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Is Mount Rainier too white?

Preserving our natural heritage will require engaging a larger share of the population in outdoor activities. The National Parks won't survive on support from white people with white hair.
Mount Rainier

Mount Rainier Walter Siegmund / Wikimedia Commons

The ice-bound flanks of Mt. Rainier are a familiar sight, at least on clear days. The mountain rises like Mother Earth's giant mammary to nurture us both literally and in sprit. But like all major landmarks, if you look a bit closer, it also says something about us.

Rainier is a very visible symbol of America's National Parks. But park managers across the country are wrestling with a problem that might be familiar to the leaders of the Republican Party in the wake of the 2012 election. Are you sustainable if your constituency is mostly white people?

The growing diversity in the country is a wake-up call to park and forest managers who are dealing with the reality that the folks who form the core of national park visitors are a shrinking slice of the population. The U.S. Census Bureau now projects that non-Hispanic whites will comprise less than 50 percent of the population by 2043. That's a generation away.

Chas Cartwright, superintendent of Montana's Glacier National Park, who previously served as a Forest Service ranger and firefighter in the Northwest as well in positions at parks and monuments like Arches, Devil's Tower, Carlsbad, recently gave a retirement interview to the Associated Press expressing concern about the future of the park system. "Are we relevant to all America?" Cartwright asked. Talking about Glacier, he said, "If I look at who visits here...it is a lot of white people." He is speaking from 40 years of experience working in the nation's parks and forests. Based on my trip there last September, the park's grizzlies come in more colors than the people.

The research backs Cartwright up, and the attendance problem is particularly acute with African Americans. The AP story cites a study in 2000 (published in 2003) that found 36 percent of whites had visited a national park unit in the last two years. Native Americans, Asians and Hispanics were all in the 30 percent range, with African Americans at 13 percent. A follow-up survey reported by MSNBC found that non-Hispanic whites comprised 78 percent of park visitors in 2008-9. By comparison, Hispanics accounted for only 9 percent of visitors and African-Americans a mere 7 percent, well below their percentage of the population.

Black visitors were also three times more likely to say they got poor service or felt uncomfortable in the national parks. Some data supports that. A 2005 pilot study at the University of Vermont surveyed whites and found that most were aware that people of color visited national parks less often than whites, and they expressed higher levels of discomfort when shown pictures of racially diverse groups of park visitors. When asked why minorities didn't visit parks more, the reason cited most by white survey takers was that parks were located too far away from where minorities live.

The Vermont study outlined three theories as to why minorities don't visit parks more. One, called the "marginality hypothesis," posits that it's mainly due to socioeconomic differences stemming from a history of discrimination and lack of discretionary income. A second is the "subcultural or ethnicity hypothesis," the notion that cultural values are the key factor. "For example, it is theorized that since African American culture is rooted in servitude to the land blacks do not find refuge in parks and wilderness to the same extent that whites do," the study explained. In other words, blacks don't necessarily equate the hills with freedom as John Muir did. The third hypothesis is that on-going, contemporary discrimination keeps the numbers down.

That latter explanation is certainly not hard to imagine. I've heard this from African American friends and family. Many of the nation's wilderness parks are located in rural areas where people of color don't feel comfortable getting off the Interstate and "driving while black" on country roads patrolled by gun-toting, Red State whites. Black attendance at wilderness parks can be very, very low. In 2009, 77 percent of visitors to California's Yosemite National Park were white and only 1 percent were black.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Jan 2, 7:41 a.m. Inappropriate

An excellent and timely column. I say "timely" because we're on the doorstep of new sessions of Congress and the state legislature, in which there's sure to be more thrashing and teeth-gnashing about budget-slashing. Though it hardly seems possible to cut parks any further, especially in our state, I worry that there's not much of a vocal constituency supporting them. We need to be improving access and creating more parks to keep up with population growth, not continuing to cut.

