A Yosemite gathering takes on culture, race, socioeconomics in national parks

Minorities, millennials and urbanites are less likely to visit national parks than upwardly mobile, white baby-boomers.


Several miles past the west entrance of Yosemite National Park, a wooden sign marks the location of an historic meeting. On May 17, 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt sat by a campfire with naturalist John Muir to discuss the preservation of America’s wild lands. Along the banks of the Merced River, near the steep granite cliffs of Half Dome and El Capitan, they talked about the creation of what would become the National Park System.

One hundred and twelve years later to the day, an eclectic group of conservation professionals gathered at Yosemite Valley to discuss how to help people of all races and ethnicities feel welcome in those parks. Organized by Muir’s great-great grandson Robert Hanna and National Park advocate Teresa Baker, the Muir Campfire Discussion on Diversity and Relevancy brought together about 30 men and women of many different backgrounds, races and ethnicities to discuss how to make outdoor recreation and environmental conservation more inclusive.

“As two different people as (Muir and Roosevelt) were, Yosemite gave them the place to create solutions and have discussions that would speak to future generations,” Hanna said. “We now find ourselves going back to the exact same place to address head-on the serious issues of our time.”

With 407 National Park units existing today, the original vision of those two men stands as an enduring legacy of environmental protection and stewardship. But as the demographics of the United States shift, it’s time to figure out how to make our national parks relevant to an increasingly urbanized population whose makeup and priorities grow more diverse year after year.

This month a group gathered at Yosemite in California for the Muir Campfire Discussion on Diversity and Relevancy.
James Edward Mills, Joy Trip Project
Although the national park system is egalitarian in principle, there’s a divide between those who spend time in the outdoors and those who don’t. This gap, like most disparities of our modern society, falls squarely along cultural, racial and economic lines. In general, minorities, millennials and urbanites are far less likely to venture outside than upwardly mobile, suburb-dwelling, white baby-boomers. Many stakeholders dedicated to the long term preservation of public land recognize the importance of devising practical solutions to not only increase the diversity of park visitors but also the ranks of park employees and members of conservation groups.

“I believe that those gathered here have the potential to bring those solutions into play,” Baker told the Muir Campfire gathering. “But we need people who will stand up, speak their truth and do the work and not be afraid of what may come if they do.”

Often federal employees and nonprofit board members resist making substantive change at the risk of their careers or upsetting the status quo. But the purpose of this conversation was to come up with new ideas that would challenge long-standing policies and institutional biases that perpetuate the homogenous culture of conservation. The group gathered at Yosemite represented key figures in the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Parks and Recreation. Also in attendance were nonprofits like the Sierra Club, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Center for Diversity and the Environment. And as most of the participants were themselves people of color, they aimed to establish best practices meant to attract and retain underrepresented members of the population to the important work of protecting the environment.

“Our parks strive to be welcoming to all people. Where we struggle is understanding why that might not be happening,” said Sangita Chari, the diversity and inclusion manager of the National Park Service. “I do believe that if we could better understand what the fixes are, that people have the interest and the willingness to do that.”

During a series of discussions that spanned three days, the group recognized the importance of direct outreach to communities of color. Like all government agencies, the NPS is prohibited from preferential hiring on the basis of race. But there are many opportunities to encourage multi-racial interest in the parks, such as highlighting the historic contributions of ethnic groups in park ranger presentations to visitors. 

The conference acknowledged the importance of using inclusive language that takes into consideration cultural differences and varying perceptions of the natural world. With an emphasis on forging relationships between federal agencies and private foundations, the group explored creating clearer pathways to public-lands employment and participation in outdoor activities. One way is to focus outreach and development efforts on historically black universities, community colleges, churches and youth groups such as the Boys & Girls Club of America. Attendees suggested that programs could be established to help qualified applicants navigate the hiring process for jobs in conservation. And educational resources could be made available in schools to guide young people with an interest in outdoor recreation toward a lifelong passion.

Most of all, everyone at the conference agreed that the heart of their efforts must be to change the internal dynamics of each of their organizations to encourage a sense of ownership and security among all those they seek to engage. Increasing the numbers of minority visitors and employees is only a small part of the equation.

“It’s a multi-faceted issue that is rooted in historical, institutionalized systems that have intentionally and unintentionally kept communities, specifically communities of color or other marginalized communities, out of the public spaces,” said Laura Rodriguez, the program officer at the Foundation For Youth Investment and moderator of the event. “So to resolve that is more than just letting folks know that the parks are there. It’s about creating a genuine sense of belonging and a sense of safety, not just by the employees of the parks but also of the surrounding community of visitors.”

James Edward Mills is a freelance journalist and author of the book The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the OutdoorsHomepage image by James Edward Mills / Joy Trip Project, of Ronald V. Griswell with the Children and Nature Network and Michelle Gee with the National Park Service, at the recent events at Yosemite National Park. 

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