Race and national parks: Looking for a better future

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Ranger Shelton Johnson’s message is the same for everybody, but he delivers it with a particular clarity when he addresses young African Americans: “You own Yosemite National Park!”

Photo: NBCTV

The brutal killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police has caused us to confront the reality that the United States is deeply divided along racial lines. The task of improving our police and criminal justice system so all people are treated fairly is substantial but one to which we must commit.

The United States is divided by race in other ways. African Americans comprise 13% of our overall population but only 1% of all visitors to our national parks.

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Linking the 2010 Census to National Park Visitors is an interesting report and a quick read. It also compares park visitation by region, age, income and level of education.

There is no policy of exclusion of African Americans or other groups and, in fact, the National Park Service has taken steps to increase diversity among both staff and visitors. Furthermore, it is not reasonable to expect that any particular group be precisely proportionally represented in our national parks (or in most other endeavors).

By any measure, however, the park visitation numbers are unbalanced. It doesn't seem right that our wonderful national parks do not better reflect our nation as a whole, or that they scarcely register in the cultural lore of African Americans.

Many people live within half a day's drive of Yosemite National Park but have never made the trip. Families have never seen the world's most astounding granite monoliths or waded together into the chilly Merced River. Experiences like these have been life-changing for so many of us. All Americans should know and believe that Yosemite does indeed belong to them, and that we all have equal rights to visit and cherish the park.

 
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"There is nothing so American as our national parks.... The fundamental idea behind the parks...is that the country belongs to the people."

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Photo: Time Magazine

   
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"National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst."

Wallace Stegner

Photo: Deseret News

 

The well-intentioned egalitarian statements by President Franklin Roosevelt and author Wallace Stegner are proudly displayed by the National Park Service. It is not accurate to say, however, that all segments of society share America’s national parks equally. We need to do better.

There are many organizations doing good work in connecting communities to the outdoors. The Sierra Club's Inner City Outings and Environmental Traveling Companions are almost 50 years old. Outdoor Afro, founded in 2009, now networks in almost 30 states.

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Paddle Out for Unity, an event organized by black surfers on June 5 in Santa Monica.

Photo: Daily Breeze

In the United States we are rightfully proud of our vast system of public lands and especially national parks like Yosemite. These are places where all races and cultures can come together to share in a common national heritage.

May all our national parks live up to their democratic purpose and play a small part in helping our nation come together, undivided, with liberty and justice for all.