The National Park system is often called “America’s Best Idea,” but according to a new report, it remains more like terra incognita for many people of color.
Released Wednesday, “The National Park System Comprehensive Survey of the American Public,” conducted by the Wyoming Survey & Analysis Center at the University of Wyoming, is a follow-up to a much-cited report on race/ethnicity among park visitors conducted in 2000.
Taken together, the two surveys show that while the American public has grown increasingly diverse in the last decade, black and Hispanic-Americans remain underrepresented in visits to the 394 National Park Service (NPS) properties.
“Despite efforts by the National Park Service and its partners to engage underserved populations,” wrote the researchers, “visitation differences by race/ethnic group seem not to have changed much over the past decade.”
Conducted by telephone in 2009, the survey queried 4,103 respondents across the U.S. The results showed that non-Hispanic whites comprised 78 percent of park visitors in 2008–2009. By comparison, Hispanics accounted for 9 percent of visitors, while African-Americans were 7 percent of visitors.
“The national parks represent the American story, and there are groups of people who don’t identify with that,” said Carolyn Finney, assistant professor in the College of Natural Resources at the University of California, Berkeley. “For some people, there’s a sense that the parks are pretty white.”
Visitation figures are skewed even further when the visits in question are to parks that showcase wilderness and outdoor recreation. For example, at Yosemite National Park in California, a 2009 visitation survey showed that African Americans totaled just 1 percent of visitors, compared to 77 percent white and 11 percent each for Hispanics and Asians.
In roughly 40 years, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that non-white minorities will constitute at least half of the American population, up from roughly one-third in 2008.
And, as numbers in the new report reiterate, the impending majority tends to engage less with the national parks than the existing one, for a whole host of reasons, ranging from the obvious–such as cost and accessibility–to more subtle ones dealing with imagery, identity and what constitutes the “appropriate” way to experience the parks.
In fact, given the ongoing shift in the nation’s demographics, the true significance of that ownership has less to do with the parks’ past than with their future. Equal opportunity is not just a good thing; it’s also the key to the parks’ continued survival.
“What is the Park Service going to do in 2050 if the potential stewards (such as legislators and the people who vote them into office) have no sense of ownership or connection to the national parks?” asked [black Yosemite park ranger Shelton] Johnson.
Or, as [black park visitor Audrey] Peterman put it, “Even if the entire white population was bent on environmental protection, it won’t work if the other half of the population is not involved.”