As a former park ranger, I've spent a lot of time in America's national parks. At first glance, each park appears unique from the rest, from the dormant volcano and lush rain forest of Haleakala National Park in Hawaii to the presidential history and beautiful fall foliage of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
But there is one thing that every park in the country has in common, and it is the one thing that the park service fears could lead to its demise. National park visitation is overwhelmingly white, and as the overall face of America becomes less white, the protection of parks may become less relevant to American society.
Studies and surveys show that visitors to the nation’s 393 national parks are overwhelmingly non-Hispanic whites, with blacks the least likely group to visit. This is a profile that has not changed since the 1960s, when the National Park Service (NPS) first identified diversity an issue.
The service does not log attendance numbers at individual parks by race or ethnicity, but the agency did commission a comprehensive visitor survey in 2000. From a diversity perspective, the results were grim but not surprising. Only 13 percent of black respondents reported visiting a national park in the previous two years, compared with 27 percent for Latinos, 29 percent for Asians and 36 percent for whites. Follow-up surveys conducted in 2008 and 2009 found similar results.
Why the disparity? Park service officials have identified factors including cost, travel distance and lack of information as just a few of the reasons that parks are just not seen as vacation destinations for certain ethnic groups. For examples, their surveys suggest that many resident have no idea what the parks had to offer.
I also think it's interesting that park officials are beginning to recognize that certain policies make them unwelcoming to specific ethnic groups. For example, most parks limit the number of people in picnic areas or the number of tents that can be pitched at specific sites. This makes them unappealing as vacation spots for extended Latino families.
It's not clear that park officials are any closer to fixing the diversity of park visitation now than they were 50 years ago. Some efforts are being made to recruit black high school and college students for park service jobs, but I'm not sure that will help overhaul the image of the parks for those who aren't interested in visiting.
What do you think? Is this an issue that the NPS should be concerned about? What can they do to improve the diversity of their visitors?