Visitors to Nation’s Parks Need to Represent the New America

New America Media, Vivian Po Posted: Apr 30, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO -- On Earth Day last week, filmmaker Ken Burns launched a six-month national outreach campaign here at Fort Mason to welcome a more diverse visitor population to America’s national parks. Burns said he hopes his recent film, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” will help attract new communities into the country’s parks.

More than 300 park rangers, scholars, documentary filmmakers, and enthusiastic park visitors gathered at the April 22 conference, titled, “Parks for All,” in order to convey one message to the country’s increasingly diverse population: “The national parks belong to everyone.”

According to Nina Roberts, assistant professor in the Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism at San Francisco State University, a comprehensive survey conducted in 2000 showed that 83 percent of park visitors were white, 13 percent were African-American, 11 percent were Latino, 3 percent were Asian, and 1 percent were Pacific Islander and American Indian.

“Ethnic minority visitors continue to be underrepresented in national parks,” said Roberts, who complied the statistics and presented them during the conference. “A typical park visitor will be white, 40 to 60 years old, well educated, with higher income and greater Internet access.” In other words, in addition to ethnic minorities, low-income people and young people are also underrepresented in the visitor population.

Shelton Johnson, an African-American park ranger who has worked at the Yosemite National Park for 15 years, agreed. He said, “Less than 1 percent of the visitors here are African-American and that is because there is no story about the park they can connect with.”

The Untold Stories project, launched with support from the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund four years ago, was designed to expose the unspoken stories from different ethnic communities on the history of national parks. The stories reflect the efforts of different ethnic groups who helped to create and protect the parks.

Part of the project was to produce, screen and distribute Burns’s film, the script for which was written by Dayton Duncan.

This is a streaming MP4 video - you'll need Quicktime 6 or later to view it.

A 45-minute world premiere version of the film was presented during the conference. It explored the complex relationships and roles African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos and Native Americans have with the history of the national parks. For example, the film introduces George Masa, a Japanese American who advocated protection for national parks by photographing magnificent shots of the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee, and Gerard Baker, a Native-American park superintendent whose tribe has been a part of the land from the start.

Duncan sees the film as a way to present history accurately, not just a way to market national parks to different ethnic communities. “As historians, we are interested in telling history in a correct and honest way,” he said.

Burns believes that American society has drawn too many lines to divide people, while the national parks welcome people of different races and ethnicity. He said, “Our national parks are a defining part of who we are as a people.”

Johnson described the national parks as the “open door to the real America.” He said the wilderness of the parks help immigrants build a heartfelt connection to the land, so they feel they belong to it.

In addition to broadcasting the documentary on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in September, other community engagement activities have been planned. They include conducting local screenings, classroom outreach and lesson plans. Educational materials, including the video, will also be distributed to every middle school in the nation.

The 12-hour documentary will be translated into Spanish, while other related short documentaries will be translated into Spanish, Japanese and Lakota.

More information can be found on

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User Comments

Wayne Hare on May 06, 2009 at 08:20:47 said:

Aaarrrrggh...these comments are actually difficult to respond to. First, there is certainly no suggestion that white visitation be decreased. Second, the short story is this: If we as Americans of all creeds could be encouraged to come together and form a society that really and truly is integrated...integrated as in willingly and naturally live, work, and play together...then perhaps we would be a stronger country living closer to our national potential and with less time, energy, and money spent on this seemingly never-ending issue of race. If National Parks are among America\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\'s best idea, but enjoyed almost exclusively by only one segment of our population, instead of a mere knee-jerk reaction to the concept of trying to increase American enjoyment and participation perhaps it would be more useful to dwell for a moment on what keeps minorities away. Do you actually think it is just in their genes? Or could there possibly be a deeper reason that perhaps reflects a glitch that if we could rectify, maybe...just maybe would have a very wide ripple effect and we\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\'d all come out better off. Aaaarrrgh!!!

J Cir on May 01, 2009 at 10:23:59 said:

This is a prime example of political correctness and race-obssession run amok. It's commented in this article that there is no "story" for non-whites to connect with regarding national parks. What the heck does that mean? What story about national parks do Whites connect with, pray tell? Next we'll be told the establishment and maintenance of national parks was and still is inherently racist because mostly Whites frequent the parks. I guess the same can be said about rodeo's, NASCAR, and Octoberfest. Why is when a majority white population engage in something, that activity is considered biased or inappropriately exclusive, but if blacks or Hispanics or Asians engage in things that exclude other ethnic groups, its a source of "community" pride and only insensitive bigots would criticize such gatherings. Perhaps I should complain to my Congressman about there not being enough White people at the last Martin Luther King or Cesar Chavez celebrations.

I can see it now, Affirmative Action-like legislation to promote "equality" at national parks. Which means what...addtional taxes on higher income earners to encourage poor and non-whites to visit places that are already completely available to them?

This is so ridiculous and insulting to me as an American. The constant treament of non-whites as feeble, powerless, oppressed, and disadvantaged is a disservice of untold magnitude to those people bleeding heart liberals suggest they want to help.

Stu Marks on Apr 30, 2009 at 09:29:08 said:

I fail to see what benifit decreasing whites and increasing everyone else could have to anyone. Maybe the people that go to parks do so because they enjoy doing that.




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