Over the last five months, I have had the opportunity to travel to three different national parks: Big Bend, Arches and Canyonlands. Each was breathtaking (due to the beautiful sights, as well as steep hikes), but I couldn’t help but wonder each time: why does everyone here look exactly like me?
Although the National Park Service does not track the demographics of each of its visitors, they conduct surveys every few years to gauge this information. From a 2008-2009 survey, 78 percent of the NPS visitors were white, while only 9 percent were Hispanic, 7 percent were African American, 3 percent were Asian and 1 percent were American Indian/Alaskan.
This graph helps put that in perspective with the rest of the U.S. population.
Credit: Katie Park/NPR
My observation was right: our national parks are disproportionately white. So, why is this happening? It’s hard to pinpoint one exact reason, but many factors are at fault here. In the NPS’ 2008-2009 survey, 56 percent of surveyed African Americans reported they just didn’t know much about the NPS as a whole. 59 percent of American Indians surveyed said a major deterrent was the high prices of hotel and food around the parks.
However, representation might also be to blame here. It is crucial that the history of each group in America is represented in the NPS, as every race, gender, sexuality, class and identity has made our country what it is today. If an individual doesn’t feel that their identity’s contributions are being recognized in our park service, it may make it harder for them to connect with the service as a whole.
The initiatives: what is being done
However, the NPS administration has not ignored this issue. Several initiatives and campaigns have been launched during the Obama administration to expand the diversity of the U.S.’s parks and monuments.
In recent years, the NPS founded the Office of Relevancy, Diversity and Inclusion in order to bring this a new mindset to the forefront of their mission. This office is run by four rockstar women: Sangita Chari, Katrina Reyes, Carol McBryant and Colette Carmouche. These ladies work tirelessly to make the parks more relevant, diverse and inclusive for all. To them, it’s not just about hitting some quota; it’s about changing how the entire country thinks about our National Park System.
New parks and monuments have also been established to reflect the U.S.’s diversity and its peoples’ remarkable achievements.
In 2013, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument was established to commemorate Tubman’s life and accomplishments.
Most recently, on June 24, 2016, Obama designated the Stonewall National Monument to represent the conception of the LGBT equality movement.
“Stonewall will be our first national monument to tell the story of the struggle for LGBT rights. I believe our national parks should reflect the full story of our country, the richness and diversity and uniquely American spirit that has always defined us.”
-President Barack Obama
This past April, he also established the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument to recognize the fight for women’s right to vote.
Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, Washington, D.C.
Last year, the NPS launched #FindYourPark to market the parks to the younger generations – specifically millennials. This campaign encourages America’s young people to go explore, take a road trip and fall in love with their parks. Their revamped website features short video stories from an all-star lineup, like Michelle Obama and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
The NPS also interviewed several non-white park rangers, like Ahmad Toure, a black man.
“I feel like that’s something the younger generation doesn’t necessarily understand. All of these great wilderness places, historical places and military battlefields that the National Parks Service takes care of and shares with people – it takes people to care about them to keep them like this. Otherwise, the National Parks Service would go away.”
-Ahmad Toure, National Park Service Ranger
So why does this all matter?
2016 marks the hundredth birthday of our National Parks Service. This centennial is an important time to celebrate the preservation of some of the most remarkable and important areas the United States has to offer. In 1916, President Wilson signed an act into law creating the NPS, with the purpose of “[conserving] the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein… [leaving] them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
According to the NPS, these parks now cover 84 million acres of land in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan and the Virgin Islands.
Zion National Park, Utah
This is a ton of protected, historic land mostly free from urbanization and human impact.
However, the very existence of the our country’s national parks is at stake here. In order for these parks and monuments to stay, lawmakers, government officials and our nation’s constituents must fight together to protect them.
In 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that by the 2020, “more than half of the nation’s children are expected to be part of a minority race or ethnic group.”
Our nation continues to become more diverse with each passing year, and it is crucial that our institutions reflect this. If our parks continue to lack diversity of visitors, staff and the parks and monuments themselves, there simply will be a lack of interest and investment.
This is not just a political responsibility, but a moral one. It must be on our consciousnesses to do our part in visiting and preserving these parks and monuments. Diversity and representation matter. Though it’s not always pretty, our nation’s history and its preservation is crucial for past, present and future generations.
So, go out there and #FindYourPark.