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.”
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.”
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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 .