As the National Park Service (NPS) celebrates its centennial, it’s time to look ahead and think about how America’s national parks should evolve over the next 100 years. A new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) argues that the NPS will need to become far more inclusive to meet the needs of the mostly urban, majority-minority country we’ll have by 2043. The NPS will also need to identify areas for conservation amid the rapidly-sprawling cities of Western states before it’s too late. Already many poorer Latino and African American communities out west have been under-represented among national parks and have none nearby to enjoy. The key message of the report: put national parks closer to diverse, urban populations, and then further remove barriers preventing these populations from enjoying these places.
A recent poll conducted for CAP found that “77 percent of Americans believe the United States benefits a great deal or a fair amount from national parks. Furthermore, 55 percent of voters believe they personally benefit a great deal or a fair amount from the country’s parks and public lands.” Research from Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, confirms the enormous value of the parks: they are estimated to be worth some $92 billion to the American people.
But the reality is national parks benefit some more than others. The National Park Service is still dealing with the legacy of Jim Crow-era laws that enforced segregation in many parks. “In some cases, these laws made parks entirely off limits to African Americans.” While everyone today, by law, has equal access to national parks, “the majority of visitors remain white, aging, and fairly affluent.” And, as has been noted, 80 percent of NPS employees are white.
CAP’s polling found that 55 percent of all respondents to their survey had visited a national park, monument, or other area in the past three years. But if results are broken out by race, it looks a bit different: 59 percent of whites have visited, while 47 percent of Hispanic respondents, and only 32 percent of African Americans said the same thing. And NPS’s own 2009 survey apparently showed similar disparities: 78 percent of park visitors were white, while only 9 percent were Hispanic, and 7 percent, African American.
The report also finds there are differences in visitation among different income groups. “Only 39 percent of Americans with incomes below $40,000 reported visiting the National Park system in the last three years.” In comparison: 59 percent of those who made between $40,000 and $75,000 visited, as well as 66 percent of those who made more than $75,000.
While the NPS is now designating more places diverse populations want to go to, there is still more to do. Only 112 of the 460 designated units of the NPS, or 24.3 percent, have a focus on diverse groups. This is not thinking ahead to meet the needs of a mostly-minority country.
Recent steps — like creating the Stonewall Inn National Monument in New York City, which preserves the site of the Stonewall riots that started the LGBT rights movement, and the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument, which honors an important Latino civil rights activist — are steps in the right direction, but the report argues more of these protected places need to be created. This is because “parks aimed at preserving traditionally underrepresented histories and stories in fact attract higher visitation rates than the national average from groups that they aim to honor.” For example, some 37 percent of visitors to the Nicodemus National Historic Site, a park that preserves a western town established by African Americans, are themselves African American, in comparison with around 9 percent of visitors, on average, for other parks.
The report also makes the case for preserving natural area in the West, where development “disproportionately affects communities of color and low-income communities.” Poorer and minority-heavy communities are typically more developed than average, which means these groups grow up in areas with fewer natural resources — and national parks and monuments.
The report argues these communities need both more small neighborhood parks and more preserved large natural areas. “Congress, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the president should create and enhance public lands in accessible places — so-called frontcountry recreation areas. Frontcountry areas offer close-to-home natural settings and outdoor experiences, which allow people to experience nature without needing to travel to a far-off destination. Emphasis should be placed on accessible frontcountry parks near communities of color, low-income communities, and urban areas.”
A prime example of what NPS needs more of: the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, which President Obama designated in 2014 and is just a 90-minute drive for the 15 million-strong, diverse, urban population of Los Angeles.