Outdoors

Craig Hill: National Parks will need a diverse visitor base in their next 100 years

Mount Rainier National Park ranger Kevin Bacher talks about a cedar tree that was riddled with woodpecker holes, during a hike on the Galcier Vista trail in 2010. The park service will work to increase visitor diversity in the coming years.
Mount Rainier National Park ranger Kevin Bacher talks about a cedar tree that was riddled with woodpecker holes, during a hike on the Galcier Vista trail in 2010. The park service will work to increase visitor diversity in the coming years. Staff file, 2010

Party’s over. Time to get back to work.

On Thursday, the National Park Service celebrated its 100th birthday. Then its second century began, bringing with it a daunting task: Make America’s best idea better and do so while facing underfunding, overcrowding, the threat of privatization and global warming.

The agency’s success likely will be determined by how well it broadens its base of support.

Historically, National Park’s haven’t drawn a diverse crowd. A 2011 study (of 2008-09 data) by the University of Wyoming showed that 78 percent of park visitors were white.

Communities of color might be disproportionately represented on the trails, but don’t mistake this for a lack of interest in using and protecting public lands.

This is a popular misconception that never rang true to Rue Mapp, founder of Outdoor Afro, an organization that aims to inspire black people to connect with nature.

So Mapp wasn’t surprised by the results of a new poll released Thursday.

A survey of 900 African American, Latino and Asian Pacific American voters showed overwhelming support for protecting public lands and increasing access and ethnic diversity.

“This poll makes clear that we have the opportunity to grow and deepen the relationship between communities of color in America and our national parks and public lands,” Mapp said.

The poll was commissioned by New America Media in collaboration with the Next 100 Coalition. Mapp is a founding member of Next 100, a partnership of civil rights, conservation and other groups seeking more diversity in users of national parks and other public lands.

The survey showed that 70 percent of the respondents participated in outdoor activities ranging from visiting historic places (21 percent) to photography (6 percent). Most of those surveyed (93 percent) said it is important for the next president to be proactive in protecting national public lands.

The most common reasons given for not visiting these public places was the travel distance, a lack of understanding of the public lands and the cost.

Anthony Williams of Bendixen & Amandi International, the company that conducted the poll, said the poll shows “tremendous opportunities exist to increase visitation … among people of color with basic outreach and education” targeted to underrepresented groups.

Williams said there seems to be erroneous perceptions that national parks are in far flung places, even though the park service also manages hundreds of historic sites and monuments, often close to large population centers.

Better promotion of these places might be helpful but much more can be done.

Seventy-nine percent of those polled said recruiting and hiring a staff that reflects the nation’s diversity would improve visitation by people of color.

“It starts with storytelling,” Mapp said. “Stories like the Buffalo Soldiers and Harriet Tubman.

“Having people in the parks who reflect the communities and can activate those stories and experiences is critical.”

The poll also showed support for National Park diversity initiatives, including three proposed new park service units.

Eighty-six percent supported creating the Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument to preserve and restore cultural and historical legacies in the area.

Eighty-three percent supported creating a national Civil Rights Network encompassing sites, parks and monuments related to the African American civil rights movement.

And 72 percent supported expanding the Cesar Chavez National Monument in California into a national historic park that would include related lands in California and Arizona.

“All three are important reflections of our diversity,” Mapp said.

There are even easier ways to start changing how national parks are perceived, Mapp said.

“Social media gives us an everyday opportunity to tell stories about national parks starting with stories of our own participation,” Mapp said. “As we send out images, videos and stories we have a chance to shift the visual representation and the narrative that doesn’t necessarily include diverse images or stories.

“This helps us come up with a new narrative that is more inclusive.”

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