NPS, advocates on mission to undo ‘troubling’ lack of ethnic-minority park visitors

A chance encounter in a Belize bar led Audrey and Frank Peterman to embark on a life-changing cross-country adventure in 1995.

The African-American couple were inspired when a man Frank Peterman met in the bar wanted to know whether old Western movies depicted the Badlands and Grand Canyon accurately.

Despite having grown up in the United States, Frank couldn't tell him.

To change that, the Petermans planned a two-month-long road trip to see those sites and others around the nation. Then they would go forward with their original plan to open a bed-and-breakfast in Belize.

Along the way, though, something unexpected happened: They fell in love -- with national parks.

Two decades later, the Petermans -- who never moved to Belize -- are vocal and well-known parks advocates. One thing in particular has driven their passion: the lack of diversity in visitors to the national parks, a problem that also has long plagued the National Park Service.

The couple noticed the problem partway through their road trip, on their first visit to Yellowstone National Park. "We saw less than a handful of black people, no Hispanics, no Native Americans," Audrey Peterman said. "I thought, 'What is wrong with this picture?' I was really affronted."

The National Park Service doesn't track the race or ethnicity of its more than 275 million annual visitors. But in an effort to better understand who is visiting public lands, the agency has conducted surveys that found Hispanics, Asian-Americans and African-Americans were less likely than whites to have recently visited a national park site or to know much about the park system.

"It's a really interesting issue," said Jim Gramann, a Texas A&M University professor who worked for the Park Service and led the most recent survey that came out in 2011. "If people are not visiting parks because they don't want to ... then that's one thing. But if people aren't going because they don't know about parks, or they don't know what's available, then that's a problem."

The disconnect has long existed. The Park Service, after all, was founded in 1916. But it wasn't until nearly five decades later -- in 1962 -- when a commission created by Congress determined that blacks weren't visiting public lands, that the issue was even identified, Gramann said.

The acknowledgement of the problem coincided with the appointment of George Hartzog as NPS director. During his eight-year tenure at the height of the civil rights movement, one of his main directives focused on getting the American people -- including minorities -- more involved in national parks.


Hartzog, who would go on to be remembered as the greatest leader of the agency after its founders, named the first African-American park superintendent and pushed for the addition of more urban sites to the agency's portfolio. He named the first American Indian superintendent and the first black U.S. Park Police chief. When Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have A Dream Speech" on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, with a Park Service ranger by his side, Hartzog said he felt nothing but pride.

"What higher purpose can a national park serve than to be responsive to the crisis in our society, to the voice of the underprivileged, to the voice of the protester who's objecting to the institutional status quo?" Hartzog said in an interview for "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," a documentary by filmmaker Ken Burns. "It was of the same dimension as the first time I stood on the south rim of the Grand Canyon and looked at that magnificent canyon in front of me. These are everlasting moments that stay with you and influence your life all your life."

Still, change is slow. Thirty years after Hartzog's time as director, Jack Goldsmith wrote that ethnic minorities weren't visiting sites such as Yosemite and Yellowstone. In a story published by the National Parks Conservation Association, he called the imbalance "troubling."

A new vision for NPS

In August 2008, a group of former government officials, scientists, conservationists, educators, historians and businessmen gathered at the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. The National Parks Second Century Commission -- which included retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and future Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who was then president and CEO of outdoor retailer REI -- had been brought together to come up with a vision for the agency.

They met five times over the next year and ultimately released a report that found the agency needed to be more proactive in pursuing relationships with people who weren't visiting parks.

"It's not enough to welcome nontraditional park visitors -- recent immigrants, non-English speakers, single moms with their kids -- when they show up," commissioner and journalist Maria Hinojosa said in the report. "The National Park Service must find ways to invite new publics into the parks."

That idea has transformed into a directive under current NPS Director Jon Jarvis' watch. Confirmed as the agency's head in 2009, he has been at the helm of the Park Service as it took on the American Latino Heritage Theme Study -- an effort to look into the stories, places and people of Latino heritage that are worth preserving. He is now overseeing a similar effort to study Asian-American heritage.

Also under his direction was the creation and release of the "Call To Action" report, which laid out specific actions for the Park Service to undertake as its 100th anniversary approaches (Land Letter, Sept. 8, 2011). Connecting people to parks -- a goal agency officials regularly tout when they come to Capitol Hill -- is one of the plan's main objectives.

