California state parks' blueprint for a more diverse future

Plans to overhaul park system, appeal to communities of color.


From the Anza-Borrego desert to the Big Basin redwoods, California has more than 270 state parks, including beaches, historical sites, lakes and dunes. But the system has long been troubled with funding scandals, threats of closure, and $1.3 billion in deferred maintenance. And like the national park system, as we reported last year in “Parks For All?”, California’s parks suffer from a lack of racial diversity—Latino, Asian, Native and black populations don’t tend to visit or support the parks to nearly the same degree as white residents.

To address all those issues, the Parks Forward independent commission was formed in 2013, and this February, it released a report calling for fundamental changes. Its goals are broad and ambitious: to “expand visitation by younger and more diverse audiences; improve and expand educational and interpretive programs; promote healthy lifestyles; improve protection and restoration of natural and cultural resources; and engage communities and partners.”

Montana de Oro state park
California poppies bloom at Montana de Oro state park. COURTESY FLICKR USER DOCENTJOYCE

To support the Parks Forward recommendations and encourage elected officials to carry out those goals, especially around diversity, a group of experts and community leaders from across California formed the Parks Now coalition. Many of its members represent the minorities that are fast becoming the majority—by 2040 the state’s population will be 52 percent Latino.  

Founding Parks Now member José González, of Latino Outdoors, describes ways to get people of color out and enjoying their state parks: First off, when his group organizes an outing, they tell families it’s their park, not the state’s. “Instead of thinking that people need to be educated, it’s all about engaging people around what they know already,” he adds, describing how one outing included a man who was a landscaper. “Rather than taking the standard naturalist approach,” González says, “I asked him what he saw there, what plants he recognized.” The man told González about many of the shrubs and trees in the park, in the process realizing that “his life experience had value and brings value to a park experience.”

Arthur B. Ripley state park
Joshua Tree forest at Arthur B. Ripley Forest Woodland state park. COURTESY FLICKR USER RENNETT STOWE

One of the biggest obstacles to increasing the diversity of visitors is the location of California’s parks. Many aren’t located near major urban centers and aren’t accessible on public transportation. As the Huffington Post reported: “ ‘African Americans do go out to parks and love nature,’ said (Rue Mapp, the founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, a social community dedicated to reconnecting African Americans with natural spaces and one another through recreational activities). ‘But they just tend to go close to where they live and work.’ Busy, working families don't want to drive three hours simply to go to a park, or to places where there aren't going to be any African Americans, she noted.”

To that end, one of the report’s recommendations is that by 2025, park visitorship should reflect the state’s “ethnic, age and income diversity” and a state park unit providing a “relevant educational, interpretive, spiritual, cultural, familial, community, and recreational experience” should be no more than a half-mile walk away for every urban dweller.

Another issue for parks, both state and national, is engaging young people – millennials make up almost 30 percent of California’s population. “We’re on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter,” says González of his group. “Millennials like to be in parks in a very social way, hanging out with friends, taking selfies. The millennials we engage, some become our ambassadors and volunteers.”

To make parks more appealing to younger audiences, the Parks Forward group created an app called CaliParks. It’s in both Spanish and English, and helps people find nearby parks for specific activities: dog walking, rock climbing, mountain biking, off-highway vehicle riding, picnicking.

As the California parks system begins to carry out the report’s recommendations, Parks Now will be helping to make sure that state officials follow up and take action. “Parks Now is this community voice,” says González. “(Our message is) not just 'parks are cool and we need to save them,' but ‘how does the implementation look if we include new ideas and technology, based on what communities are saying in underrepresented areas like the Central Valley?’ ”

Jodi Peterson is the managing editor of High Country News. Follow her @Peterson_Jodi.

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