I have a simple position: Basic access to our national and state parks, and national and state forests, should be free for everyone. Their operations and development should be supported by progressive tax revenues. And yes, I'm personally willing to pay the taxes to do so. It's hardly surprising that lower-income people don't flock to our parks. A $10/day use fee is not trivial to some people. Access to public land and places of inspirational beauty, like Mt. Rainier, is as much a collective obligation of society as are education, health care, and public safety.

Posted Wed, Jan 2, 8:56 a.m. Inappropriate

The masses have moved past this quaint relic of olden times, which appears to be stuck in 1959.

Retraining people to become interested, feel safe, and then be compelled to visit dying monuments created in the distant past for a people which no longer exist is a weak business plan.

Better to modernize the properties, including hotels/lodges that modern people would actually want to stay, accoutrements and activities of a modern nature, for today's American.

All types of people will come when given reason and opportunity.

Posted Wed, Jan 2, 10:08 a.m. Inappropriate

I have no trouble at all believing that for nonwhite Americans there's discomfort driving thru rural areas to get to national parks. I suspect, though, that another reason is one shared by many whites: having an urban living experience that disconnects people from the parks at an early age.

I'm reminded of a young man from Tokyo who wrote with great disdain about cherry trees and mountain scenery because he really could not care less about Nature because he grew up and lived in the vast urban ecology of Tokyo. I know a lot of urban whites who feel the same way, even here in Seattle.

Also, we have a lot of people whose families came to America after the early 20th century push for national parks. These people did not share the frontier experience through pioneer ancestors, nor did they believe that they needed to be renewed by Nature. My grandparents were certainly ignorant of any need to go to the mountains. They came to America to get away from the farms and outdoor toilets. My family was always an urban American family; I was the oddball when a kid, always talking about wanting to go west. I had cousins whose parents took them on the Long Drive out west and those cousins did end up in fields that took them outdoors, but getting away from the city was just not a major interest of the families I knew in our white ethnic community.

maggieno

Posted Wed, Jan 2, 10:11 a.m. Inappropriate

These are parks, they do not need any "hotels/lodges", "accoutrements", or "activities". They are parks not for-profit resorts.

A park is a park. A park is not "white". The contention of this column is racist. I wonder what the outcry would be if black citizens were called a "black problem"?

Frankly, with the continued tolerance of racist statements against white citizens, and the claims that "minorities" may only be represented by "minority" elected officials, it would seem that white citizens should only support things that strictly benefit white citizens, the same as any other ethnicity is doing.

So, now even a National Park system, that is open to all, becomes a chance for racism against white citizens.

jhande

Posted Wed, Jan 2, 10:23 a.m. Inappropriate

Interesting article. Clearly this is a complex issue, and an interesting challenge. My 2 cents: identify and move beyond the underlying assumptions about National Parks, their purpose and the way different groups might use them, find value in them and thus value them. Perhaps a people (or customer) centric approach would be useful...

Rashmir

Posted Wed, Jan 2, 11:41 a.m. Inappropriate

Yeah, and gymnastics, swimming, hockey, golf, tennis, curling, Medina and Clyde Hill, and Volvo drivers are "too white". Will 'park stamps' be the next food stamps?

animalal

Posted Wed, Jan 2, 11:54 a.m. Inappropriate

When the park service get around to hiring large numbers of non-whites maybe this will turn around. BUT… if you're a person of color, smart, educated, and want the good life, which would you choose as the place to make your living, some hole in the wall national park or a place that your skill set is appreciated, say like Apple or Microsoft.

Djinn

Posted Thu, Jan 3, 12:40 p.m. Inappropriate

I suppose it depends on whether your "skill set" is wildlife biology, environmental interpretation and education, software engineering, medicine, or waiting tables.

All of the above have potential interaction with the infrastructure that supports park management. All except for software engineering offer potential employment directly in or adjacent to wildlands. Of course, not all national parks have wildlands.

But of course, this begs the question as to whether providing employment is the prime rationale for having national parks. I think not.

Steve E.

