Local And National Efforts Aim To Get Minorities Into Parks

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Students in Denver's cityWILD program camp after a hike.

When she spoke recently about the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell identified a challenge to the system that goes beyond the familiar record number of visitors vs. shrinking budget lament, and the impact of climate change: There's a lack of diversity among park visitors.

"It’s still the baby boomers," she said. "The majority of visitors to national parks today look like me: older and whiter. Which means we haven’t found a way to connect with the young people of today, who are more diverse, more tech-savvy, and more disconnected from nature than ever before."

An estimated 78 percent of park visitors are white, though they make up just 63 percent of the U.S. population.

NPR reported on this challenge in March, in an interview with Darla Sidles, who was then the superintendent at Saguaro National Park, which is close to Tucson, in Arizona. Sidles has been named the next superintendent of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

Tucson is about 44 percent Hispanic or Latino. Of the park's roughly 650,000 annual visitors, less than 2 percent self-identify as Hispanic. "If we're not being relevant to almost half of the population, then 30, 40, 50 years from now, the park isn't going to matter to them," Sidles says.

Secretary Jewell has repeatedly said she wants to make parks more welcoming to people of different ethnic backgrounds. Among the efforts to attract a younger audience, the park service has made free passes available to every fourth-grader in the U.S. this year.

Jewell's also called for parks to better connect their contributions to regional history and culture and for the parks to reflect those assets back to their local communities.

"Some of my favorite moments in this job have been handing out the passes — like to a fourth grade class of Native American students outside Tucson, Arizona. Along with several elders from the Tohono O’odham Nation, we took a hike in Saguaro National Park where we learned how the kids’ ancestors and the desert have co-existed for thousands of years. It was a magical experience," she said.

A Denver group called cityWILD is trying to provide experiences like that to kids from some of Denver's most diverse and poorest neighborhoods. Staff member Rudy Balles leads those students on park trips and told Colorado Matters host Nathan Heffel they aren't always well-received: "Most recently I was with a group of young people and as soon was we came people were kind of really noticing us and calling it out,'' he said. "The comments of folks are 'I came out here to get away from these kinds of kids.'

"Here we are trying to find our place and peace and serenity in life and people don't want to share that space with us."

CityWILD's executive director, Jes Ward, is part of a national coalition of environmental and diversity activists called the Next 100 Coalition. In April, the group made a series of recommendations to address the problems, including a review of ranger uniforms and vehicles, and increased diversity in park employee hiring. You can download and read the full document here. Four issues among those the coalition wants to address:

  • African-Americans “have felt unwelcome and even fearful in federal parklands during our nation’s history because of the horrors of lynching, Jim Crow laws” and the like.
  • Japanese-Americans “were incarcerated in concentration camps” during World War II. Many of those camps “were on public lands managed by the Bureau of Reclamation.”
  • The recent anti-immigrant sentiment in the presidential campaign has negatively impacted Latinos' access to public lands.
  • Many of our national parks “are within the ancestral homelands of Indian tribes” who value the natural resources and sacred places within these places as important for their cultural identity.

And among the steps the coalition would like to see taken:

  • “A review of federal programs designed to reach culturally diverse communities with a goal of identifying and outlining the steps necessary to increase participation from those communities.
  • The creation of “a senior-level position at the White House Council on Environmental Quality” who would lead “increasing awareness, outreach, and partnerships with culturally-diverse communities.”

Ward and Balles spoke with Colorado Matters host Nathan Heffel.