadia National Park, in Maine: “I was so overwhelmed by the beauty, it was transformative. It was like I’d been living in a mansion, but had only seen the kitchen. Now I’d stumbled into the grand living room.”

As Peterman tells it in their 2009 book, “Legacy on the Land: A Black Couple Discovers our National Inheritance and Tells Why Every American Should Care,” only one thing surprised her more than the spectacular scenery:

“Where were the black folks? Where were Asian-Americans? Eight weeks, 14 national parks coast to coast and in that whole time we saw less than a handful of people of color.”

Slideshow: America's national parks (on this page)

Clearly, some things have changed since then. Although still underrepresented compared to the larger population, African-Americans accounted for 7 percent of park visitors in 2008–2009 vs. 4 percent in 2000. But for many, both within and outside the Park Service, the issue still lingers.

Part of the reason is a simple lack of experience — “You can’t make people like something they haven’t tried before,” said Bill Gwaltney, assistant regional director for the National Park Service’s Intermountain region — but the disparity also touches on what he calls “shadow answers.”

“People say, ‘I don’t know anybody there; I don’t know the tenor of say, law enforcement,’ ’’ said Gwaltney. “Am I going to have to worry about driving while black or driving while brown?”

A changing U.S. population
In roughly 40 years, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that non-white minorities will constitute at least half of the American population, up from roughly one-third in 2008.

And, as numbers in the new report reiterate, the impending majority tends to engage less with the national parks than the existing one, for a whole host of reasons, ranging from the obvious — such as cost and accessibility — to more subtle ones dealing with imagery, identity and what constitutes the “appropriate” way to experience the parks.

One problem, suggests Gwaltney, is that unfamiliarity breeds apprehension: “If someone says, ‘Let’s go to Yosemite,’ the answer becomes, ‘Well, where’s that? I don’t know anybody who’s been there. Let’s go to visit Grandma in South Carolina instead’.”

Another is that outdoor recreation tends to be portrayed in very specific ways that don’t speak to all ethnic groups. “People think that if you go to the parks, you have to hike and camp,” said Finney. “Some people just want to be outside or hang out with their families, but those things aren’t necessarily included under ‘recreation’.”

The challenge is ultimately a two-fold one — getting people of color to come to the parks and ensuring they’re welcome once they do. Regarding the former, the new survey suggests that the single biggest impediment for non-visitors was that they didn’t know much about the National Park system (60 percent).

“A lot of it depends on how you were exposed to the outdoors,” said Sid Wilson, owner of A Private Guide Inc., in Denver, who credits his own love of the outdoors to fishing trips with his father as a young boy in Brooklyn. “After you start doing it, you start to find others like yourself.”

The other part of the challenge — making people feel welcome — may prove even tougher. When asked if “NPS units are unpleasant places for me to be,” just 5 percent of white respondents agreed. By comparison, 9 percent of African-Americans and 23 percent of Hispanics did so.

“Basically, we have to get caught doing good in a public place,” said Gwaltney. “We have to welcome everybody and let them know that we pay attention to the many stories of different groups of people.”

Park visitors = park supporters
For Shelton Johnson, a park ranger in Yosemite who grew up in inner-city Detroit, one such story encapsulates the entire issue. As Johnson notes, between 1899 and 1904, so-called Buffalo Soldiers — members of two African-American regiments of the U.S. Army — served as some of the park’s first rangers.

“This puts African-Americans at the very beginning of national park history, yet African-Americans only constitute 1 percent of visitors to the park,” said Johnson. “If you don’t know you have cultural roots in the parks, then you’re not going to feel a sense of ownership in them.”

In fact, given the ongoing shift in the nation’s demographics, the true significance of that ownership has less to do with the parks’ past than with their future. Equal opportunity is not just a good thing; it’s also the key to the parks’ continued survival.

“What is the Park Service going to do in 2050 if the potential stewards (such as legislators and the people who vote them into office) have no sense of ownership or connection to the national parks?” asked Johnson.

Or, as Peterman put it, “Even if the entire white population was bent on environmental protection, it won’t work if the other half of the population is not involved.”

The good news is that efforts to expand involvement, and hence ownership, are underway, both within and outside the National Park Service.

In California, the Park Service has partnered with the Yosemite Institute on WildLink, a program that introduces high-school kids from Oakland, Stockton and other cities to the outdoors through five-day wilderness trips.

In Colorado, Hispanic families in the Denver are getting their first taste of camping through the Camp Moreno Project in Rocky Mountain National Park. The project is named for longtime local outdoor-recreation advocate Roberto Lopez Moreno, who got his own introduction 50 years ago when his parents decided to go camping in Yosemite (after seeing an outdoorsy Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz movie).

What’s missing, say observers, is a national program that will expand such efforts to a larger audience, the audience that will eventually determine the funding, and hence the fate, of the parks themselves.

“The message is that you’re not going to be the first and you’re not going to be the last,” said Gwaltney. “Every time we do these things, it creates a larger base of people for whom this is normal.”

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail .

