National parks are often hailed as “America’s greatest idea.” They protect nature, conserve history, and serve as places of rest and recreation. Although everyone is welcome, people of color face socioeconomic and cultural barriers that cause them to be starkly underrepresented among visitors to our treasured lands. In a 2009 National Park Service Comprehensive Study, minorities were found to be underrepresented across the board. Black Americans were found to be the most underrepresented, making up 12% of the United States population but only 4% of visitors to national parks. In contrast, 80% of park visitors were white, an overrepresentation of nearly 9% points compared to the national population. Minorities with low incomes are the most disadvantaged. They’re more likely to lack information about park resources, worry about safety, and lack access to reliable transportation.
Eleanor Kootsey, the executive director of Blue Sky Fund, believes that transportation and cost of entry are some of the biggest barriers to people of color visiting the national parks. Blue Sky Fund works to give minority schoolchildren in Virginia an outdoor education that helps them connect and build confidence in the outdoors.
“From Richmond, it’s a two-hour drive to Shenandoah National Park; once you factor in the drive time, cost of entry, cost of gas to get there if you even have a car, visiting the park might seem low on the priority list for an individual from low-income means,” Kootsey said.
Acknowledging historical baggage and modern concerns
In addition to cost and distance, a turbulent past with the outdoors can make it difficult for people of color to relate to parks. During the Jim Crow Era, the National Park Service deferred to the states’ stance on segregation. Because of this, many were forced to use separate facilities and were given maps that directed them away from white areas.
In a City Lab interview, an anonymous African American woman said, “We have to talk about access when we talk about the history of leisure, because there was no access to it [outdoor recreation], so how do you expect me [to] appreciate these things if my parents didn’t appreciate it, my parents’ parents couldn’t appreciate it?”
In addition to past segregation, people of color aren’t fully integrated into the Park Service institutionally: 80% of National Park Service staff are white, even though the federal workforce as a whole is only 64.7% white—closer to the white share of the U.S. population.
That lack of representation among park staff has real consequences, as people of color have reported experiencing discrimination from park and recreation workers. An article by Al-Jazeera said many prospective visitors worry about implicit racial bias and disparate treatment by park staffers.
When the 2009 National Park Service Comprehensive Study asked respondents whether NPS employees give poor service to visitors, the results showed 11% of African Americans, 11% of Asians, and 8% of Hispanics agreed. In contrast, only 3% of white people agreed with that statement. Increasing park staff diversity and cultural sensitivity training might be an effective way to improve this result.
Building the historical connection by telling a more inclusive story
The same way that people of color might feel more welcome with diverse NPS staff, they also enjoy diverse stories and narratives. They are more likely to visit parks and historical sites that closely relate to them and their history. A 2004 visitor study showed that one-third of people who visited the Manzanar National Historic site were Asian Americans. Manzanar was a concentration camp that held over 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. Another 1996 study showed that 17% of visitors to the Booker T. Washington monument were Black Americans. Creating more of these sites focused on people of color might be the key to sparking interest and relevance to minority communities.
“I think NPS is doing a much better job of telling the full breadth of the American experience. New park sites like Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality, Birmingham Civil Rights, and Stonewall demonstrate that are parks are striving to be as diverse as our people,” says Alan Spears, the cultural director at the National Park Conservation Association.
Welcoming diverse ways to enjoy national parks
Although these historic sites are important, there are different challenges facing people of color who want to take part in natural spaces. Because of the way parks are marketed, it can seem like expensive equipment and extensive preparation is required. A quick Google search of “things to do in National Parks” brings up an intimidating list of hiking, camping, rafting, and horseback riding.
“One of the biggest barriers to getting people of color out to our national parks is the hard-to-defeat notion that they don’t belong because they don’t have the equipment, understand the lingo or the traditions,” said Spears.
For many people of color, national parks also seem to have unwritten rules and expectations around behavior. Luis Perales, the chief academic officer at Changemaker High School, addressed how there are different ways to enjoy public lands in an NPR interview.
“I’m going to bring my whole family, we’re going to be loud, we’re going to explore. That’s not what’s promoted at this point. It has to be a compromise,” Perales said.
“It’s important for the public to understand that national parks offer a wide array of experiences. You may choose to hang out with wolves in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley. But you may also choose to have a family gathering at Rock Creek Park or walk the length of Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg National Military Park,” Spears added.
Creating opportunities for positive experiences in nature
A range of organizations like Latino Outdoors, Outdoor Afro, and GirlTrek work to create supportive environments for minority youth and adults to gain comfort, community, and confidence in the outdoors.
GirlTrek is currently the largest public health nonprofit dedicated to African American women. GirlTrek began with one of the most accessible outdoor activities: walking.
“When you walk, you have a sense of agency and forward momentum so that you are in a space of hope. And that feels just incredibly smart to have a million black women doing that together,” said GirlTrek co-founder and CEO, T. Morgan Dixon in an interview with Denver Fredrick. GirlTrek regularly partners with the National Park Service through its Summer Trek series to take their walks from around the neighborhood into nature.
The confidence and ability to take on more adventurous activities is often established in childhood. Childhood visitation history has a significant effect on how aware children are of national parks and their interest in visiting as they grow older.
In a video interview with Experience Life Magazine, Latino Outdoor founder José González said, “I tend to tell parents especially, the most important thing you can do is just get the kids out there. And then the second most important thing is to build a habit around it. Once you do that, I think the other pieces begin to settle a bit more, and you can handle them in a way that works best for your family.”
The National Park Service runs programs like Every Kid Outdoors to create opportunities for childhood engagement with nature. However, this program is limited to fourth-graders and could be easily missed. The Park Service should continue to partner with these independent organizations to ensure longer-term reach and impact.
Although the National Park Service is instrumental to environmental conservation, they also help preserve historical sites, monuments, and archeological resources.
Spears reminds us, “By virtue of the sites they manage, and the stories the agency interprets and protects, the National Park Service is one of the largest stewards of African American history in the United States.” The National Park Service also cares for sites that acknowledge Asian Pacific Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, and other histories.
It’s estimated that by 2045, the United States will become a “majority minority” country. If parks and their historic sites are to remain a cornerstone of America’s landscape, the Park Service must find a way to be more accessible, inclusive, and relevant to everyone.