Questions Without Answers

One of the things which has struck me as we’ve been touring various United States National Park sites over the last six years is the lack of diversity among Park visitors compared to the American population at large.  I’ve been tempted to write about this before but have always held back afraid of making generalisations or drawing the wrong conclusions.  I’m still a bit unsure of myself but the question keeps coming back every time we visit a new site and it’s been on my mind as I’ve been sorting our summer photos over the past week.  Excluding summer camp and school groups, the overwhelming majority of visitors we’ve seen in six years of trips have been either white American or European tourists.  Race is a tricky issue wherever it comes up.  In fact, we’ve met more minority Park Rangers than minority visitors.  There have been exceptions to this rule–we encountered a black women originally from the Caribbean who had immigrated to the United States with her two daughters at Longfellow’s home, an Indian (-American?) family in the Boston Harbor Islands and a busload of Japanese tourists at the Liberty Bell but I can count such moments on one hand.   The only park experience we’ve had in which more than one family/participant was not Caucasian occurred while taking a tour of Boston African American National Historic site’s Black Freedom Trail–approximately half the participants were non-white a first for us.  Obviously our experiences are our own and represent not even a tiny fraction of part visits yet the fact still troubles me.  Where is the rest of the US population at the other National Park sites?

Geographically speaking, we’ve only visited sites on the East Coast from Virginia through Maine although the parking lots of certain parks felt like a tour of the USA and even Canada via license plates.  In our informal vacation world, Gettysburg and Independence Park tied for the widest geographical spread.  (Independence Hall thanks to a Ranger asking people to tell where they were from before our tour started and Gettysburg via a license plate survey on the way to the Visitor Center.)  I don’t know how visitor statistics change as one heads west or south in the United States (and finding statistics at all on park attendance and race is proving to be difficult).  Do the nature-oriented parks like Yosemite or Yellowstone attract more minority visitors than historic ones?

I have trouble writing off park attendance issues based solely on monetary or transportation issues.  Of the roughly fourteen sites/parks we’ve visited, only four charged nominal admission fees, the rest were free, and six were easily accessible via public transportation.  All of the historic sites and battlefields we’ve visited barring one noted the role of minorities, in particular that of African-Americans, in the history of their sites.  We spent our brief visit at Acadia National Park focused more on the flora and fauna of the park than its history.  Rangers might cover minority issues in other talks but we didn’t come across it on our nature-focused tour.  That said, for me at least, the driving reason to visit a park like Acadia is for the nature, the “wild America” and not the history angle if you will.

Is it a communications issue?  I’ve always used guide books and the nps.gov website when I’m planning a trip.  How does the Park Service communicate to its public?  More questions without answers.  The summer camp and school groups though are perhaps the key to the future.  There is nothing like actually doing something yourself to forge a memory or a desire.  My parents took us to parks and historic spots throughout our childhood.  Anthony’s did the same.  Our school trips showed us new things as well.  I love history; I’m sure that hasn’t hurt.  Exposing children of all backgrounds to the history, nature and monuments of their country is a priceless opportunity.  We encountered children’s day camp groups full of minority children at all of the National Park sites in Boston including the Harbor Islands.  Watching the children on Spectacle Island learn about the Harbor with smiles on their faces was a treat.  Another two groups were assembled for a Ranger talk at the Bunker Hill Monument.  I know bringing history to life is not always easy with kids but I have faith in the Park Rangers.  Perhaps, these children will come back with their families or be encouraged to explore further as they grown older.  There is so much for them and their families to experience.

Note:  A comparison to similar sites in France would be interesting too but perhaps even more difficult to put together.  France doesn’t have an equivalent to the National Park service covering both natural and historic sites.  Historic monuments are owned by both private and public entities and you would need to draw up a list of sites before starting any research.  Here in France, racial statistics are technically illegal and the whole subject is borderline taboo.  That said, the need to attract minorities to historic sites remains.

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One Response to Questions Without Answers

  1. PostMuse says:

    The National Park Service noticed the disparity of minority visitors, too, and there was a program to attract more people from those groups, but I don’t know that it really got off the ground. In the US, the idea of spending government money on something so “frivolous” is anathema in these politically divisive times.

    I remember reading theories that minority families who have vacation travel plans don’t typically think of National Parks because their parents DIDN’T have the luxury of taking children to National Parks and thus the tradition hasn’t been passed down, as it has with white, middle-class families.

    I’ve also read that minorities see the whole Park system as a white man’s “thing,” something that glorifies the excesses of early 20th century white males.

    Whatever the reason, I do feel that we are going to see the National Park System change dramatically in the next 10 years. I predict many Parks will go private. People have become incredibly selfish in the last 10 years and the idea of preserving anything other than hateful speech and status quo of white males is not going to survive.

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