On a blue-sky October day in 2012, thousands of people of all colors lined up amid the golden hills and oak trees of California's San Joaquin Valley. They were there for President Obama's dedication of the first national park site honoring a contemporary Latino, the César E. Chávez National Monument, named for the labor advocate and founder of the United Farm Workers. Speaking at the dedication, Obama said, "(This site) joins a long line of national monuments that tell the story of who we are as Americans."
The new monument demonstrates the Park Service's determination to tell the stories of all Americans, not just whites. And it's an acknowledgment that perhaps the park system has to make some changes in order to draw more diverse visitors. That's a subtle but important divergence from the old belief that it's the people themselves who have to change, and that low visitation is due simply to the mistaken idea that minorities lack an interest in the outdoors.
In fact, Hispanic, black and Native people tend to be deterred by more practical factors, including the expense, time and distance involved in traveling to parks. And some may not be aware of what's available, according to a 2011 University of Wyoming study. The study also found that minorities were more than three times as likely as whites to say that parks provide poor service and are not safe places to visit. "They think they're going to get attacked by mountain lions, killed by avalanches, eaten by bears," says Moreno ruefully.
Last spring, the agency released a study of American Latino accomplishments with an eye toward locating possible future national historic sites or landmarks, similar to the Chávez monument. Such sites provide a way to attract new visitors, says Spears. "Will 30 percent of them suddenly become park enthusiasts? No, but maybe 2 or 3 percent will, and then we can talk to them about how great it would be if they protected parks."
Other recently added sites include the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland and Virginia's Fort Monroe National Monument, both of which recognize the history of slavery. "Some of the areas that the Park Service commemorates reflect on difficult periods in our history," says Stanton. "They are not places to wallow in remorse but rather places to strengthen our resolve."
Still, less than 10 percent of park sites commemorate minorities or women. And that includes places like Mesa Verde, which focuses on ancestral Native Americans but has not always done so in a culturally sensitive way. Mesa Verde and several other parks sit on land taken from tribes, but in only a few of those parks, such as Arizona's Canyon de Chelly, do they have a major voice in park management.
But changes have taken place at existing parks, too. Some of them are small, like adding more picnic tables to campsites to better accommodate large Hispanic groups, and translating materials into Spanish. But much bigger advances can be made. "The agency needs to figure out how to appeal to what people need, more deeply than just what kind of facilities (it provides)," says Reynolds. Parks are starting to provide interpretive programming that encourages people to participate and that describes historical events from the perspective of all involved, instead of solely presenting Anglo-centric stories.
Interpreters can emphasize aspects of an existing park's history to make it more interesting to specific visitors. African-American buffalo soldiers of the 9th Cavalry, for instance, guarded Yosemite in the early 1900s. Their history in the park is explained to present-day visitors by black ranger Shelton Johnson. "He's built Yosemite into more than a great scenic wonder," says Spencer. "He's made it emblematic of the black experience."
The parks' diversity problem is compounded by an age problem, however. Annual attendance at national park sites has decreased by about 3 million visits since 2000, and the proportion of 48- to 66-year-old visitors is increasing as the share of 16- to 20-year-olds declines. "We're losing a generation," says Spencer. But parks can appeal to a younger, more urban audience by providing services such as wireless networking and rethinking the traditional visitor center. Many contemporary visitors get basic information off the Internet before they visit and have more in-depth questions ready once they arrive. "Millennials do see value in national parks," says Jarvis, "but they don't want it handed to them boxed up and already baked. They want to have an adventure with their peers and share on social media."
To that end, the Park Service, National Park Foundation and other partner groups are kicking off a major campaign next year. Called "Find Your Park," it's designed to help people, especially youth, become aware of park units in their own communities, not necessarily the big, remote nature parks but the smaller, more conveniently located places – our often-overlooked national lakeshores, parkways, waterways, trails, monuments and historic sites.
Park officials might also consider expanding their vision of how parks are used. The younger generation wants something more thrilling than just hiking and camping: bike races through Colorado National Monument, say, or BASE jumping in Utah's Zion National Park. While parks can't – and shouldn't – try to accommodate all such activities, they might stretch the rules a bit to allow a few, and even market them.
At the same time, attracting new visitors shouldn't involve alienating those who already love the parks as they are. And there are legal considerations, too: The 1916 Organic Act, which established the Park Service, limits drastic changes to parks and how they are used. Each site has something unique to offer, says Neil Mulholland, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation, and parks don't need to create a lot of new activities to draw visitors; mostly, they just need to do a better job of marketing what's available. "Just talk to me about why I should care," says Roberts, discussing the importance of educating potential visitors who aren't familiar with the many benefits of parks. "Show me a picture, show me a video – help me understand what it's all about."