Posted Fri, Jan 4, 2:55 p.m. Inappropriate

If providing employment isn't a prime rationale for parks, what is? It certainly isn't preserving anything, because without employees, parks are just raw land, wide open for any use we the citizens desire. Think speed limits and you'll understand. Every legislation passed that creates a unit in the National Park system also creates a bureaucracy to manage it. Even those units in the wilds of Alaska have it. It is without a doubt an employment scheme. When a new unit is created, the talk is about how much it will help the economy, blah, blah, blah and finally what a great thing we did in preserving this, whatever this is. Why do you think there's a park service unit in almost all 50 states? It's about money in the local economy.

But the basic question is about skin color and you failed in providing an answer. I'm betting there isn't a young black guy in Mississippi thinking about waiting tables as part of the career ladder to becoming a park ranger at Olympic or North Cascades. Most park jobs are designed for white people, of course a few "others" sneak in with our permission, but overall parkies are white and from well to do families. My wife was.

Djinn

Posted Wed, Jan 2, 1:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Don't overlook that the large user group over 62, holders of lifetime $10 Senior Pass cards, is demographically more white than younger groups. Being able to now freely enter all Parks, encourages older users of whatever hair and skin color to use the Pass. $10 for a lifetime is not really anyone's financial hurdle. Instead, it may be an area where Parks can reach out more--do many people of color over 62 know they can obtain a Pass? Probably somewhat less than white seniors. Is getting to a wilderness Park a financial obstacle? Maybe not. I've seen lots of seniors on the short Marymere Falls trail in the Olympics, which can be reached directly with a $1 bus ride from Port Angeles. Anyone with bus fare can walk to the falls and drink in the beauty of Lake Crescent for the cost of bus fare--there are no rangers checking Passes on the Marymere trail. Truth is, so many of us are now absorbed in looking at a screen or handheld device in front of us, that we don't see the magnificent forest or sky or seascape in front of us any more. We are digitally mesmerized.

elemental

Posted Fri, Jan 4, 7:09 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm sure there's an app for that.

Djinn

Posted Wed, Jan 2, 2:55 p.m. Inappropriate

The phrase "too white" could be interpreted as "too many white people go there." I guess I'm doing my part just by staying away. (I appreciate maggieno's comments which suggest that not everyone--including those who live in these parts--automatically worships and adores "the Great Outdoors".)

Posted Wed, Jan 2, 5:24 p.m. Inappropriate

See also:
Rambunctious Garden, Saving Nature in a Post Wild World, E. Marris, 2011.

afreeman

Posted Thu, Jan 3, 9:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Also Read: Revolutionary Parks by Dr. Emily Wakild about the myths of Mexico and their National Parks and their relationship to the environment. Rambunctious Garden is good, but it really doesn't offer new social science to this complex issue. Marris at least address the classic book: Coyotes and Town Dogs.

gbm

Posted Wed, Jan 2, 2:57 p.m. Inappropriate

The relevant question is how national parks will be financially supported if the increasingly urban US population isn't interested in traveling to them, or can't afford to. "Making them free" as a way of encouraging more low-income people to visit them doesn't make sense; someone has to pay to maintain and staff them.

sarah90

Posted Wed, Jan 2, 6:29 p.m. Inappropriate

The National Parks Service is a government benefit that requires you actually have to do a little of the work to get use from it. You have to find a way to get to them. Its not a check to be direct deposited or an office downtown.

We could move Mt Rainier National Park to South Seattle, Skyway or Kent so that non whites could enjoy it upfront and personal. I am not sure how logical that is.

