Can the power of celebrity bring more people of color into the National Parks?
Yosemite Ranger Shelton Johnson thinks so, and now that he’s grabbed the attention of talk show host Oprah Winfrey, momentum is building to invite the rap star Snoop Dogg to go camping. A petition is being circulated in the hopes of enticing the urban music icon into the wild.
“What if he wrote a rap song about his experience here?” Johnson asked in a recent e-mail exchange. “What impact would that have on the younger generation?”
The petition, generated by Change.org, makes the plea to Snoop’s PR firm to consider a high-profile visit to Yosemite or one of the many National Parks around the country. Quoting Johnson’s statement last year to the San Francisco Chronicle, the letter reads: “All Snoop Dogg has to do is go camping in Yosemite and it would change the world.”
Hyperbole notwithstanding, there is some logic to boosting awareness among a segment of the U.S. population that is severely underrepresented among park visitors.
A 2009 survey estimates that less than 1 percent of campers at Yosemite are African-American. If more black celebrities and people of prominence demonstrate the virtues of outdoor recreation, more people of color might adopt it as a lifestyle. (Or at least give it a try.)
Two hours of a recent the Oprah Winfrey Show were devoted to a camping trip the popular television host took to the Valley. On the invitation of Johnson, the only permanent African-American NPS ranger in the park, Oprah and her sidekick Gayle King, both black, spent an evening camping. The outing was broadcast to a national viewing audience of millions. The ensuing media frenzy over the event put National Park diversity in the media spotlight. An editor at Change.org posted the petition in response to Johnson’s assertion that Snoop Dogg might have a similar impact. So far, more than 600 Web users have signed on.
“This is an incredibly important move to engage all Americans from every corner of the continent,” said Aidan Wind, who posted on this blog project's Facebook wall. “What could be more effective and media savvy than using unlikely celebrities to endorse the National Parks?”
But there are those who question the wisdom of using such a controversial figure with a notorious reputation. “We could do much better without ex-drug dealers and gang members,” said John Molendyke another Facebook commentator. “Oprah is fine, but really? Snoop Dogg?”
The rap star is known for drug use. But frankly so are many of the climbers at Camp 4 in Yosemite. With a shared fondness for smoking pot, Snoop would likely be welcome at Valley “safety meetings.”
Johnson points out that Oprah and Snoop Dogg represent the broadest possible spectrum of celebrity. It’s possible that along this continuum of culture individuals in the African American community might find themselves somewhere in between.
“It’s about demographics and hitting their target market,” said Eric Bailles. “In looking at their side of the marketing campaign -- encouraging minorities, inner city children and the like that have never even thought of going to a national park... [to] possibly entertain the idea if the likes of Snoop and Oprah are out enjoying our nation's gems.”
In truth, celebrity endorsement will only go so far to encourage people of color to venture outdoors. At the heart of diversity lies the sincere belief that all National Park visitors will be safe, comfortable, and most of all welcome. Novice campers will always struggle with safety and comfort. But the sense of welcome will likely come from the positive impressions of trusted opinion makers, people they respect and admire whose experiences they may one day emulate.
Regardless of their status, celebrities or common citizens, the more African-Americans that begin to visit our National Parks, the more we will likely see in the future.
James Edward Mills, a freelance journalist and independent media producer, is the host of the blog The Joy Trip Project
Essays in the Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.