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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