Public Lands Should Speak to Everyone

Our national parks and monuments should reflect the diversity and history of all Americans.

The Bears Ears in southeastern Utah
J Brew/Flickr

What if all our national parks were confined to the western prairies? They would be breathtaking, to be sure, but we’d miss out on so much of our varied national landscape, from the unspoiled splendor of our wetlands and coasts to the natural majesty of our mountains, forests, valleys and streams.

In some sense, that’s how we’ve restricted the kinds of Americans we commemorate and recall through our national monuments and parks. Of our more than 460 national parks and monuments, only about 12 percent are devoted to women, African-Americans, Latinos or American Indian, the Center for American Progress reports. We’ve done a better job showcasing the diversity of our lands than of our people, many of whom are all but left out of the national story we tell through the places we honor, conserve, and remember.

The national mosaic our parks create is not only incomplete but altogether. As we mark the centennial of our National Park Service this summer, it’s long past time for our public lands to reflect more clearly who we are as American people.

Our national parksforestsmonuments and wildlife refuges protect special places so that future generations may know the natural wonder of our country as it was experienced by the earliest Americans.

These places also tell the story of who we are and where we came from, the story of American identity. We draw on that story to better understand our purpose, as individuals and as a nation, and to chart our way forward in good times and bad. That’s why it’s so important that our monuments and parks render a faithful portrait of the past we share.

Newspaper Rock petroglyphs in Gold Butte, Nevada
Kurt Kuznicki via nevadawilderness.org

And, here, we have a problem. All too often, we have dimmed or ignored the voices of indigenous people, communities of color and others who helped build this nation. We have swept aside injustice that separates us from our founding ideals of equality and basic rights. And we have neglected our role as stewards of those places that can summon the memory of critical steps along our national journey.

For these and other reasons, the people left out of the picture often have muted interest in visiting these public lands, even though they help to support our parks and monuments through their taxes. Our public lands should not only reflect our common values but be welcoming places to all of us.

That’s especially important, given the sharp demographic change already sweeping the country.

In 2014, 62.2 percent of the country was white, 17.4 percent Latino, 13.2 percent African-American and 5.4 percent Asian in heritage. By 2060, though, just 43.6 percent will be white, 28.6 Latino, 17.9 African-American and 9.3 percent Asian-American.

The face of our country is changing, and our parks and monuments must keep pace with that change. As our National Park Service enters its second century, it must commit to building a system that faithfully reflects the diversity of our country, respects its varied cultures and engages all of its people.

That’s why NRDC has joined with more than 30 others — civil rights organizations, environmental justice advocates, community groups — in calling on President Obama to mark the centennial of the National Park Service this August by issuing a presidential memorandum to address this critical need.

In the near term, we’re urging the president to build on his legacy of setting aside important monuments and lands by using his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to provide permanent protection for special places like Bears Ears. This area of nearly two million acres in southern Utah contains burial and cultural sites important to American Indians, includes critical wildlife migration corridors, and is the source of drinking water for 40 million people.

In the longer term, we must increase the diversity of the people who work in our national parks, so we can make full use of the unique knowledge, voice, and experience they bring to those jobs. We need to expand outreach into underserved communities to identify barriers to full participation in our public places and then work to make that participation more equitable. And we need to increase funding for historic research and preservation that supports the creation of national heritage areas.

A hundred years after the creation of our National Park Service, its mission is more important than ever, and it’s more important than ever that we get it right.

This land, after all, wasn’t made only for you and me; it was built by all of us — men, women, Latinos, American Indians, Asian-Americans, and many others. Our public lands are a public trust. They must reflect the public interest. That, too, means all of us.

About the Authors

Rhea Suh

Former President

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