When we celebrated the one hundredth anniversary of the National Park Service on August 25th, many of us reflected on the family trips we’d made over the years, the historic sites and stunning landscapes we’d visited, and the wonderful people we’d met in our travels across the country. It was a rare moment to reflect on an agency that has played a huge role in defining the American experience.
All of those things were on my mind that day. But as the senior Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the agency, I had an additional concern: Where does the National Park Service go from here? How can it mean as much to Americans in the twenty-first century as it did in the twentieth?
The National Park Service has been successful in part because the American people see themselves reflected in the natural, cultural, and historical resources it protects and interprets. The agency’s future depends on its ability to continue to offer that reflection to a country that’s diversifying like never before. That’s going to be a challenge, and the next administration will urgently need to address it.
Our latest available data shows that only 9 percent of park visitors are Latino. At Saguaro National Park just outside my home town of Tucson, that number is less than 2 percent – even though the city’s population is 44 percent Latino. This was brought dramatically home for me when I recently took a group of local high school students to the park. It’s not too dramatic to say that many of them were stunned to see a national park with cactus-lined trails and beautiful mountain views in their backyard.
The National Park Service can do more to address this. Following a 2008-2009 comprehensive public survey, NPS announced in a report titled “Racial and Ethnic Diversity of National Park System Visitors and Non-Visitors” that, among other findings, “Only five percent of white non-Hispanics saw parks as unsafe, unpleasant, or providing poor service, even when they had not visited recently, whereas up to a quarter of non-visitors in other groups felt that way. Hispanic non-visitors tended to report the most adverse opinions of any group on these three items[.]”
In other words, communities of color don’t find national parks as inviting as their white friends and neighbors. That perception will take more than goodwill to overcome.
Saguaro, for one, is aware of this issue and recently hired a Hispanic community leader from Tucson to bridge that gap. That’s encouraging. Diversifying the workforce at our parks is key to connecting with local communities and attracting new visitors.
The next administration and those that follow should also make sure our monuments better reflect our country’s growing diversity. The National Park System recently added national monuments highlighting civil rights activist César E. Chávez and Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman. That process should continue. Our public lands belong to all Americans. So does our history. Our nation’s diversity should be reflected.
Native Americans have an especially deep and longstanding relationship to the lands and waters that make up the United States, which we see reflected in the effort to preserve places like Bears Ears in Utah and the Great Bend of the Gila and greater Grand Canyon region in Arizona. Last year I introduced bills to protect both Arizona sites as national monuments. The Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument Act protects the north and south of the Grand Canyon, including a vital watershed, from uranium mining and celebrates the long local history and deep cultural roots of the region’s Native American tribes. We need more of this kind of thinking if future generations are going to feel connected to the idea of natural and historic preservation.
There’s no reason communities of color should write off the wide open western national parks as somehow not for them. Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park has a successful diversity program already exciting young Latinos about the outdoors. The program works in large part thanks to Millie Jimenez, a 25-year-old Latina park ranger from New York City. Younger visitors see her as a big sister – she talks like them, looks like them and can relate to their cultural background and struggles. Beyond offering a friendly face, her leadership has made visiting Grand Teton less intimidating. We need more park rangers like Millie who understand the next generation of park visitors and can show them everything our public lands have to offer.
Every person – regardless of who they are or where they live – should be able to experience and enjoy the great wonders of our public lands. Before we know it, today’s younger generation will take over the responsibility of protecting our public lands. Now is the time not just to welcome them, but to open their eyes.
Disclaimer: We selected this Op-Ed to be published in our opinion section as a contribution to public debate. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of its author(s) and/or the organization(s) they represent and do not reflect the views or the editorial line of Univision Noticias.