By Erin Rode
May 11, 2016
Credit : Flickr user Jim Bauer.

America’s National Parks are supposed to serve as an extended backyard for all citizens, expansive and welcoming to all. However, instead of being a beacon of green to all Americans, National Parks visitors are overwhelmingly white.

A new coalition of groups recently called on President Obama to change this trend. Civil rights, environmental justice, and conservation groups alike have asked the president to prioritize inclusion and diversity in America’s national parks and public lands. Leaders of these groups hope that the National Park Service’s Centennial will serve as a starting point for this movement.

“The president should use the [National Park Service] Centennial to call for a more inclusive approach to conservation of our public lands that reflects the faces of our country; respects different cultures and takes responsibility for actively engaging all people,” said Mark Masaoka, Policy Director of the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council, in a statement.

The coalition boasts over 30 groups, including the Hispanic Access Foundation, Outdoor Afro, Green Latinos, and the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council. These groups produced a petition, which calls on Obama to issue an Executive Order which combats lacking diversity in America’s national parks.

According to a recent Park Service survey, only 22 percent of NPS visitors identify as non-white. A separate 2015 study by the Outdoor Foundation found that 73 percent of Americans who participated in outdoor activities are white. In addition to low representation of minority groups in terms of visitation, historically underrepresented groups also are not featured within National Parks. A 2014 analysis by the Center for American Progress found that less than a quarter of all parks and monuments primarily focused on communities of color, women, or other historically underrepresented groups.

The coalition announced its recommendations to address these issues at a joint press conference last week, which included House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA).

“Many families … don’t see their culture, their history, reflected and presented in their public parks and public lands. We need to leverage the centennial into something beyond a celebration. We need to leverage it into the next 100 years to be a legacy of inclusion, diversity, and representative of the mosaic that makes this country great,” said Rep. Grijalva at the press conference.

The coalition provided several recommendations for increasing the connection between underrepresented groups and protected lands. These included more diverse hiring practices within the National Park system, free recreation passes to members of federally recognized tribes, and increased funding to the Historic Preservation. The coalition recommended that this funding be used to increase diversity in parks.

Increasing diversity within parks’ focus, and within visitation demographics, ensures that the next generation feels a strong connection to America’s public lands. And with the Census Bureau prediction that the U.S. will have no racial or ethnic majority by 2044, it also is in the NPS’s best interest to remain relevant to this rapidly changing demographic.

“The face of America is rapidly changing; yet our public lands do not reflect this demographic and ethnic diversity. We have a moral responsibility to fix this disconnect now,” said Carolyn Finney, author of Black Faces, White Spaces, and a coalition participant.

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