The Troubling Disparities Plaguing America’s National Parks

The National Park Service’s 100th birthday is this week.

President Barack Obama speaks at Frank G. Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas, Calif., Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. Obama designated the nearly 350,000 acres within the San Gabriel Mountains northeast of Los Angeles a national monument. CREDIT: AP/EVAN VUCCI
President Barack Obama speaks at Frank G. Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas, Calif., Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. Obama designated the nearly 350,000 acres within the San Gabriel Mountains northeast of Los Angeles a national monument. CREDIT: AP/EVAN VUCCI

A new analysis, released Monday, finds that low income communities and communities of color in the West have, on average, less remaining open space and natural area nearby than the state average.

The environmental justice analysis done by Conservation Science Partners in conjunction with Center for American Progress used GIS analysis of data from the Census Bureau and the Disappearing West, a project that mapped the human footprint in the West. The study finds that nearly 84 percent of communities of color and 80 percent of low income communities in the West live in areas where the amount of natural area is less than the state average, compared with just under 60 percent of non-minority and 61 percent of non-low-income tracts.

This data comes at the beginning of a week celebrating the centennial of the National Parks Service, or NPS. All week, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and other senior Obama administration officials will be traveling the country to promote public lands and commemorate the 100th anniversary.

Their travels will, in part, highlight the importance of increasing diversity and inclusion in the park system. On Tuesday, for example, Secretary Jewell will be in Arkansas to tour Little Rock Central High School National Historical Site and discuss “the importance of preserving a more complete story of America’s history, including the struggle for civil rights,” and on Wednesday she will be in California at César E. Chávez National Monument, designated in 2012 by President Obama, to “recognize the increasingly diverse makeup of American communities,” according to a press release.

A group of group of 27 senators also highlighted this issue in a July letter asking President Obama to issue a Presidential Memorandum to promote diversity at federal land management agencies.

“Americans represent an array of cultures, ethnicities, and traditions. These differences have shaped our nation’s identity and should be reflected within our national parks’ leadership, workforce, and educational outreach,” the senators wrote. “When visiting America’s public lands, our youth — who grow increasingly diverse every year — should feel inspired when seeing someone of their same ethnicity, gender, or cultural background represented in the history of the stories they hear and the people from whom they learn.”

The NPS and other public land management agencies have struggled with engaging a more diverse set of visitors and supporters. A 2009 survey by NPS found that 78 percent of park visitors were white, while only 9 percent were Hispanic, 7 percent were African American, 3 percent were Asian, and 1 percent were American Indian/Alaska Native, well below their representation in the U.S. population. According to NPS records, nearly 80 percent of the agency’s employees are white.

A January 2016 Hart Research Associates poll found similar disparities between those in different economic circumstances. According to the poll, 39 percent of Americans with annual incomes below $40,000 reported visiting a national park in the past three years. However, that number shoots up to 59 percent and 66 percent for those with incomes from $40,000 to $75,000 and over $75,000, respectively.

The analysis released by the Center for American Progress on the distribution of natural areas among communities of color and low-income communities further emphasizes the work that needs to be done to make parks and public lands more inclusive and accessible to all Americans. The CAP report makes three policy recommendations to help address these environmental justice challenges:

1) Create more parks and monuments that tell the history of diverse groups,

2) Increase the opportunities for frontcountry recreation and preserve lands for underserved communities

3) Engage underserved communities in decision about development, conservation, and the expansion of outdoor recreation opportunities

Recent national monuments, like the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, which is just a 90 minute drive from a majority-Latino Los Angeles, seek to increase outdoor access to urban and underserved communities. Local campaigns to designate places like Bears Ears and the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage as national monuments aim to create more sites that more accurately documents the diversity of the people, cultures, and beliefs responsible for shaping American history.