"Just recently, The Oprah Winfrey Show chronicled Oprah's camping trip to Yosemite National Park. Oprah was invited to the park by Yosemite National Park Ranger Shelton Johnson, an African American who played a prominent role in Ken Burns' film, The National Parks: America's Best Idea.
"While visiting Yosemite, Oprah took in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, went fly fishing on the Merced River, and was awed by Johnson's incredible Buffalo Soldier persona. But, for Oprah, this place of inspiration raised a much larger question: 'Why aren't there more visitors of color in the national parks?'"
The preceding paragraphs are taken from a press release distributed by the National Parks Second Century Commission, an independent group charged with developing a 21st Century vision for the National Park Service. The Commission was formed in 2008 by the National Parks Conservation Association and its findings were made public in 2009. I really don't know why a release from them made it to my desk just this past week, but I suspect the specific issue it is capitalizing on Oprah Winfrey's recent camping trip to Yosemite.
And the specific issue, according to the release, is that "a lack of diversity is a longstanding issue for national parks, public lands and the environmental movement as a whole."
To be honest, I didn't realize this issue even existed. And to be even more honest, I struggle with accepting this as a legitimate issue. Visiting our national parks, to me, seems to be the ultimate in freedom of choice. You either choose to go to a national park, or you don't. Lack of awareness might be a problem, but is it enough of a problem that our government needs to put forth taxpayer resources toward it?
Still not convinced, I continued reading the release from the National Parks Second Century Commission.
"At Yosemite, less than 1 percent of the visitors are African American. In Florida, only 4 percent of visitors to Everglades National Park are Hispanic or African American - even though nearby Miami is 54 percent Hispanic and 14 percent African American. As the demographics of America continue to shift toward a non-white majority, visitation numbers like these will diminish the relevancy of parks.
"The Commission recently laid out potential Park Service actions to better connect diverse and urban communities with the national parks. The Commission recommended engaging diverse communities to build personal connections to parks, expanding educational opportunities, ensuring interpretation through the context of diverse perspectives, and actively recruiting a new generation of park leaders that reflects the nation's diversity."
Hard to argue with those recommendations, however I'm a firm believer that an employer should always have the right to hire the most qualified person for the job. If someone passionately wants a specific job, then they should acquire the training, education and skills set necessary to make them the most qualified candidate.
Yet I understand what the Commission is getting at, especially if you take into account that one of the Park Service's goals is to educate the public. The Commission's release explains this further...
"Although more widely known for the great natural parks, like Yellowstone and Glacier, the National Park Service is one of the largest stewards of sites that tell the story of cultural diversity. At Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, W.E.B. DuBois and other members of the Niagara Movement issued a clarion call for full and immediate suffrage. San Antonio Missions National Historical Park preserves four Spanish missions in Texas - the greatest concentration of Roman Catholic missions in North America. Even Yosemite, one of the majestic natural parks, holds a rich and diverse history - home to Shelton Johnson's interpretation of Buffalo Soldiers at the park.
"Despite this rich history, national parks across the country face funding and staffing shortfalls that often limit the Park Services' ability to interpret cultural sites and expand educational opportunities for visitors to learn about our shared heritage. While outreach to diverse communities is a stated priority for the Park Service, they often lack the funding and staff to do so."
Well there you have it, I thought, yet another government program whining about a lack of funds. Here's a better idea: Our federal government needs to do a better job with the taxes they already receive - i.e. eliminate unnecessary programs and those that are kept must be made more efficient. That ought to free up some money - if indeed more money is a legitimate need in this case.
Back to the release again.
"There is currently an opportunity to ensure that our national parks remain relevant to a changing America. Pres. Barack Obama recently established the America's Great Outdoors initiative to create a 21st century strategy for reconnecting Americans with their rich natural heritage. The National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit advocacy organization for the parks, has recommended that national parks play a prominent role in such an initiative.
"'Many urban and rural communities have national parks in their backyards and we must ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to experience these places that preserve our natural and cultural heritage,' says NPCA Legislative Representative Alan Spears. 'We hope that the administration takes bold steps to better connect people of color to our national parks through the America's Great Outdoors initiative.
"Throughout the country, there are successful models of outreach to urban and diverse communities around national parks. For example, at Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in Los Angeles, nearly 10,000 inner-city youth have learned to grow native plants and care for restoration sites. Santa Monica Mountains is the world's largest urban national park and although the park is within walking distance, most children in the year-long learn and work program had never visited before. Since the program, visitation has increased as students bring their families for weekend and after-school visits - creating a lasting connection to a place that once barely existed to them.
"Oprah's visit to Yosemite National Park brings to the forefront a longstanding issue for national parks. By increasing diversity in the workforce, interpretation and ultimately visitation, parks can maintain relevancy in their second century and truly provide benefit and enjoyment for all Americans."
And that concluded the Commission's release.
All of the Commission's suggestions sound like worthy goals, and you certainly can't argue with wanting to make people more willing to visi our national parks and enjoy their beauty, majesty and historical contexts. This Commission's report sheds light on a lack of diversity at our national parks. But is this lack of diversity an issue that needs to be dealt with? Or is it a something less - perhaps nothing more than a statistical observation that will likely fluctuate over time? Again, everyone is free to choose whether to take their family to visit a national park - or a state park, or an amusement park, or an RV park ... you get the idea.
This post is not meant to stir up a hornet's nest. But I am curious how others see this "issue."