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.

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Mount Rainier

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.

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 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.

While Ken Burns has called the national parks "America's best idea," it is one born out of race and class issues. Matthew Klingle, in his book, Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle, discusses the origins of outdoor groups like The Mountaineers. In its earliest days, the Seattle group lobbied for recreational areas for white, middle-class pleasure seekers. Their early membership was progressive in terms of gender, nearly as many women as men, but the group was "predominantly middle and upper class, overwhelmingly white, and mostly Protestant."

The worship of "untouched" nature and the idea of recreational play (hiking, skiing, boating) was largely an obsession of white, urban people who had leisure and money. Theodore Roosevelt, booster of the parks, conservation, and promoter of the virtues of the "strenuous life," embodied the attitude of the age, but also the pastimes of an upper class man: boxing, polo, big game hunting and skinny dipping in the Potomac River. Black sharecroppers or Chinese railroad workers hardly needed to be lectured about physical activity. Roosevelt's own racial views were, as we say now, complex, which means he was a bit more enlightened on some aspects for his time, but today would be considered racist, especially his belief in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon-Nodric-Teutonic-Celtic "race." He urged whites to breed to avoid what he famously called "racial suicide."

Conservationists and park advocates in the last century (and before) often wanted to keep Indians and the poor out of parks in order to preserve them. Early access to Glacier Park, for example, was developed by railroad barons specifically to attract wealthy turn-of-the-century tourists who could afford to travel to the remote Rockies in a Palace Car and spend weeks trekking from lodge-to-lodge while mule-skinners and servants schlepped their baggage over the high mountain passes. It's still a distant and rather pricey trip for most people.

Carolyn Finney, a Fairhaven grad who is now an assistant professor at UC Berkeley, wrote an interesting report a few years ago called Black Faces, White Spaces: African-Americans and the Great Outdoors (soon to be a book) in which she advocated for linking parks and the conservation ethic to the black experience:

Regardless of where African-Americans live geographically, our common history of slavery, segregation and racism appears to inform our perceptions and attitudes about the environment. Issues of fear, exclusion, little sense of ownership and lack of awareness all come into play....[F]or African-Americans, creating a deep-seated sense of feeling and responsibility regarding the environment may NOT come primarily from telling them they need to save the trees for their children’s future (this isn’t meant to imply that they don’t care about their children’s future). Recent history shows us that African-Americans are continually using the past as a way to represent themselves and say, 'we were there' and 'we are here now.' Why not use the same framework for understanding African-American interaction with the environment?

The way I read that is that connections made through the story of the progress of a people is more compelling than simply walling off nature from people.

There are connections between African Americans and National Park Service units: Some of the first rangers at Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks were the black cavalrymen known as Buffalo Soldiers. There are also many Park Service entities that connect to black history, ranging from the Booker T. Washington National Monument in Virginia to the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial which commemorates a massive explosion that killed hundreds of African American dock workers near Concord, California during World War II.

Connecting in terms of the environment and enjoying the outdoors is another challenge. Bay Area African American outdoor blogger Rue Mapp is an advocate for promoting the outdoors in the black community. In a recent blog post called "And Let the Church say Amen — to Nature," she suggests that black churches can be powerful partners in promoting the environmental ethic: "In this work of connecting more people to nature, I find myself in many rooms, advisory meetings, and email threads with the discussion of relevancy of the outdoors for African Americans (and other less represented populations).... How can we connect the outdoors to more audiences people ask. With 87% of African Americans who associate themselves with a church...the church must play a key part in our planning and partnerships."

That certainly echos the religious connections of Muir, Ralph Waldo Emerson and others who were leading early advocates of wild lands (and parks) as spiritual zones that connected one with the sacred. Said Muir: "No wonder the hills and groves were God's first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself." In essence, nature is the best church of all.

The awareness of the wilderness' "white problem" is known, not just at the policy levels of the National Park Service, but also at the retail level. Seattle's REI has hired Laura Swapp to help the company remain relevant in a more diverse world, both with employees and customers. "Our challenge is not that there’s not a younger, more racially diverse market, it’s that they're not necessarily gravitating toward the brands of the outdoor industry," she told blogger Mapp. "So now we are thinking of an expanded definition of the outdoors — meeting people where they are." That's a different mission than the original co-op for outfitting Northwest climbers and hikers.

With large demographic changes ahead, wilderness and heritage stewards will have to find a way of keeping these treasures relevant to the general population in order to have the support they'll need for survival. The strongest advocates for parks come from the people who use them. Nowadays, being loved mostly by white people with white hair is not a long-term survival strategy.



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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.