Wanted: African-American Campers

Lornet Turnbull, Seattle Times, July 6

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The [Washington] State Parks and Recreation Commission has assembled data showing that many blacks, for a variety of reasons, are not frequent users of the state’s 250,000 acres of parkland, particularly for activities like camping. This, in a state with an abundance of natural beauty—from mountains to lakes, deserts and forests.

And there’s anecdotal evidence, too. One former ranger, who worked at Deception Pass and other state parks that each hosted up to 400,000 visitors a year, reported seeing fewer than 50 blacks over a 10-year period.

Parks-commission officials say that while park use among all people of color is low, it is lowest among blacks. Through their Diversity Camping Program, they want to change whatever is keeping African Americans away: the specter of danger, the fear that small towns on the way to parks are unfriendly to blacks, or that camping and hiking and skiing are activities only white people do.

The goal is to expose families and young people to the vast possibilities of outdoor recreation and show them that overnight camping doesn’t have to mean sleeping on the ground and in the rain.

So far, officials have raised $40,000 of the $300,000 in private funds they expect to spend during the next three years. Already, commission staff are making connections with community and youth groups and identifying families and young people to go on these adventures.

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As it strives for greater diversity, the commission also wants to hire black rangers. It currently has none.

“If there are no black rangers, [black] people going to the park will think there’s nothing there for them,” Galloway said. “The goal is to reflect society’s demographics in our agency.”

The program has not been without its critics, from within the department and among those who’ve heard about it and complain about its lack of equity.

“People are asking, ‘Why are you not doing this for me and my culture?’” Galloway said. “We’re trying to play catch-up here” among the least-frequent users.

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