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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 http://www.pbs.org/nationalparks/untold-stories/

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