This year, we celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service (NPS) and its stewardship of America’s 400-plus national parks, monuments and recreation areas covering more than 84 million acres. Earlier this year, while vacationing at Yosemite with his family, President Barack Obama said, “We’ve got kids all across this country who never see a park. There are kids who live miles from here who have never seen this. We’ve got to change that, because the beauty of the national park system is it belongs to everybody.”
My co-author Cesar De La Vega writes: “I was fortunate enough to be invited by the White House to witness the president’s remarks in Yosemite. I thought to myself, ‘I was one of those kids.’ It was only the second time I visited a national park. The first was a month before, after speaking on park access as a civil rights, environmental justice and health issue. The irony was not lost on me. The day in Yosemite marked the first time I felt a sense of ownership over a national park.”
In contrast, my (Robert García’s) life-long love of national parks began with my first trip during my preteen years. We went on a family vacation to Sequoia, Yosemite and Lake Tahoe when I was 11: my dad, mom, sister, grandmother and friend Julio. I also backpacked in college. I backpacked on my first date with my now wife, who I proposed to at Point Reyes National Seashore while I was in law school. We’ve camped with our three sons since they were little.
The centennial should serve as a watershed moment to kick off increased efforts by NPS to ensure we all know firsthand that national parks belong to everyone. To achieve this, we must diversify access to and support for our national park system now so that the makeup of park visitors and staff reflects the heritage and diversity of our country.
In 2015, 307 million people visited our national parks. The majority of visitors are non-Hispanic white (78 percent in 2008-2009) and near retirement age (54 years is the average age of a visitor to Yosemite). The Census Bureau projects that non-whites will make up the majority of the U.S. population within 25 years. National parks depend on political support, public money and community engagement for funding. In order to flourish in the next century, NPS must establish better relationships with this country’s increasingly diverse population.
NPS has a diversity problem and, to its credit, recognizes this. NPS has made significant strides at the policy level under President Obama. He has protected more public lands and waters than any other president, including 24 national monuments, many of which celebrate the diversity of our country’s history. His Every Kid in a Park (EKIAP) initiative provides all fourth graders and their families with free admission to national parks, recreation areas and monuments, and includes transportation grants for schools in the most underserved communities. The NPS final plans for the San Gabriel Mountains and the Rim of the Valley Corridor are best-practice examples to transform our parks. NPS (1) recognizes disparities in green access based on race, color or national origin, (2) understands this contributes to health disparities based on those factors and (3) acknowledges that environmental justice and civil rights laws and principles require agencies to alleviate these disparities. It’s working.
To build common ground, foster effective partnerships and community engagement and cultivate the next generation of park stewards, NPS programs should address the full range of values parks offer people. These include (1) fun, health and human development; (2) climate and conservation; (3) economic values, jobs, contracts and displacement; (4) culture, history, art and spiritual values; and (5) equal justice, democracy and healthy living for all.
For example, Yosemite tells the forgotten history of the Buffalo Soldiers, African-American soldiers who served as its first “park rangers.” Manzanar National Historic Site shares the experiences of interned Japanese-Americans faithfully, completely and accurately to provoke a greater understanding of, and dialogue on, civil rights, democracy and freedom. The Satwiwa Native American Indian Culture Center celebrates the heritage of the Chumash and Tongva/Gabrielino people. Women’s Rights National Historic Park tells of the struggles for civil rights, human rights and equality — global struggles that continue today. The César E. Chávez National Monument, dedicated in 2012, is the first national monument honoring a Latino born after the 1700s. The most recent national monument honors the Stonewall Uprising, a catalyst in the movement for LGBTQ civil rights.
NPS must also break down barriers to park access for people of color. The barriers are many: Parks are located far from where most people live, and there’s a lack of transportation, a fear of discrimination, lack of diverse park staff, lack of experience in parks, communication challenges and simply a feeling of not being welcomed. Transit to Trails programs like EKIAP are effective short-term means to provide both transportation and education to help people feel welcome in and ownership of our parks.
NPS can do more in the long term: (1) hire more diverse staff, particularly since half the NPS leadership is retiring in 2016; (2) build relationships with communities where distrust still exists; (3) create an atmosphere that welcomes diverse groups; (4) secure budgets to meet the needs of the people; and (5) use education and interpretive materials to tell the cultural heritage and history of NPS sites, including the role of communities in conservation efforts. It is imperative that NPS require its recipients of federal funding to comply with civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination based on race, color or national origin, including Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The centennial provides an opportunity to unite around a shared vision for our public lands and waters: conservation, wellness and social equity. Diversity of park users and staff upholds the democratic values that inspired the creation of NPS. The success of NPS during the next century depends on it.
Robert García is the Founding Director and Counsel at The City Project, a nonprofit environmental justice and civil rights organization based in Los Angeles.Cesar De La Vega is the Juanita Tate Social Justice Fellow at The City Project.