Posted Wed, Jan 2, 9:40 p.m. Inappropriate

This is an important and timely article – soon to be included in the readings I assign to my students in an online course in the History of the American National Parks. In preparation for teaching this park class last year (and while teaching it online) I made a 15,000-mile trip criss-crossing the United States visiting and filming about 30 national parks.
The information in this article resonates with what I know from teaching and visiting the parks. During all of those miles of travel, I saw only a handful of black tourists, and I don’t recall seeing a single black ranger. Knute Berger offers various explanations for this absence, but as he indicates, none is definitive. We are left more with a puzzle than an explanation. Here are a few more pieces to the puzzle:
• Millions of black Americans live within easy access to National Parks and can certainly afford the price of admission, which is comparable to the cost of a movie ticket.
• In the United States the park ethos finds expression in black as well as white voices. For example, one of the most articulate and passionate advocates for wilderness featured in Ken Burns’s National Parks is an African American, Shelton Johnson, poet and park ranger.
• Around the world National Parks are certainly not simply a European and American phenomenon. Thousands of parks can be found in Africa and Asia as well as in South America. These are managed and cherished by peoples of many cultures and ethnicities.
• The demography of park visitation has changed and evolved over the years, and can likely continue to evolve. In the earliest years the very few visitors to Yellowstone and Yosemite came by foot or horseback. Intrepid souls like John Muir, they had no nine-to-five jobs to pin them down to an office. Then came the wealthy tourists of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries who could afford the five to ten thousand dollars in today’s money for the trip from, say, Boston to Yosemite. Under the first park director, Steven Mather, roads were built into the parks during the 1920s, democratizing access. Annual park visitation ballooned from thousands to millions of Americans per year.
• The growth in visitation was encouraged in the past by publicity campaigns using words, paintings, photographs, and films to encourage interest in the parks. (Ken Burns’s film is in that tradition.) Similar campaigns should be developed to pitch the park message to new constituencies.
• Finally, we should consider whether other cultural institutions than parks are “too white.” What about the typical audience at the Seattle Symphony, Seattle Art Museum, or Seattle Repertory Theater? Is the park situation part of a wider cultural divide?
• Back to the parks themselves, it’s hard to know for certain how more African American tourists can be drawn into the parks. But in the mean time, we might start by considering just how many blacks have positions as park rangers.

Posted Wed, Jan 2, 11:01 p.m. Inappropriate

Well if we need to figure out things that are too white, then we need to figure out things that are too black, or too hispanic (spanish speaking whites), and too asian, and too of any ethnicity. This is a bunch of racism, masquerading as concern.

jhande

Posted Fri, Jan 4, 8:03 a.m. Inappropriate

When Ken Burns presented his film to the GWS in PDX a few years ago at an early promo, he received negative comments from the crowd about why there wasn't women represented for their naturalist views (lot of NPS employees. I thought Burns was a little miffed, and he replied, he didnd't represent women because there weren't any in leadership at the time. We can't rewrite our history to support our current views, but we can research it. One of the most underrepresented perspectives is that of Mexico. American's still judge others by our standards, including their way of creating protected areas. See the 2011 book: Revolutionary Parks as an example of what's out there if we look at it with open eyes.

gbm

Posted Sat, Jan 5, 12:49 p.m. Inappropriate

http://cees.wfu.edu/2011/09/15/mexico’s-national-parks-a-radical-example-of-government-foresight-and-sustainability/

Jared Diamond also reputably reconsiders the Earth before the Shock Doctrine in "The World Until Yesterday." WSJ reviewer today is largely unimpressed: "Let Your Kids Play With Matches" (bypass pay-wall by using quotes).

afreeman

Posted Thu, Jan 3, 12:47 p.m. Inappropriate

I suspect part of the problem is the US crappy mass transit system. The large wilderness flagship parks cannot be easily accessed by mass transit. A greyhound to Yellowstone doesn't sound like fun to me.

Also, we need to remember that the parks were created for and serve functions in addition to human recreation. There are wolves in Yellowstone the national park as refuge. Good luck getting them established for long outside the park in redneck Wyoming.

Steve E.

Posted Mon, Jan 7, 2:01 p.m. Inappropriate

And good luck getting continued financial support from a public you hold in such contempt.

BlueLight

Posted Tue, Jan 8, 3 p.m. Inappropriate

Steve E: I addressed this very issue in a story a couple of years ago, "Greening Access to Seattle's Nearby national Parks."

http://crosscut.com/2010/09/17/mossback/20162/Greening-access-Seattles-nearby-national-parks/

Posted Thu, Jan 3, 7:36 p.m. Inappropriate

jhande's comment is a wonderful example of White Privilege. If people of color are mentioned or their concerns are expressed, then the article must be racist. If they are neither mentioned nor considered, then we must be talking about white people and that's okay.

