Is Nature in the National Parks a White Thing?

tags: National Park Service

Colin Fisher is author of Urban Green: Nature, Recreation, and the Working Class in Industrial Chicago (University of North Carolina Press, 2015). He is an associate professor of history at the University of San Diego. 

As the National Park Service approaches its 100th birthday, it faces an embarrassing demographic problem: even as the United States grows ever more diverse, park visitation remains stubbornly white and affluent.  

Are minorities and working-class people simply uninterested in nature? Is nature a white thing?

History suggests that the whiteness of the national parks has little to do with visitors and almost everything to do with the parks themselves.

Leaving the city and taking a trip to one of the nation’s signature national parks has always taken significant time and money. But in addition to the high cost of a national park visit, many Americans have long found these landscapes culturally alienating.

For most of its hundred-year history, the National Park Service commemorated a white middle-class and often-male pioneer past. In the national parks, Americans of Mexican and Asian descent found no mention of their ancestors’ considerable role in the history of the American West. African-Americans encountered park service Civil War battlefields that celebrated reunion of North and South and erased the history of slavery. European-Americans whose ancestors settled in cities looked in vain for any acknowledgement of the role that Poles, Italians, Jews, or industrial workers played in the making of America. Native-Americans saw white tourists and park employees commemorate frontier conquest on park landscapes often carved out of former Indian homelands. The result was that large numbers of Americans could not make a cultural connection to the landscape.

In stark contrast, America’s city parks have never had trouble attracting a large and diverse audience. Take Chicago for instance. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, hundreds of thousands of new immigrants, working-class people, and African Americans made extensive use of Chicago green spaces: city parks, Lake Michigan beaches, and the wilderness parks of the Cook County Forest Preserve.

Like Anglo Americans, these Chicagoans wanted to escape the industrial city and enjoy leisure-time contact with nature, but they insisted on enjoying nature on their own terms. They challenged Anglo-American park restrictions and demanded space to play ethnic sports, listen to music, drink beer, dance, and picnic. They also used these islands of green to remember distant rural homelands, celebrate their own history, and forge and strengthen ethnic and working-class communities. In so doing, they made profound cultural connections to park landscapes.

Today, a walk through a Chicago city park often provides a window on America’s demographic future. One can see new immigrants from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, members of L.G.B.T. communities, African Americans, and young people enjoying the outdoors. In America’s city parks, nature is hardly the unique passion of the privileged. Ironically, the one group often missing from the landscape is affluent native-born European Americans. 

The National Park Service can solve its diversity problem. To do this, it needs to establish many more urban national parks. When the parks are closer to the people, more people come, including non-traditional visitors. This can be seen at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a system of green spaces around the San Francisco Bay Area that the National Park Service has administered since 1972. Not only does Golden Gate National Recreation Area shelter more endangered, threatened, or rare species than any other park in the continental United States, it is also one of the most popular parks in the entire system.

But simply bringing parks to the people won’t solve the problem of cultural alienation. The Park Service needs to hire more rangers and employees from diverse backgrounds. It also needs to do a better job of interpreting African-, Asian-, Latino-, Native-American, labor, L. G. B. T., immigrant, and women’s history on national park landscapes. In addition, the Park Service needs to work much more closely with underserved communities and even give them a powerful role in co-designing new national parks. Doing so will help ensure that the parks of the future can accommodate alternative and unexpected ways of enjoying nature and that all visitors can establish a cultural connection to the land.

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