Such associations begin with making the Park Service relevant, said David Vela, the agency's director of workforce, relevancy and inclusion. And part of that comes through the inclusion of new sites such as California's Cesar Chavez National Monument and Maryland's Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument, he added. The parks become more interesting and more inviting if people can find something to identify with, he said.

"We're finding ways to tell stories that may not currently be reflected in the historical text," he said.

Vela considers telling such stories part of his job. He first came to Washington, D.C., last year as the director of workforce management. But within months, his role shifted to include relevancy and inclusion.

What may seem like a simple title change is more akin to a paradigm shift for the agency. It isn't enough for the agency to show up at career fairs, Vela said. The agency must make itself pertinent to different communities, whether that's through forming partnerships with groups like the League of United Latin American Citizens to bring young people out to Hoover Dam and the Colorado River or working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to release a book about the involvement of American Indians in the Civil War.

Taking these steps now may inspire people not only to visit more but to work for the agency in the future.

"Our workforce needs to reflect the face of America," Vela said.

Last year, the Census Bureau released projections that found whites would no longer make up the majority of the U.S. population by 2043. Gramann, who led the survey that found minorities were less likely to visit parks, said it was important to pay attention to such demographics. He predicted park visitations would likely remain stable or perhaps even increase as more baby boomers retire.

But it's the generations that come afterward that he's more interested in. If those people -- the Generation Xers and Millennials who will lead the country as the population tips -- have no interest in national parks, then they could adversely affect the sites. Fewer visitors could lead to less funding and eventual disrepair for the agency that already faces a lack of government investment, sequestration-induced budget cuts and an $11.5 billion backlog in maintenance projects.

That's why it's important to reach out to young people now, Gramann said.

Indeed, Park Service Director Jarvis said the next generation is the agency's "principal focus" for outreach.

"Let them know it's exciting, it's fun and it's their story, it's great to share with each other," he said. "And come and visit. It belongs to them."

Getting 'hooked' on parks

Perhaps Ernesto Pepito's story is the kind the Park Service wants to emulate. He grew up in San Francisco's Mission District, a predominantly Latino area. But despite his proximity to NPS sites such as the Presidio and Alcatraz Island, he never visited.

That all changed when, at the age of 13, he joined a Saturday morning conservation program. He went on to spend his high school years leading that same program.

And now, as the 32-year-old associate director of youth leadership at the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, Pepito has turned his passion for teaching young people about environmental issues into a career. At the Crissy Field Center, he manages the Inspiring Young Emerging Leaders program, which is meant to challenge the students, all from diverse backgrounds, to become environmental and social change advocates.

"We should have it easy, but a lot of people have not gotten the chance to explore Yosemite or the Grand Canyon," he said. "Parks for all, forever. That's our message."

Other involvement efforts have sprung up around the country. The Hispanic Access Foundation, a national group, last month launched a campaign to introduce Latinos to national parks. The group wants to show that community how "accessible, secure and enjoyable they can be" (Greenwire, July 11).

And this summer, San Francisco Bay Area resident Teresa Baker created the first African American National Parks event, a grass-roots campaign to get African-Americans into national parks in their own parts of the country.

"Let's show those who say, 'Black folk don't,' that we do," a description of the event read on Facebook.

The hope, Baker said, was that people would visit a park and "get hooked like I have" and "make it a regular occurrence."

Audrey Peterman -- the woman who first fell for parks in 1995 -- visited Washington, D.C., for one of the events to speak to the community at Anacostia Park. Peterman, exhibiting a burst of energy and dressed in a gray suit and red high heels, told the story of how she and Frank learned about the park system. She showed photo after photo of diverse groups visiting parks.

The audience for Peterman's talk and the following panel consisted primarily of park rangers, advocates and empty chairs, perhaps a factor of its weekday afternoon timing.

But Peterman's story inspired at least one woman. Crystal Banks, a Washington, D.C., resident, had stopped by on her break after reading about the event on a neighborhood email list. After listening to Peterman and the panel, Banks raised her hand.

"I'm 53 and I want to go camping again," she told the group. "But it's really hard to find people to go with, and I don't really want to go by myself."

They replied that she should start her own group -- and to ignore the naysayers who would try to talk her out of it. After all, the parks were hers to experience, something Peterman learned when she was on her first cross-country trip years ago.

"Sometimes, people in certain agencies have said, 'It's so hard to reach the people of color,'" Peterman said. "And I'm like, 'Oh, please, get over yourself.' The level of difficulty extends to giving people the information, giving them an invitation and then letting them know what's available.

"Then you see what happens."

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