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National Parks in the West Look to Reflect Ethnic History

Posted: Jun 02, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO -- As budget cuts continue to eat into the nation’s parks services, in California a movement is afoot that seeks to create new parks more reflective of the state’s diverse history.

“There is a stronger representation of ethnic history on the eastern half of the country within the National Park Service (NPS),” said Ron Sundergill, Senior Pacific Regional Director of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).

But things are beginning to change on the West Coast.

Five years ago, Congresswoman Hilda Solis along with Senators Barbara Boxer and John McCain supported a bill to do a special resources study of all the different sites in the U.S., for the most part on the West Coast, that could be potential sites for a national park unit focused on Cesar Chavez and the migrant farm worker movement.

According to Sundergill, so far the study has identified five sites, four in California and one in Arizona, that they are recommending be included in a national park unit.

“It’s fairly likely that sometime in the next 5 years those sites would be incorporated into the NPS. There is a possibility that at least one of those sites would be declared a monument by President Obama,” said Sundergill.

Another initiative that could increase the reflection of California’s ethnic history in the parks would be a potential Buffalo Soldiers Trail, going from the Presidio in San Francisco to Los Banos in the Central Valley, and then to Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks.

African American soldiers who enlisted in the U.S. Army following the Civil War, nicknamed the “Buffalo Soldiers,” were some of the nation’s first park rangers in the Sierra Nevada.

The national park unit Sundergill is envisioning would be focused on the Buffalo Soldiers who were stationed at the Presidio, and were the first guardians of the national parks. The soldiers would travel from the Presidio over to Sequoia and Yosemite and would patrol, deal with poachers, create maps, and help to create roads.

Congresswoman Jackie Speier and Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer sponsored a bill to conduct a study regarding the possibility of creating such a park unit, which has passed the House and is currently awaiting action in the Senate.

Another major hole that Sundergill believes should be filled within the national parks is the lack of emphasis on Chinese American history.

“Of the 397 units of the National Park Service, none deal with Chinese American history. Chinese Americans are a big part of the U.S. and there’s a really exciting history that needs to be told. What we’re looking for is a way to at least begin to tell that story,” said Sundergill.

One potential historic figure who could be represented is You Chung Hong, the first person of Chinese ancestry to be admitted to the practice of law in the state of California by examination, and a prominent civil rights lawyer for Chinese Americans.

Another possible option, according to Sundergill, would be a Chinese American trail, running up and down the state of California and following all the significant Chinese American sites including places like Los Angeles’s Chinatown, San Francisco’s Chinatown, and the town of Locke, originally founded by Chinese merchants in 1920.

With budget cuts increasing, some politicians make the argument that we cannot afford new parks, but Sundergill points out that the park service simply is incomplete.

“The park service units we have are great, but there’s a need to tell the complete story and so therefore we have to expand the parks. That means more money, and perhaps a greater percentage of the funding that’s available from the federal government should go to the national parks service,” said Sundergill.

“At this point we’re one tenth of one percent of the federal government, which is miniscule, it’s almost like dust,” he said.

Another added benefit to being more inclusive in terms of who is represented in the national parks is that it could diversify their visitors.

“The percentage of ethnic minority visitors to the national parks is less than their representation in the population. There definitely is a significant lack of visitation by Blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans as well,” said Sundergill.

The NPCA is currently beginning a program in Los Angeles, Roots and Wings, to increase urban youth participation in the parks.

Sundergill described the program as one that, “will deeply involve 32 urban inner city Los Angeles high school kids in their parks. Not just national parks, but local parks and state parks as well.”

There are five different national parks participating in the program and over a 10- month period the youth will have the opportunity to learn about and experience parks. Ultimately two thirds of them will be given the opportunity to have a position during the summer in one of the five participating national parks.

“The whole idea is that we’re getting minority young people into these parks and actually working in these parks, and hopefully they would feel an interest because of this amazing experience they just had, and maybe would prepare themselves for becoming a park service ranger,” said Sundergill.

“The national parks service,” he noted, “needs to reflect the full and complete history of the U.S. as opposed to telling one part of the story.”

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