A Call for More Diverse Public Lands

This month’s National Park Service centennial presents an opportunity to create a parks system that is reflective of—and accessible to—all Americans.
Mount Rainier National Park

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The 84 million acres’ worth of parks and monuments the National Park Service has set aside in the public trust over the past century is a source of national pride and cause for celebration. But while we look back on 100 years of conservation, the service’s centennial on August 25 also inspires us to think about our parks’ future. “The goal is having our public lands reflect the diversity of our history and the diversity of our populace now,” says Sharon Buccino, director of NRDC’s Land & Wildlife program. “That diversity has increased—we weren’t nearly as diverse 100 years ago—but our public lands need to catch up.”

On the surface, our national parks are thriving; they attracted a record 307 million visitors in 2015. But these visitors are disproportionately white. In its most recent survey, conducted in 2009 and released in 2011, the National Park Service (NPS) found that only 22 percent of visitors were people of color, despite the fact that minorities account for 37 percent of the country’s entire population. (The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that the majority of all residents will be people of color by 2043.)

Part of the difficulty in attracting diverse populations to parks, Buccino says, is that until only recently, our public lands themselves have focused on a small slice of American history—a history rooted in the visions of early conservation movement leaders like John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt—that doesn’t necessarily represent anyone other than white men. Indeed, according to the Center for American Progress, only 112 of our 460 national parks and monuments recognize diverse people and cultures.

President Obama, using his authority under the Antiquities Act to set aside federal lands for protection, has made great progress in shifting that trend. California’s César E. Chávez National Monument, for example, established by the president in 2012, celebrates the influential Latino leader and the farmworkers for whom he advocated. The Pullman National Monument, created in 2015, highlights a Chicago neighborhood’s contribution to the social and economic progress of African Americans. The Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument in Washington, D.C., and New York’s Stonewall National Monument, both designated this year, honor the struggle for women’s and LGBT rights, respectively. Meanwhile, the proposed Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah would not only protect important American Indian lands but also ensure that tribes have an unprecedented voice in the management of those lands.

Still, there are other issues to tackle. The NPS workforce itself is overwhelmingly white—about 80 percent of its 22,000 employees—despite attempts to create a less homogeneous group. In 2012, NPS director Jonathan B. Jarvis issued an official order intended, among other things, to help “build a workforce that always reflects the diversity of our citizenry at all locations and levels.” But due to a situation that the NPS describes as an inefficient application and hiring system and low job turnover rates, there's still a lot of progress to be made. 

Issues of cost, familiarity, and ease of access to parks and monuments have posed additional roadblocks. According to the National Park Service’s 2009 survey, for example, 65 percent of Hispanics said they don’t know that much about NPS units, and 56 percent reported that it takes too long to travel from their home to a park or monument. Buccino explains that for these reasons, in addition to painful cultural histories, people of color may be less likely to seek out national parks for enjoying nature.

“We now have a different way of looking at nature and the environment than we did at the beginning of the conservation movement, which was centered around wilderness, protecting it for its own sake, and experiencing the solitude that comes with that,” Buccino says. Today, park-goers (and potential park-goers) increasingly travel in groups and don’t stray far from urban centers—and our public lands should reflect that shift. In addition to the urban monuments President Obama has created in recent years, the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, a 350,000-acre area established in 2014, is an excellent example of that new direction. Located about an hour from downtown Los Angeles, it is accessible to some 18 million residents of the area—thanks in large part to groups like San Gabriel Mountains Forever, which has worked on securing public transit to the park.

So what can we do to ensure that the next 100 years of our public lands reflect our nation’s diversity? The Next 100 Coalition—a group of civil rights, environmental justice, and community organizations—has a clear vision for a more inclusive approach to our country’s public lands, and that vision is guided by three simple principles: The lands must reflect the diversity of our population, show respect for our cultures, and actively engage all people.

To achieve this vision, the coalition is calling on President Obama to issue a presidential memorandum to coincide with the centennial celebration on August 25. The memorandum, the coalition writes, “should direct the Park Service, Forest Service, and other federal land management agencies to be more inclusive in the sites protected, stories told, communities engaged, and people hired . . . and install a system for public accountability.” The coalition also highlights a four-month plan with immediate steps the president can take to lay the foundation for these goals. (You can sign a petition urging President Obama to issue the memorandum here.)

“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,” NRDC president Rhea Suh has written. “This land, after all, wasn’t made only for you and me; it was built by all of us — men, women, Latinos, African Americans, 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.”

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