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Photos: America's national parks

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  1. Acadia

    Acadia National Park in Maine boasts the highest mountain on the U.S. Atlantic Coast and was the first national park east of the Mississippi River. Visitors beware: temperatures can vary 40 degrees -- from 45 degrees to 85 degrees in the summer and from 30 degrees to 70 degrees in the spring and fall. (Gareth Mccormack / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rocky Mountain

    Bear Lake, with mountainside aspens changing colors in mid-autumn, is one of the popular attractions in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. (Universal Images Group via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Badlands

    The climate in South Dakota's Badlands National Park is extreme. Temperatures range from minus 40 degrees in the dead of winter to 116 degrees in the height of summer. Visitors are drawn to the park's rugged beauty as well as the area's rich fossil beds. (Mark Newman / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Yosemite

    One of the nation's first wilderness parks, Yosemite is known for its waterfalls, scenic valleys, meadows and giant sequoias. (Robert Galbraith / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. North Cascades National Park

    The North Cascades National Park complex offers something for everyone: Monstrous peaks, deep valleys, hundreds of glaciers and phenominal waterfalls. The complex includes the park, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. (David Mcnew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Zion

    This spectacular corner of southern Utah is a masterpiece of towering cliffs, deep red canyons, mesas, buttes and massive monoliths. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Redwood

    Created in 1968, Redwood National Park is located in Northern California. Today, visitors to the national park can enjoy the massive trees as well as an array of wildlife. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Joshua Tree

    Joshua Tree National Park is located in southeast California. The area was made a national monument in 1936 and a national park in 1994. Outdoor enthusiasts can go hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Great Smoky Mountains

    Straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses more than 800 square miles in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Visitors can expect mild winters and hot, humid summers, though temperatures can differ drastically as the park's elevation ranges from 800 feet to more than 6,600 feet. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Arches

    More than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, many of them recognizable worldwide, are preserved in Utah's Arches National Park. Temperatures can reach triple digits in the summer and can drop to below freezing in the winter. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Grand Teton

    The Snake River flows through Grand Teton National Park, and the jagged Teton Range rises above the sage-covered valley floor. Daytime temperatures during summer months are frequently in the 70s and 80s, and afternoon thunderstorms are common. (Anthony P. Bolante / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Haleakala

    Visitors watch the sun rise at 10,000 feet in Haleakala National Park in Maui, Hawaii. If weather permits, visitors at the top of the mountain can see three other Hawaiian islands. (The Washington Post via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Grand Canyon

    Grand Canyon National Park is perhaps the most recognizable national park. Nearly 5 million visitors view the mile-deep gorge every year, formed in part by erosion from the Colorado River. The North and South rims are separated by a 10-mile-wide canyon. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Yellowstone

    Yellowstone National Park, America's first national park, was established in 1872. The park spans parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Grizzly bears, wolves, bison and elk live in the park. It is well known for Old Faithful and other geothermal features. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Mount Rainier

    Glaciers. Rainforests. Hiking trails. Mount Rainier National Park, located in Washington state, offers incredible scenery and a diverse ecology. The park aims to be carbon neutral by 2016. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Hawaii Volcanoes

    Two of the world's most active volcanoes can be found within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In 1980, the national park was designated an International Biosphere Reserve; in 1987, it was added as a World Heritage Site. (David Jordan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Everglades

    Everglades National Park covers the nation's largest subtropical wilderness. It is also a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Wetland of International Importance. Visitors to the park can camp, boat, hike and find many other ways to enjoy the outdoors. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Glacier

    A view from atop the Grinnell Glacier Overlook trail in Glacier National Park. With more than 700 miles of trails the park is known for its glaciers, forests, alpine meadows and beautiful lakes. (Matt McKnight / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Bryce Canyon

    Located in southwestern Utah, Bryce Canyon National Park is known for its distinctive geological structures called "hoodoos." (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Crater Lake

    The brilliant blue Crater Lake, located in southern Oregon, was formed when Mount Mazama, standing at 12,000 feet, collapsed 7,700 years ago after a massive eruption. Crater Lake is one of the world's deepest lakes at 1,943 feet. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Olympic

    Washington state's Olympic National Park offers visitors beaches on the Pacific Ocean, glacier-capped mountain peaks and everything in between. Keep the weather in mind when visiting, though, as roads and facilities can be affected by wind, rain and snow any time of year. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Sequoia and Kings Canyon

    A woman stands among a grove of a Giant Sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park in Central California. The trees, which are native to California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, are the world's largest by volume, reaching heights of 275 feet and a ground level girth of 109 feet. The oldest known Giant Sequoia based on its ring count is 3,500 years old. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Denali

    Alaska's Denali National Park spans 6 million acres and includes the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak. Many park visitors try to catch a glimpse of the "big five" -- moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves and grizzly bear. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Kenai Fjords National Park

    The National Park Service considers the 8.2-mile round-trip on Harding Icefield Trail in Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park to be strenuous, saying hikers gain about 1,000 feet of elevation with each mile. (National Park Service via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Death Valley

    California's Death Valley encompasses more than 3.3 million acres of desert wilderness. In 1849, a group of gold rush pioneers entered the Valley, thinking it was a shortcut to California. After barely surviving the trek across the area, they named the spot "Death Valley." In the 1880s, native peoples were pushed out by mining companies who sought the riches of gold, silver, and borax. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Wind Cave

    Bison graze in Wind Cave National Park in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota. Millions of bison were slaughtered by white hunters who pushed them to near-extinction by the late 1800s. Recovery programs have brought the bison numbers up to nearly 250,000. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Canyonlands

    The Lower Basins Zone is outlined by the white rim edge as seen from the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Shenandoah

    Fall colors blanket the Shenandoah National Park, drawing tourists to Skyline Drive to view the scenery. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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