Despite population diversity, U.S. park visitors are overwhelmingly white

Although the U.S. population continues to diversify, that trend has not been reflected in the demographics for visitors to U.S. parks. MSNBC reports that on Wednesday, the National Park Service (NPS) released a survey that shows that 78 percent of visitors to America’s national parks between 2008 and 2009 where white non-Hispanic, while Hispanics accounted for nine percent and African-Americans only seven percent. In comparison, the most recent U.S. census revealed that only 64 percent of the population was non-Hispanic white.

Why are people of color staying away from U.S. parks? Rob Lovitt, author of the MSNBC article, suggests fear of the unknown as well as the assumption that the parks are only for adventurous outings, such as hiking and camping. Helping minorities feel welcome once they are in the parks has also been a concern of the NPS.

Trying to make “America’s Best Idea” a concept that all Americans can embrace is the only way that parks will continue to be part of the American experience. Shelton Johnson, an African-American park ranger that was interviewed for the MSNBC story, points out that some of the first men to serve as rangers in America’s parks were the so-called “Buffalo Soldiers,” members of the African-American regiments of the U.S. Army from 1899-1904.

“This puts African-Americans at the very beginning of national park history, yet African-Americans only constitute 1 percent of visitors to the park,” said Johnson. “If you don’t know you have cultural roots in the parks, then you’re not going to feel a sense of ownership in them.”

One way that the NPS is hoping that minorities feel ownership in the parks is by developing programs that introduce minority kids to the wonders of the national parks. Current programs include Wildlink, which introduces inner-city youth from Oakland and Stockton to the parks through five-day wilderness trips to Yosemite, and the Camp Moreno Project, which gives Colorado kids the opportunity to go camping in Rocky Mountain National Park. The hope is that the more visitors the parks can attract the more park supporters there will be, thus ensuring that all 394 national parks will be around for all Americans to enjoy.

Check out the full story on MSNBC.

[flickr image via compass points]