National Parks and Diversity

Recent surveys show that national park visitors are overwhelmingly non-Hispanic whites.  Stan Austin, the new superintendent of Cuyahoga Valley National Park, in a NPR Radio interview said that he would like to address this issue as priority given the ethnic makeup of the Cleveland and Akron. Surveys find that many blacks and Latinos face logistical or cultural barriers to making the trip to national parks.

A study conducted by Nina Roberts at San Francisco State University showed that only 10% of national park visitors are people of color (compared to 34% of the U.S. who are people of color). In a  NYTimes blog post, Marcelo Bonta suggests implicitly, that maybe this has something to do with the staff of the National Parks Service. “The first African-American National Park Service Director, Robert Stanton, during his post-NPS days conducted a study that revealed only 9-11% of staff and board members of environmental organizations are people of color. Similar studies show 4-5% of people of color on staff and boards of environmental groups. Another study of over 150 environmental institutions showed that only 33% of non-profits and 22% of government agencies have NO people of color. If the environmental movement wants to be relative and successful far into the future, especially by 2042 when the U.S. will be over 50% people of color, it needs to intentionally and proactively diversify. If it doesn’t, it will continually lose relevance in a increasingly diverse society.” Incidentally, our local superintendent is a person of color. So we are moving in the right direction locally.

A really exciting program that is tryng to solve the problem of accessibility from the ground up  is the Sierra Club’s Building Bridges to the Outdoors (BBTO) program, which introduces youth of all backgrounds to the natural environment. Vandenberg, one of the founding leaders said: “My first National Parks experience was at Yosemite in 1999,” remembers Vanderberg, who is African American. “What impressed me was the majesty of it all – the size, the scale, and the lack of obvious human impact.” At the time Vanderberg was a social studies teacher at Crenshaw High School in South Los Angeles. Inspired by his trip, he began bringing students from Crenshaw’s Eco Club to Yosemite. When Building Bridges was established the following year, Vanderberg became one of its first leaders and has been involved with the program ever since.

As I think about these issues of inclusion, I also think back to my home country Tanzania where national parks are increasingly getting less and less accessible to the local population as elites capitalize on international tourism dollars and marginalize local communities from the benefits of national park systems. There are exceptions of course! My favorite is the collaborations between the Masai and local tour operators in the Tarangire Conservation area, quoted in Zepels book on Indigenous Tourism (142). But people still cannot access these parks. The urban poor are still marginalized.

The Center will be hosting a series of lectures, panels to complement the emerging workshops and events being planned about the environment next spring. First up, is a talk by Robert Bullard  who will speak about the Politics of Pollution on January 18th in Scheide at 7:30pm. Stay tuned.

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