I've been to National Parks and I think they're beautiful, special places. In fact, I think of them as God's museums. We don't sleep in MOHAI but we're expected to sleep on Mt Rainier and that's the only acceptable way to experience Mt Rainier.

I like it from afar just as much as up close, but I'm not interested in camping now as it wasn't something I grew up doing. Maybe if it was, I'd feel differently.

Amaliada

Posted Thu, Jan 3, 9:43 p.m. Inappropriate

Amaliada's comment is illustrative of Racism. The article is racist, it talks about a "white problem", and it says that parks are "too white". Now how is that not racist? If other ethnicities/races were talked about in terms like that, there would be no disagreement that it was racist; because it is. So, Amaliada, I have stated why I consider the article racist, as I did in an earlier post; and you make up some contention that has nothing to do with what I said. Then you make accusations about privilege. You, Amaliada just posted the racist comment, not me.

jhande

Posted Fri, Jan 4, 7:20 p.m. Inappropriate

This is a black perspective on the issue at hand. It's a few years old, but I'd bet it hasn't changed much, though I will say that when I was Ft. Leavenworth Kansas for the opening of the Buffalo Soldier museum there were a lot of black military and their families there. For those that care about that sort of thing, it's worth the visit plus there is a long stretch of the Oregon Trail on post that you can walk.

http://www.sfgate.com/outdoors/article/Park-ranger-asks-Where-are-the-black-visitors-3222468.php

Djinn

Posted Sat, Jan 5, 12:09 a.m. Inappropriate

So the question asked, with respect to National Parks, is " Are you sustainable if your constituency is mostly white people?". The author later conflates National Parks with just about all public lands, but limits further analysis to largely recreation of a sample of the national population that visit a public park or forest. The answers, as others have offered above, are complicated, and not found by simply taking stock of skin color of park visitors.

The honest question being asked is: how are non-white people's cultural values changed to reflect the status quo of the dominant white cultural values concerning National Parks and outdoor recreation. I think we all know the answer to that, and it's not hire more black rangers.

dmark

Posted Sat, Jan 5, 3:21 p.m. Inappropriate

This video starring Blair Underwood, who is also a native of Tacoma, captures the situation rather well:

http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/24b56caf3e/black-hiker-with-blair-underwood

Posted Sat, Jan 5, 3:50 p.m. Inappropriate

This is an interesting article but I rather take issue with the opening statement "Preserving our natural heritage will require engaging a larger share of the population in outdoor activities." Since there is no sign of a significant attempt to delist national parks, it seems to me that the fewer people who visit the parks, the easier it will be to maintain them in their natural state. Much of the cost of running the national parks is associated with mitigating the impacts of visitors so in an era of decreased funding it is not obvious that the parks should be in the business of trying to increase the number of visitors.

WSDW

Posted Mon, Jan 7, 7:50 a.m. Inappropriate

It is clear we need a quota system to address this Social Injustice. Simple math. In 2010 Mt. Rainier National Park received 1.7 million visitors. In 2010, whites made up 72% of the U.S. population. So...

1,700,000 x .72 = 1,224,000

After the 1,224,000th white person has entered the park, admission should be denied for whites for the rest of the calendar year. If a white family of four shows up and there are only three "white" slots left; well they can either drive back to the suburbs or let little Timmy sit his cracker ass in the car.

BlueLight

Posted Mon, Jan 7, 2:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Western culture has a tradition in which people go into the wilderness to find themselves. It's rooted not only in Judeo-Christian stories, but in the pre-Christian myths that they replaced. Even before the parks movement really got started in the 19th Century, the idea of heading away from civilization for recreation and re-creation of the self is ingrained in our culture.

I think it's wrong to attribute it to racism, either overt or covert. It's just a difference of ancient values that still resonate in our culture.

talisker

Posted Tue, Jan 8, 5:01 a.m. Inappropriate

An article that fails the basic test: "so what"?
Suggesting that everyone ought to like the same things in the same percentages is not "diversity", its an implicit homogeneity.

