When Deb Haaland was sworn in as Secretary of the Interior recently, the Native American former congresswoman became the nation’s top official in charge of most federal land. Her responsibilities include the National Park Service (NPS), which is trying to address a lack of diversity.
At least 79% of full-time permanent employees are white. African Americans make up just under 7% of the permanent full-time workforce, despite making up 13.4% of the U.S. population. Latinos are also underrepresented, making up 18.5% of the population but only 5.6% of the park system’s permanent full-time employees. Only Native Americans exceed their representation of 1.3% of the general population, making up 2.5% of the full-time permanent workforce.
Not only is the staff of the NPS overwhelmingly white, but so are most of the people who visit the national parks. While 63% of the U.S. population is white, they make up between 88% and 95% of all visitors to U.S. public lands.
Visitor numbers dropped last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but natural spaces have emerged as one of the few places people can travel to while respecting social distancing restrictions.
Data collected by the NPS and published in 2018 by the George Wright Society, an organization promoting conservation of parks, indicates that Latinos and Asian Americans each made up less than 5% of visitors to the national park sites surveyed, while less than 2% of visitors were African American.
One National Park employee told VOA that he hopes Haaland will help draw more people of color to the national parks. The employee hopes people who have stayed away in the past will see that the doors to the nation’s crown jewels are “fully opened to the people, by the people and for the people.”
Generations of racism
Many experts believe that African Americans don’t take full advantage of the country’s national parks because of a history of segregation. For the first few decades of the national parks’ existence, African Americans could not be sure they would be welcome in the parks.
Early ads for the parks were aimed at white audiences. Photos from that time show only white visitors. Shelton Johnson, a U.S. Park Ranger at Yosemite National Park, calls this a “culture of exclusion” and says it has a deep impact on people of color.
In a publication called "See America First: Tourism and National Identity, 1880-1940", Marguerite S. Shaffer wrote that “In 1922, NPS park superintendents decided: “We cannot openly discriminate against [African Americans], [but] they should be told that the parks have no facilities for taking care for them.”
She also wrote that, later, parks were allowed to follow local norms in deciding how to treat people of color within the parks. In the South, this usually meant segregation. Shenandoah National Park in the southeastern state of Virginia had a separate campground and picnic facilities for African American visitors. The park now shows this history in its historical interpretations and the cabins once designated as being in the park’s “Negro area” are open to all.
There are other reasons why some African Americans don’t feel as comfortable in the outdoors as many of their white peers do. Historian William O’Brien wrote in "Landscapes of Exclusion: State Parks and Jim Crow in the American South" that during the 1930s, when the U.S. government sought to help Americans recover from the Great Depression by investing in infrastructure, the southern states of the U.S. opened 150 state parks. They barred African Americans from nearly every one.
James Edward Mills, a lifelong outdoorsman who writes about cultural barriers to outdoor recreation, says in addition to the years of outright exclusion from public spaces, African Americans must grapple with the country’s history of racial violence, namely the lynchings of Black people that took place around the turn of the century. White people were angered at new rights Blacks were granted in the decades after slavery and responded by engaging in vigilante justice, often falsely accusing Black people of crimes.
“Much of this violence occurred in wooded areas,” Mills, who is African American, said in a recent interview, explaining why a person of color might be apprehensive about entering a forest. Over time, he explained, the patterns that kept people of color safe — sticking close to trusted friends and family, not venturing into unknown territory where one’s welcome could not be guaranteed — were passed down to new generations.
In addition to history, Mills said, socio-economic factors are at play. He said three things are required for outdoor recreation: “disposable income, leisure time and desire.”
In 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau reported, the median African American household earned just 61 cents for every dollar of income the median white household earned.
In a 2011 short film by Amy Marquis called “The Way Home: Returning to the National Parks,” an African American church group from Los Angeles took a trip to Yosemite National Park to visit with Johnson, the park ranger who spoke of the culture of exclusion.
