Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. I cannot imagine a world without the beauty these spaces offer us.
We have inherited these remarkable places from those who came before us, those who saw the need to honor the history that is represented at public lands like the Statue of Liberty, the battlegrounds of Stones River, and the ancient pueblos at Aztec Ruins.
On the eve of this anniversary, however, the Park Service is confronted with questions of its own relevancy. National park visitors continue to be statistically much older and less diverse than the general population. Earlier this month, the New York Times asked, “Why Are Our Parks So White?” The author, Glenn Nelson, noted, “The National Park Service is the logical leader to blaze a trail to racial diversity in the natural world. … But the agency has so far missed the opportunity.”
I agree that we need more black and brown faces in these spaces. We need to make improvements around accessibility for the disabled, we need to promote more urban and historic parks in diverse communities, and most importantly, we need to find ways to work together on these issues. But how?
Some of the responsibility lies outside of the Park Service. I have spent time researching various park organizations, foundations, and trusts—places that support and fund and advocate for our outdoor spaces. It has become clear to me that most of these organizations do not account for diversity in their budgets and do not think ahead in prioritizing inclusion. Hiring practices have not changed to reflect the need for a diverse workforce; similarly, board recruitment does not reflect the diversity of America. This is unacceptable and a reality that the entire environmental community must work to change.
The Department of the Interior, which manages the National Park Service, must also lead the charge to recruit a broad cross-section of the population to not just visit, but work at and plan improvements for our national parks. Here are three steps the agency can take to improve its diversity.
1. Make the process easier to apply for jobs at agencies such as the National Park Service and the Forest Service. Many people, including employees of these agencies, find the process discouraging. Set up spaces in urban areas—not just the internet—to help walk people through the process of applying, and the government will better reach communities that it is not currently reaching.
2. Advertise in publications and on websites that cater to a more urban, diverse audience. Take out ads in magazines that you find in urban areas—not just mainstream outdoor-oriented publications featuring writers and models who are overwhelmingly white.
3. Take campaigns directly to the audiences you are trying to reach. Get out into communities of color and reach out to the community centers, summer programs, and community outreach programs and share your message with them.
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What about the rest of us? With the centennial just a short way off, I encourage us all to get out and love on these spaces. Every mountaintop that awaits our exploration, every waterfall that is our haven on hot summer days, and every valley that embraces us with its serenity—these public lands and more belong to all of us. The more we are out enjoying them, the deeper the connection we will have with them.
And we must make this connection. The preservation of wild and natural places will only continue if most of our citizens have reason to care about them. It’s up to all of us to do our part to keep America beautiful.
About the author
Teresa Baker Founder of the African American National Park Event
Teresa Baker is founder of the African American National Park Event, which provides communities across the country with opportunities to participate in events that speak to culture, heritage, and lifestyle. Through her work, she helps to change perceptions and behaviors relative to the national parks and foster the next generation of diverse, informed, and loyal park stewards and outdoor enthusiasts.