National parks are for everyone

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When Congress created Yellowstone National Park in the territories of Montana and Wyoming in 1872, the intent behind the law was that America’s national parks were for everyone. In reality, the parks were and remain largely dominated by white and aging visitors. Although minorities make up more than thirty-seven percent of the general population, they make up only twenty-two percent of park visitors. But the problem is not just about the number of visits: visitors of color have reported feeling unsafe or unwelcome in national parks.

As Emily Mott writes in a study of park visitation and use, “the diversity problem facing national parks runs deeper than race; it is arguably based on a long-standing trend of marginalization, lack of access to parks by minorities, and possibly racial discrimination.

While this issue has only recently surfaced in the mainstream media, the National Park Service (NPS) has been investigating the issue since at least 2000, with a major new investigation into the matter in 2008. An extensive investigation conducted that year confirmed that seventy-eight percent of park visitors were white. “The wide disparity between current societal demographics and park attendance is a unique and problematic issue,” Mott reports.

Mott suggests the NPS should undertake a campaign to attract more visitors and to encourage inclusiveness. Attracting new, younger visitors is essential for the future viability of parks, but it is also morally right to create parks that are safe and welcoming to marginalized groups.

The parks were designed to encourage unity and protect culture and history in tandem, as well as providing both intellectual stimulation and health benefits. However, some survey respondents noted that the cost of the tour, including the pass, accommodation, appropriate equipment, and transportation, was prohibitive. Communication was also identified as a problem at all levels. Many respondents said they didn’t know much about the park system or how to visit. Even though a park could be easily and inexpensively visited in one day, potential visitors did not have enough information on how to do so.

Mott argues that a media campaign that details the many ways to visit a park and the diversity of parks is necessary to attract more visitors, but the issue goes beyond marketing campaigns. Expanding access is key to the future success of the parks. Making parks more accessible means making them easy to visit and use, but also more welcoming. At the time of the study, more than eighty percent of park staff were white, and less than a quarter of monuments in the parks were people of color or women. Mott writes: “Arguably, the more our national parks incorporate and value minority history, the more minorities will actually want to visit the parks. New monuments and parks “should attempt to focus on the historical significance of minorities and the contributions of minorities to society and to the national park system as a whole”.

Initiatives are underway to encourage visits. For example, 2015 saw the start of the Every Kid in a Park (now Every Kid Outdoors) initiative, which provides free admission to national parks to fourth graders and their families. Some park rangers also coordinate school tours from urban areas and provide free transportation. As former park manager Jonathan Jarvis said, “We know if we can get them here, it can be transformative.”

The future of the parks depends on who visits them. Mott concludes, “If the NPS does not begin to inspire a younger generation of more racially diverse individuals to visit the parks, the preserved national and historic lands that the government has intentionally set aside for future generations will be unappreciated and potentially underfunded.”


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From: Emily Mott

Vermont Journal of Environmental Law, vol. 17, no. 3 (spring 2016), p. 443 to 469

Vermont School of Law

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