National parks are for everyone

When Congress established Yellowstone National Park in the territories of Montana and Wyoming in 1872, the intent was that America’s national parks were for everyone. In fact, the parks were and are largely dominated by white, aging visitors. Although minorities make up more than thirty-seven percent of the total population, they make up only twenty-two percent of park visitors. But it’s not just about visitor numbers: black visitors have reported feeling unsafe or unwanted in national parks.

As Emily Mott writes in a study of park visitors 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 the parks by minorities, and possible racial discrimination.”

While this issue has only recently surfaced in mainstream media, the National Park Service (NPS) has been concerned with the issue since at least 2000, with a major re-examination of the issue in 2008. A major survey conducted this year , confirmed that 70 eight percent of park visitors were white. “The large disparity between current societal demographics and park attendance is a unique and problematic issue,” Mott says.

Mott suggests that the NPS needs to run a campaign to attract more visitors and to promote inclusion. Attracting new, younger visitors is essential to the future viability of parks, but it is also morally just to create safe and welcoming parks for marginalized groups.

The parks were designed to promote unity while protecting culture and history and providing both intellectual stimulation and health benefits. However, some survey respondents indicated that the cost of the visit, including the passport, accommodation, appropriate equipment and transportation, was prohibitive. Communication was also identified as an overarching topic. Many respondents said they didn’t know much about the park system or how to visit it. Even when a park could be easily and inexpensively visited as a day visit, potential visitors did not have enough information on how to do so.

Mott argues that a media campaign detailing the many ways to visit a park and the diversity of parks is needed to attract more visitors, but the problem 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 fewer than a quarter of the monuments in the parks were black or women. Mott writes, “The more our national parks include and value minority history, the more minorities are likely to want to visit the parks.” to the national park system as a whole.”

There are ongoing initiatives to encourage attendance. For example, 2015 saw the launch of the Every Kid in a Park (now Every Kid Outdoors) initiative, which offers fourth graders and their families free entry to national parks. Some park wardens also coordinate school visits from urban areas and provide free transportation. As former park director Jonathan Jarvis said, “We know that if we can bring them here, it can be transformative.”

The future of parks depends on who visits them. In conclusion, Mott says, “Unless the NPS begins to entice a younger generation of racially diverse individuals to visit the parks, the preserved national and historic lands that the government has intentionally set aside for future generations will go unappreciated and potentially underfunded.”

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By: Emily Mott

Vermont Journal of Environmental Law, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Spring 2016), pp. 443–469

Vermont Law School

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