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National Parks: A Closed Treasure Chest to the Minorities of America

National parks have served as a rare place to observe America’s untouched beauty and expanse since their founding in 1916, but is this beauty welcome to everyone? According to a 2008-2010 National Parks Service (NPS) study, 78% of national park visitors were white, 9% were Hispanic, 7% were African American, and 3% were Asian. Relative to the racial composition of the United States, African Americans saw the greatest disparity between percent of population and percent of visitors. Since the outdoors are often envisioned as a predominantly white space, this statistic comes as no surprise. 

How did this narrative come to be, and how did minority groups get shut out of enjoying prized national parks? David Scott and KangJae Jerry Lee identify three key factors that constrain people of color from visiting national parks: limited socioeconomic resources, cultural factors, and discrimination.

Affluent Americans are three times more likely to visit national parks than poor Americans.  Racial and ethnic disparities in income and wealth are not a new phenomenon. However, this disparity means people of color are, according to Scott and Lee, “more likely to lack information about park resources, worry about safety, lack reliable transportation, and lack sufficient discretionary income to travel.” 

Outdoor recreation preferences among ethnic and racial groups arise from differences in cultural norms, value systems, and socialization practices. These cultural factors provide a framework as to which groups are supposed to participate in which activities. Therefore, people of color may avoid outdoor setting and outdoor recreation activities because they don’t reinforce their ethnic group’s collective identity.  

Discriminatory practices against people of color enjoying national parks ties to the overall discrimination that people of color have faced in America. Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, people of color were either barred from or segregated in public recreational sites, including national parks.

In 2015, Al-Jazeera inadvertently conducted a racial profiling study of national parks. Al-Jazeera invited eight female academics, four White or Hispanic and four African American, to Yosemite National Park to conduct research. The participants were told to inform gate agents that their fee of entrance was waived because they were visiting the research center inside the park. While all four White and Hispanic women were admitted with no difficulty, “the African American professors were extensively questioned, made to fill out a superfluous form, which required extra and unnecessary effort and a check-in with the research center staff, and reluctantly let into the park.” This profiling is especially frustrating because some of the first national park rangers, and those who built the first marked trail at Yosemite, were Buffalo Soldiers, members of all-African American regiments of the U.S. Army. 

To address the disconnect between people of color and national parks, the NPS created the Office of Relevancy, Diversity and Inclusion (RDI) in 2013. The RDI strives to “champion for an organizational culture that is increasingly inclusive and participatory, which values the diverse ideas, experience and background of every individual, and empowers an innovative, flexible and resilient NPS to engage the opportunities and challenges of the future.” The NPS also appropriated 11.5 million in funding for transportation grants to low-income schools in 2016. 

Outside of the NPS, organizations have sprung up to combat the inaccessibility of national parks to people of color, such as Outdoor Afro. Outdoor Afro creates networks in nearly 30 states, connecting trained volunteer leaders to about 30,000 members of the black community annually. They organize activities such as hiking, biking, camping, environmental education seminars, and conservation stewardship opportunities. The Sierra Club, a prominent environmental organization founded by preservationist John Muir, also elected its first African American president Aaron Mair in 2015. This is especially significant because minorities made up less than 16 percent of the boards and staff of some 300 environmental foundations, organizations, and government agencies in a study done in 2014.

National parks operate by congressional approval and by 2050, white people are on track to be a minority group in America. Hike leader Teresa Baker notes the importance of making national parks more inclusive now. “In 20 years, when this world looks like me, looks like people of color, and we don’t care about these spaces, why not throw a McDonald’s up?” Increased inclusivity of national parks will not only expose America’s natural beauty to all populations, but is also a necessary action to ensure these national treasures will be present for generations to come.

Sources: 

Golash-Boza, T. (2015, July 10). OPINION: Why America’s national parks are so white. Retrieved February 29, 2020, from http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/7/heres-why-ame ricas-national-parks-are-so-white.html

Root, T. (2018, April 2). Changing the Face of National Parks. Retrieved February 29, 2020, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/02/diversity-in-national-parks/#close

Scott, T, and Lee & Lee, K. T. (2018). People of Color and Their Constraints to National Park Visitation. The George Write Forum, vol 35 (no.1), 73-82. 

Office of Relevancy, Diversity and Inclusion (U.S. National Park Service). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/orgs/1244/index.htm

Department of the Interior. (2016). National Park Service Fiscal Year 2016 Budget Justifications. Retrieved February 29, 2020, from https://www.nps.gov/aboutus/upload/FY-2016-Greenbook.pdf

OutdoorAfro: ABOUT. (n,d.). Retrieved March 1,2020, from https://outdoorafro.com/about/

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