National Parks for the Whole Nation


I'll admit it. There are some environmental topics I just don't know much about.

For example, I first heard of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir when friends living near Yosemite invited me to visit during my move from Los Angeles to Portland (that January trip was itself my first visit to Yosemite). I saw a sign and took note of the name mainly because I thought it sounded funny. Of course, it's more than amusing alliteration. News about the state of the Hetch Hetchy and a recent vote on the reservoir's future had me wondering: how many people served by the reservoir have actually been to Yosemite, or any other National Park?

Yosemite National Park. Photo courtesy Bill Lascher.

Though I grew up within sight of Channel Islands National Park, I've only set foot on the islands twice. I did, however, often take vacations with my family to the Sierras and attended a summer camp there. During a summer in my college years I spent a summer living just outside Yellowstone and I've since traveled to a number of other national parks.

There's something else that by my very nature I won't be able to fully understand: what it's like to be non-white in America. When it comes to our national parks, I often felt as an adult like I was “catching up” with friends when I visited, partaking in an experience that I thought was normal, but turns out isn't so common for people who don't look like me.

Not only are there issues of racial disparity at national parks, but there are also numerous barriers to park access for low income individuals of any race or ethnicity, and that lack of access extends to state and municipal parks as well. California, for example, lacks adequate access to state parks. “There are few state parks in the areas that need them most,” wrote The City Project in an Aug. 11 post to its City Project Blog.

The Los Angeles area, for example, has 49 percent of the state's population but only 5.5 acres of state parks per thousand residents, compared to the Bay Area's 34.7 acres per thousand residents. Working with a coalition of civic groups, the City Project is urging the California Department of Parks and Recreation to “adopt an equity plan to ensure that the benefits and burdens of state parks and recreation are distributed fairly for all, including underserved communities in park poor and income poor areas of California.”

Channel Islands National Park. Photo courtesy Bill Lascher.

Two years ago, the University of Southern California's Center for Sustainable Cities (Full disclosure: I took a course at the center during my graduate studies) took one well-publicized step to addressing L.A.'s park poverty.

“Parks are infused with all sorts of beliefs about the relationship between the environment and society and between different social groups,” wrote Jason Byrne, a USC student who studied at the center, in a 2007 paper. “Because park spaces are not ideologically neutral, parks can tell us much about the values that underpin certain societies.”

Transitioning from discussions of economic disparity and park access, evidence continues to mount about racial disparities among park visitors and staff, as John Grossman wrote this summer for National Parks magazine. There's even a growing body of scholarly research [PDF] on the topic. Others have seen this disparity first hand. After Audrey and Frank Peterman's kids finished college, the couple took a cross-country trip through 40 states and numerous National Parks and Forests and discovered “they saw less than a handful of Americans of Hispanic, Asian, African or Native American heritage enjoying the Great American outdoors, or working in them.” Since then, they've become advocates for the park system and for access to them.

As eagerly as we might want to repair environmental damages of the past and prevent it in the future, there's clearly a great need to connect more of our population to its surroundings. Doing so means providing access for a larger portion of our population to the unfathomable wonder that still exists in our backyards. Anyone who wants to make a convincing case about the need to prevent environmental degradation will be well-served by working to ensure more people have access to the world we want to protect.

Later this summer I'm planning to visit Washington's Mount Rainier National Park. I'm curious who I'll meet when I'm there, and what I'll learn.

Bill Lascher is a Portland, Oregon-based freelancer. He focuses on the environment's intersection with science, business, culture and policy. 

He got the name for his Web site, Lascher at Large, from the legal column his father penned for 20 years before his death. Lascher is currently working on a project with his grandmother to tell the story of her cousin, Melville Jacoby, a foreign correspondent who died in the early days of World War II.

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