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An extended, thorough article on MSN.com raises several provocative questions about the relationships of the national park system and non-white populations. As the country's population diversifies, and with some estimates seeing non-Hispanic whites as a demographic minority by mid-century, visits to the national parks by non-white populations continue to lag far behind.
Why might this be, and why does it matter? Finally, what can or should be done about this?
I strongly encourage study, maybe even (gasp) printing out and keeping, the article. But I'll offer a couple of summary points.
As for why certain populations may not visit the parks, the survey on which the article is based shows a range of answers, topped by a lack of familiarity with the parks and what they have to offer. Face it, for almost anyone, if you don't know anyone who has had a particular experience, and aren't that familiar yourself, you're not all that likely to try it. Especially for recreation activities, lots of people stick to the familiar.
And there's also an issue of how park activities are shown. Do we see pictures of people just hanging out, enjoying time with their friends and family, in places like Yosemite or Grand Teton? Usually the images are of active wilderness sports like hiking or kayaking (preferably with expensive gear playing a prominent role).
Why does this matter? One obvious reason is that as the country diversifies, lawmakers will diversify as well. If there's no personal knowledge or experience of parks and the outdoors, for whatever reason, political support is likely to fade.
Another reason comes from the parks' mission itself. National parks represent the American story, in all of its grandeur, complexity, contestedness. But if someone doesn't see themselves in that story, then the mission, laudable though it may be, fails.
So what is being done? Here in the Twin Cities, along the Upper Mississippi, the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area has teamed with Wilderness Inquiry, the Mississippi River Fund, and the City of Minneapolis school system to develop the Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventure. Nearly 10,000 young people will go on canoe trips in the city, demonstrating that you don't have to go far to have an inclusive, rewarding, outdoor river experience. There's a great video from the 2010 season here.
UWCA is a great start, but it's only a start. What else do you think should be priority efforts to establish better connections between ALL the people of the region and their national park?
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.