A second century of greatness (Part 1): Minorities and the future of national parks

Posted: Jan 22, 2020


Earlier this week President Obama used his authority, granted by the Antiquities Act of 1906, to designate five new national monuments.

Delaware earned its first national park unit, celebrating the state’s inaugural role in ratifying the U.S. Constitution. Maryland’s Underground Railroad National Monument pays tribute to famous conductor Harriet Tubman. Nature and culture are now protected on Washington’s San Juan Islands. And New Mexico scored the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, which safeguards abundant wildlife habitat and the archaeology of Archaic-era Indians and Hispanic explorers from the 18th century and beyond.

The fifth park, the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio preserves the home of the U.S. Army soldier and West Point graduate who, prior to the establishment of the National Park Service (NPS) in 1916, served as one of the first superintendents of Sequoia and General Grant (now Kings Canyon) national parks. Young, as head of a regiment of so-called Buffalo Soldiers, was one of few African-Americans who achieved the rank of officer at the time. He was known for his courage, diplomacy and sheer volume of accomplishments.

A thread linking these monuments is that each pays tribute, in part, to this nation’s immigrants (early Dutch, Swedish, Finnish and English settlers founded the colony of Delaware) and/or its current minorities—African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans.

Paradoxically, these are the groups that rarely see the inside of a national park unit. An NPS survey released in 2011 revealed that, in 2008 and 2009, 78 percent of park visitors were non-Hispanic whites. Latinos accounted for 9 percent and African-Americas for 7 percent of visitors. Asian Americans made up roughly 3 percent and American Indians, Alaska Natives and Pacific Islanders, approximately 1 percent. 

Visitation did not correlate with the racial and ethnic makeup of the country at the time: the population of the U.S. was 64 percent white, 16 percent Latino, 13 percent African American, 5 percent Asian and less that 1 percent each of American Indians, Alaska Natives and Pacific Islanders.

Of course, these demographics are shifting dramatically. Last year the Census Bureau reported that minorities now account for over half of the babies now born in the U.S. By 2050, Hispanics are projected to be roughly 30 percent of our population; blacks, 15 percent and Asian Americans, 9 percent. Whites will be make up just 47 percent or less of America by then.

The lack of people of color in parks is a significant issue for the NPS. In the current ramp-up to the 100th anniversary of the agency in 2016, there’s a lot of talk about how to position the park system for a second century of greatness (more on this in Part 2 of this blog). There are a lot of ideas about how to do this but, one critical one, is to make minority Americans aware that the now 401 units administered by the NPS is their land, too. 

In positioning itself for its next 100 years, the Park Service knows it needs a sustainable constituency that supports the idea, and viability, of those places. This means making parks more attractive and accessible to minorities.

When asked during the NPS survey why they don’t go to parks, many minorities said the “park experience” is unfamiliar to them—they don’t know where parks are located, what they have to offer, or what to do when they get there. They also don’t identify with the recreation ethic that seems synonymous with national parks; they believe that engaging in parks means being outfitted with REI gear, walking uphill all day or sleeping on the ground.

The NPS has done a lot recently to expose people of color to parks, to celebrate diversity in the park experience, and to seek out new ways to honor the contributions minorities, including women, have made to our history and culture. Education programs, often with private partners, across the country sponsor wilderness trips for city kids, and some bring rangers into classrooms to introduce various park resources to children.

The NPS-sponsored American Latino Blogger Tour allowed readers to follow five social media leaders in the Hispanic community on their road trips to parks across the country last summer. Last month, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar launched the Asian American Pacific Islander Theme Study to investigate the stories, places and people of Asian American and Pacific Island heritage. The National Park Foundation, the fundraising arm of the NPS, has created the American Latino Heritage Fund and African American Experience Fund to protect and promote the rich legacy of those groups.

While there may not be enough NPS units celebrating minorities’ history and contributions, they represent some of the most moving and spectacular ones. Consider the new monuments to Harriet Tubman and Charles Young (and the César E. Chávez National Monument established last year). The Brown v. Board of Education, Manzanar and Sand Creek Massacre national historic sites are powerful places for learning and reflection. Recalling an afternoon at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial last fall chokes me up still. 

Looking forward to the NPS Centennial and the future of our national parks, it’s clear a national campaign targeting people of color is needed. We need to profile parks as spots for family gatherings, casual encounters with nature, and making memories. They should be advertises as places with a shared ownership and history. (A You are Yosemite ad could include a photo of African Americans there in the 19th century with images of visitors of all flavors there today. A caption might read “Roughly 500 Buffalo Soldiers serving in Yosemite and Sequoia national parks in 1899, 1903 and 1904 evicted poachers and timber thieves and put out forest fires. They are Yosemite, and so are you.”) As the leader presiding over the NPS’ 100th anniversary, and one who has enjoyed high-profile national park outings with his family, President Obama is a logical champion and spokesperson for this effort.

Minorities are our present and future explorers, teachers, scientists, CEOs and policymakers. They need what parks have to offer—knowledge of shared experiences, an understanding of the interconnectedness of natural resources to our daily lives (even in cities), and the freedom and joy of discovering other worlds. And as they did during the time of the Buffalo Soldiers, the parks need them—desperately. 

~Heather Hansen

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