Why are Our Parks So White?

This piece originally appeared in the New York Times July 10, 2015

New York Times Illustration by Dada Shin
New York Times Illustration by Dada Shin

SEATTLE — MOUNT RAINIER stands sentry over Seattle. On clear days, the mountain is the dominant backdrop, particularly in the city’s southeast, where its most racially diverse neighborhoods embrace their majestic setting with names like Rainier Valley and Rainier Beach.

Michelle Perry lives in an adjoining neighborhood and travels to work on Rainier Avenue South. The looming mountain enchants and beguiles nearly the entire way. She knows she can keep driving south and visit Rainier and the national park that surrounds it. Ms. Perry, 58, an African-American, has an idea about what she’d find up there — mosquitoes, which she hates, and bears, cougars and wolves, which she fears.

“The mountains are beautiful to watch,” she said, pausing for effect, “from a distance.”

As it approaches its centennial on Aug. 25, 2016, the National Park Service says it wants to encourage people like Ms. Perry to visit. It has its work cut out for it.

The national parks attracted a record 292.8 million visitors in 2014, but a vast majority were white and aging. The most recent survey commissioned by the park service on visitation, released in 2011, found that 22 percent of visitors were minorities, though they make up some 37 percent of the population.

This suggests an alarming disconnect. The Census Bureau projects that the country will have a majority nonwhite population by 2044. If that new majority has little or no relationship with the outdoors, then the future of the nation’s parks, and the retail and nonprofit ecosystem that surrounds them, will be in trouble.

Jeff Cheatham grew up in southeast Seattle, and still lives in Mount Rainier’s shadow. Yet, he said of Mount Rainier and other national parks, “I’ve never been, and never thought about going.” A 29-year-old African-American writer, Mr. Cheatham said he didn’t even know what a national park was, or what he would be likely to find at one. “As far as I know, it’s a big field of grass,” he said.

A neighbor, Carla DeRise, has been to Mount Rainier and other parks, and is game to go again. She just can’t get any of her friends to come along. They are worried about unfriendly white people, hungry critters and insects, and unforgiving landscapes, said Ms. DeRise, 51, an African-American. So she mainly hikes alone, albeit with some anxiety. “I don’t have a weapon,” she quipped. “Yet.”

I also live in one of the Rainier neighborhoods, close to where I grew up, the son of a Japanese mother. I met my oldest friend in the Boy Scouts, an African-American from a family that, like mine, frequented the parks. In college, he and I led outings for minority student groups.

There was always nervous banter as we cruised through small rural towns on our way to a park. And there were jokes about finding a “Whites Only” sign at the entrance to our destination or the perils of being lynched or attacked while collecting firewood after the sun went down. Our cultural history taught us what to expect.

This is part of what the park service is up against, which may help explain why so many minorities say they know little about the nation’s parks or what to expect when visiting them. In the 2011 park service survey, nonwhites were more than three times as likely as whites to say that the parks provided poor service and were not safe to visit.

And those responses were from nonvisitors, which means that perceptions had congealed into reality among what should be an important constituency for the parks.

We need to demolish the notion that the national parks and the rest of nature are an exclusive club where minorities are unwelcome.

The place to start is the National Park Service. About 80 percent of park service employees in 2014 were white. The parks’ official charity, the National Park Foundation, has four minority members on its 22-person board.

Minorities did not exceed 16 percent of the boards or staffs of some 300 environmental organizations, foundations and government agencies included in a 2014 study for Green 2.0, an initiative dedicated to increasing racial diversity in such institutions. Minorities hold fewer than 12 percent of environmental leadership positions, and none led an organization with a budget of at least $1 million, the study found.

The National Park Service is the logical leader to blaze a trail to racial diversity in the natural world. It has a high public profile, and its approaching centennial can serve as a platform for redefinition.

But the agency has so far missed the opportunity. It doesn’t even know how many minorities visit the parks these days because it doesn’t routinely track such information. Its initial centennial-related campaign, Find Your Park, includes but doesn’t specifically target minorities and was delivered mainly to the already converted.

Efforts like handing park passes to fourth graders and their families, firing up Wi-Fi in visitor centers, and holding concerts on seashores or valley floors will similarly miss the mark. The park service should use its resources and partnerships to execute an all-out effort to promote diversity within its ranks and its parks. Its outreach should be tailored to minorities and delivered where they log in, follow, Tweet, view or listen. The park service needs to shout to minorities from its iconic mountaintops, “We want you here!”

Such a campaign could include educational programs about the importance of the outdoors to a healthy lifestyle, transportation solutions for carless urban dwellers, and advice on easy and safe ways to enjoy the parks.

The national parks are every American’s vacation home. My wife and I have immigrant mothers who view ownership of the national parks as a grand perk of their naturalized citizenship. Such entitlement must be nurtured in underserved communities. As the world becomes more urbanized, it is increasingly essential to preserve the outdoors as a respite for everyone.

This notion begs for a ubiquitous marketing effort: “I am (hiking/camping/fishing) in my own backyard,” set in various parks and with people of different backgrounds.

We need to inspire people like Jordan Quiller, a 21-year-old African-American who had never seen a mountain until he moved into one of the Rainier-monikered Seattle neighborhoods at the end of last year. He’s never visited a national park, but would like to.

Three national parks lie within a three-hour drive of Seattle. “It takes a little planning,” Mr. Quiller said. “I just haven’t gotten around to it.”

I hope the National Park Service and its partners are listening.

The founder of The Trail Posse, a website that encourages diversity in the outdoors.

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