Why People of Color Don’t Frequent National Parks

By Aura Bogado Jul 13, 2015

The National Park Service turns 100 years old on August 25. Created by Congress, the agency manages 59 sites in 27 states. Nearly 300 million people visited national parks last year, a record number, and the vast majority of them—88 percent—were white. Glenn Nelson, a Seattle-based advocate of diversifying outdoor activities, laments that trend over at The New York Times Sunday Review:

A neighbor, Carla DeRise, has been to Mount Rainier and other parks, and is game to go again. She just can’t get any of her friends to come along. They are worried about unfriendly white people, hungry critters and insects, and unforgiving landscapes, said Ms. DeRise, 51, an African-American. So she mainly hikes alone, albeit with some anxiety. “I don’t have a weapon,” she quipped. “Yet.”

I also live in one of the Rainier neighborhoods, close to where I grew up, the son of a Japanese mother. I met my oldest friend in the Boy Scouts, an African-American from a family that, like mine, frequented the parks. In college, he and I led outings for minority student groups.

There was always nervous banter as we cruised through small rural towns on our way to a park. And there were jokes about finding a “Whites Only” sign at the entrance to our destination or the perils of being lynched or attacked while collecting firewood after the sun went down. Our cultural history taught us what to expect.

Nelson, who describes his immediate family as "a melting pot simmering with Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Latina ingredients,” runs The Trail Posse. You can read Nelson’s full op-ed on the Times’s The Sunday Review (heads up: it’s behind a paywall).

And, if you’re curious to read more about why the outdoors are so white in the U.S., I’d recommend Karl Jacoby’s “Crimes Against Nature.” In it, Jacoby outlines how conservation efforts are essentially a tool of statecraft, which renders varying affects on local populations, regardless of class lines.

As Jacoby explains, a nascent National Park Service created the Grand Canyon National Park in 1919, taking over what the federal government had branded the Grand Cañon Forest Reserve 1893. For the Havasupai people, this meant that their entire reservation was surrounded by national parkland (read: surrounded by white park managers). For the Havasupai, this meant potential conflict with whites for crucial activities for survival, such as deer hunting and firewood-gathering—activities they’d carried out for hundreds of years.  

Compare that to working-class whites in or near Yellowstone (which was first federally reserved in 1872), who were targeted with arrest for illegal poaching. While working-class whites certainly came into conflict with federal land managers, the effect was different than it was for the Havasupai, who faced a more colonial and oppressive system of federal administration.

As Nelson remarks in his op-ed, the National Park Service turns 100 this summer. Are you planning on making a trek out to wilderness? Let us know in the comments.