Attracting minorities to national parks

As nation becomes more diverse, park service tries to bring blacks andHispanics to Old Faithful and El Capitan.

Part of Laura Loomis's job is to sit in her Washington office and ponder the future of America's national parks. Inevitably, her musings always lead her back to one vital question.

Will 21st-century Congresses, filled with constituents who are increasingly urban and non-Caucasian, look upon national parks as essential investments or antiquated relics?

Within the next three decades, demographers say, white Americans raised on the idea of spending summer vacations in national parks will give way to a new majority of Asians, Hispanics, and African-Americans. This emerging plurality may not possess the same affinity for exploring crown-jewel nature preserves like the Grand Canyon or historical sites that largely celebrate the feats of white males.

True, these changes are far off, but many analysts such as Ms. Loomis say the National Park Service must begin the process of including minorities in America's national heritage or risk becoming irrelevant to future generations.

"We in this country have an obligation to make everyone feel that parks and cultural landmarks are part of their birthright," Loomis says. "Some regions of the country, like California, have been ahead of the curve, but in other places, progress in promoting cultural diversity has been slow."

Building a constituency for parks among urban dwellers who have no such tradition is the greatest challenge facing the Park Service, says Robert Stanton, the agency's first African-American director, appointed by President Clinton. Mr. Stanton plans to focus on three priorities:

*Adding more parks and cultural sites to reflect a wider range of ethnic interests.

*Expanding diversity in the work force. The Park Service has been accused of being "lily white" and for years was slow to integrate. The agency has set a goal of increasing the number of minority jobs on its payroll. It also has established cooperative arrangements, such as recruiting native American guides on Indian reservations.

*Increasing visitor diversity by making overtures to urban inhabitants and reaffirming their opportunity to be stakeholders in shaping the national-park system.

These objectives have met with mixed success. Loomis of the National Parks and Conservation Association praises the Park Service for setting up new sites that appeal to various ethnic groups. The Golden Spike National Historic Site, for instance, marks the role of Chinese immigrants in completing the transcontinental railroad.

Other examples are less heartening. A survey of Yellowstone visitors in 1997 showed 90 percent were white, 4.1 percent were of Asian descent, 1.5 percent were African-American, and 1 percent were Hispanic. The makeup of its 3 million tourists is indicative of most large parks.

Former Park Service director Roger Kennedy says the objective should not be to persuade minorities to take cross-country road trips to Yellowstone, but rather to give them a chance to experience parks near their homes. "We've been worrying too much about how we can make destination parks more attractive," he says. "That's important, but the only way to build constituencies is by providing accessible, affordable experiences in parks near urban areas."

Many others involved with America's outdoors agree. "The majority of new immigrants and minority groups live in cities - along with 80 percent of Americans - which is opposite of the demography ... 50 years ago," says Chris Wood, a senior strategist with the US Forest Service. "Urban dwellers have a very different set of conservation values than the generation of Americans which preceded them, who grew up on farms, hunted, fished, and hiked as a way of life."

The Forest Service, like the Park Service, is trying to reach out by sending rangers into elementary schools and sponsoring field trips into the country for inner-city kids.

This process of connecting to minorities culturally is key, many analysts say. "That's the interesting thing, the notion that public lands and protected areas have been the domain of middle-class whites," says Roger Rivera, founder of the National Hispanic Environmental Council in Alexandria, Va. "It has more to do with culture than economics. There are many middle-class Hispanics, blacks, and Asians who have the money to travel to parks, but they don't do it."

Audrey Peterman, an African-American from south Florida who publishes a newsletter about national parks for black subscribers, says African-Americans still do not view national parks as touchstones that represent their own heritage.

Still, setting aside a place that celebrates a particular culture isn't always enough. A case in point is the birthplace, church, and grave of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which draws many whites and far fewer African-Americans.

Mr. Rivera says communication is what is lacking. "The welcome mat is not out," he says. "The caretakers of our national treasures say they are not keeping minorities out, but they have not initiated proactive efforts in the communities to tell people these places are yours, you own them, too."

There is no mandate for citizens to fall in love with parks and history, he adds. "We need to inculcate in our urban neighborhoods a sense of the grandeur and splendor that is America. When you talk about the crown jewels and cultural landmarks, there isn't any American, regardless of background, who upon seeing them for the first time, isn't overwhelmed. The challenge is getting them there."

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