Diversity & Inclusion in National Parks

Updated: Sep 11, 2019

The Civil Rights Movement and the Future of the National Park System in a Racially Diverse America

Research by: Joe Weber, Selima Sultana

Report by: Geena Bevenour

The majority of the United States National Parks tell a story of innovative pioneers who settled North America and the natural wonders they discovered. The problem lies in the reality that many of these stories ignore the minority population’s presence in our country, their contributions, and place in society. Be it geographically, economically, or culturally, many U.S. minority groups are disconnected from the nation’s network of parks and sites. Some have come to believe that without substantial efforts to include crucial sites of cultural heritage extremely important to minority groups, the National Park Service’s “greatest long-term threat is lack of support by the American people.” Population predictions show that by mid-century, white citizens will no longer be the majority, adding urgency to the issue of diversity and inclusion that are currently lacking in the park system.

Surveys play a large part in uncovering the role of diversity and its relationship with the National Park Service. Research is minimal in the case of race and ethnicity visitation. What does exist dates between 2000 and mid-2010 and examines 51 park units. It shows that nearly 93% of park visitors were white. In fact, 13 of these surveyed parks showed no African American visitation entirely. It reveals that although there is a lack of presence from minorities in nature-oriented parks, units such as historic sites were much more likely to see these demographics. The imagery of elitism is often associated with the national parks, adding to the exclusivity of the system - think, taking of Native American land. Weber and Sultana (the authors of the study) are open in acknowledging the limitations that are associated with this topic, stating that visitation data by ethnic groups are sparse. Unfortunately, data collection on this topic has not much improved in the years since.

Obvious solutions might suggest that national parks be opened in places where minority demographics are high. However, this ignores a root philosophy that limits success - racism. “The National Park System therefore includes a geographic division of places based on racial attachment to place, with wild nature appealing to whites but less so to African Americans and newer urban historic sites commemorating the lives and achievements of African Americans that may be less appealing to whites.” Clearly this theory cannot be applied to every individual, but it is an important aspect to consider. Though parts of society are moving to eliminate these stigmas, they remain prevalent and can be of real concern to citizens. Take for example the idea of anxiety of hiking while black. Furthermore, one might suggest implementing more units designated as historical parks or historical sites. However, this method is met by basic park creation criteria that frankly does not prompt nor allow proper identification of these sites. In fact, it is a long and complex process to create these sites and funding is often a barrier. More in depth research on not only race and ethnicity, but also motivation behind visitation is greatly needed in order to make positive decisions for future park management.

Infographic by Geena Bevenour

Research indicators point to the lack of sustainability currently embedded in the framework of the National Park System. An increasing minority population and a stagnant, ‘elitist’ park system do not match up. This information is critical in making future decisions. Acknowledging all stakeholders, including those native to the protected spaces, is key. Current park interpretation and messaging may unintentionally exclude minorities from feeling connected to park missions. Fostering a sense of pride and affinity for non-whites in the parks is essential to the sustainability of the system. Advertising campaigns often create a ‘whiteness’ associated with outdoor activities. These messages are powerful and if utilized in a different manner, can present a progressive, more inclusive voice to the American public. Multiple resources are found in parks, many of which will appeal to different groups. In targeting minority groups and providing them with the information base needed to provoke interest, parks can make use of all their valuable assets. Weber and Sultana highlighted that beyond the many concerns facing national parks, be it endangered species, historic preservation, or climate change, creating an authentic relationship with the people they serve is vital to the future evolution of the national park system.

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