I'd add that having spent a lot of time in national parks, attendance is in fact very diverse.

The national parks are famous throughout Asia, and are heavily visited by Asians, both Asian-Americans and folks who've traveled across an ocean to visit. Judging from the array of foreign visitors to our national parks, their attendance is in fact very diverse.

Contriving an invidious narrative from the observation that the demographics of this diversity don't precisely match that of the nation as a whole is jejune moralizing without purpose, reflecting not discrimination but rather the obvious: different folks like different things.

Posted Wed, Jan 9, 2:36 p.m. Inappropriate

Am amused by much of this speculation. Knute: imagine one of your fellow high school students writing this article instead of you. Would they give the same reasons you're giving?

Visiting a national park requires time, transportation and money. Until the last 20 years or so, few African Americans had the luxury of taking a vacation, period. Spending extended periods in the wilderness required camping equipment, transportation to get to the site, and, that rarest and most valued irreplaceable of all commodities, time. Driving to Yellowstone, or even Mount Rainier, meant having gas money and at least a day with nothing else to do.

As more African Americans have moved into middle and upper incomes their participation in ski clubs, water sports, wildlife treks etc has increased. It still really is all about the economy...

Posted Tue, Jan 15, 9:20 a.m. Inappropriate

Creating a constituency of supporters for our protected areas and the environment is invaluable to conservation as well as our survival in nature.
In 1990, wilderness managers in the central Sierra Nevada mountains of California created the interagency Wilderness Education Project in order to address what was then called "the vicarious user" of protected areas. The Project also created connections with, and brought Hispanic, African American and Asian youth to the great outdoors to expose them to the beauty and value of THEIR national parks, national forests and wilderness areas. Thanks to a cooperative group of interested parties and area managers, the program was leveraged well beyond its funding and reached many who, hopefully, will enter into natural resource management, or expose other peers to the great value of our amazing natural resources and wilderness.
Sadly, funding and a reduction in personnel brought the Project to its knees around 2003, and the Projects lifespan came to a close.
There is unrecognized long-term value for creating a constituency of understanding supporters and 'users' of our natural resources and protected areas, both for the land and the people.

Posted Fri, Jan 18, 8:23 a.m. Inappropriate

I agree with this article, but feel there is a component to the problem beyond race. People who haven’t visited National Parks in the past, may not be likely to visit National Parks in the future. If your parents didn’t take you to parks as a child, if your friends don’t go to parks, why would you even be thinking about going now?

In part people are comfortable doing things they are familiar with, and uncomfortable with the unknown. A ranger at Point Reyes National Seashore in the San Francisco Bay Area told me about a phone call from a woman in nearby Oakland who said she was considering coming to the park, but was hesitant because of the wild animals and she wanted to know if the park was safe. Personally, I feel safe in the park, and there are areas of Oakland where I don’t feel safe. But this woman had grown up in the city and had never been in “wilderness”.

Often cycles keep repeating themselves, patterns stay the same, habits are hard to change. There is a group of people who will think to themselves, we have enjoyed going to Mount Rainier in the past, let’s go this weekend and take the kids. Eventually their kids may grow up and continue going to Mount Rainier. But how do you get the people who have never gone to Mount Rainier to decide that is how they want to spend their upcoming weekend?

My life has been fashioned by friends and family. There are many things I now enjoy that I might not have ever tried if not encouraged by other people. As a child I was taken hiking in Yosemite. It was a little scary (there are bears!!!), but now I love hiking. If we can get children into parks today (regardless of race), a few of them will return as adults. Once people try something for the first time, a few of them may realize that they like it.

The article mentions a number of problems that need to be resolved. But a major issue is the desire to go to National Parks in the first place. If you never visit a National Park, then you won’t even realize that the rangers are white men with white hair. If you never visit a National Park, then when you are looking for a job you won’t consider applying to be a ranger. If you never go to a National Park, well, this upcoming weekend, you will probably do something else.

Peterson

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