Johnson has made it his mission to tell park visitors the story of the so-called “Buffalo Soldiers,” a group of African American soldiers who policed the park beginning in the late 1800’s. The nickname “Buffalo Soldier” was given to the African American soldiers by Native Americans, who compared the soldiers’ curly hair to the mane of the buffalo that roamed the lands of the park. Using the tale, he teaches visitors that people of color had a place in America’s wilderness from the early days of the park system.
In the film, an unnamed woman talks about the mindset that had kept her from visiting Yosemite for many years.
She said her family did not have a tradition of visiting national parks — or, in fact, taking much time off for leisure at all. “My mother, she had to work for us to survive,” she said. “To have a vacation, a real vacation? It just wasn’t for us.”
As for any outreach from the National Park Service, she said, there was none. “We were not included,” the woman in the film said. “We had never heard of anything like this.”
That situation still exists. Brad Branan, a journalist in Sacramento, California, has been volunteering with the local Sierra Club’s Inner City Outings, a program to help disadvantaged kids get out to experience nature.
The trip to Point Reyes National Seashore, a nature preserve administered by the National Park Service, is always a hit. Sometimes a kid from Sacramento, just two hours’ drive from Point Reyes, will be seeing the ocean for the very first time.
“We hike a short trail along some marshland before reaching some dunes that obscure the beach and ocean,” Branan said. “The kids will sometimes be tired from the hike and it doesn’t seem like they’re having a great time ... But when we walk over the dunes and see the beach and the crashing waves, they run to the water and really don’t stop playing and smiling until we have to leave a few hours later.”
‘This is your property’
While Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes, the nation’s longest-serving Secretary of the Interior, worked for decades to end segregation in the parks. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1963 that such segregation became illegal. More than a half-century later, the legacy of segregation lingers.
Ranger Johnson said the park system lacks an essential element to draw in African Americans, who still feel the pain of exclusion.
“A greeting,” he said. “A welcoming. And only someone who had not had that, would see [the lack of] it.”
Johnson, who describes his ancestry as a mix of African American, Native American, and Irish, emphasizes to groups he speaks to that they have a place in the parks system.
“I say, ‘This is your property. … You own the Grand Canyon. You own Yellowstone. You own all of these lands and things that are celebrated throughout the world. So go out and check out your property,’” he said.
He also invited Oprah Winfrey to visit Yosemite. Traveling with her friend the broadcaster Gayle King, Winfrey came in 2010, filming their first meeting with a somewhat dazed Ranger Johnson, whom they had taken by surprise.
Two of the world’s most famous African American women camped and cooked among Yosemite’s giant trees and stately peaks, all to highlight the scarcity of African American visitors to the parks.
“That’s going to be on my gravestone,” Johnson joked. “It’ll say ‘the dude that got Oprah to camp.’”
But some ask why the racial makeup of park visitors should matter.
Mills said that if people of color don’t embrace the great outdoors, America’s natural treasures are likely to suffer.
“It’s estimated that by the year 2045, white people will be supplanted by a nonwhite majority,” Mills said. “So, what happens if a majority of the population has no affinity for nature? What happens if a majority of the population has no interest in preserving sustainable agriculture?”
“Our ability to save the planet comes from our desire to love it,” he said.
Much of that love, “starts with a personal and direct appreciation for flora, fauna, sun, soil, water, and wind. All the things that we as human beings have in common,” Mills said.
Johnson described a different reason: the intensely personal transformation that can come from an experience in natural spaces.
“There’s an incredible amount of healing that can result” from a person connecting with the natural world, he said.
To make his point, he described an encounter with a young African American man who participated in Yosemite’s WildLink program, designed to bring inner-city teens to the park. Johnson said he was guiding a group to Lower Yosemite Falls — one of the park’s most impressive landmarks — when he realized the boy had fallen behind and was transfixed by the view.
“He had just stopped,” Johnson said. “He was enthralled, literally, by what he was seeing. ... I remember asking, ‘Is everything all right?’ He said, and I quote, ‘Yeah, I’m fine. I just had no idea such beauty existed.’”
Johnson repeated the line, lingering on the words: “I just had no idea such beauty existed.”