Cristina García didn’t grow up hiking or camping in her native Mexico, where the kind of robust public parks system that many Americans take for granted doesn’t exist. But once the co-founder of Seattle Latino Hiking spent time in nature, she knew there was no going back indoors.
“When you’re up on the mountain you free yourself from stress, from worries. You even forget you have a ton of bills,” she laughed. “Taking a deep breath, looking at the beautiful scenery, there’s a feeling of accomplishment making it out there.”
Everywhere you look, the face of America is changing, becoming more diverse. Everywhere, it seems, except in state and national parks, where the people you meet are most likely to be white.
That’s a problem for our region’s cultural identity and the public lands that depend on advocates for their preservation. Efforts to increase diversity and inclusion are vital to improve social justice, boost community health and help protect the natural beauty that is at the heart of the Pacific Northwest.
Visitors to state and national parks do not reflect the country’s demographics. Minorities make up about 40% of the U.S. population, yet only 23% of visitors to national parks are people of color, according to the National Park Service. An optional survey by overnight visitors to Washington State Parks finds a similar break down, with only about 20% of respondents identifying as people of color.
A recent survey by the Black Washingtonians Workgroup on Outdoor Recreation found fewer than 1.5% of state parks visitors are Black. That is a shocking number when you consider that more than 4% of Washingtonians are Black.
The reasons for why people of color are underrepresented vary and can include cultural differences, language barriers and lack of information. At its core, though, conscious exclusion was part of the system’s inception, said work group facilitator Reco Bembry.
People such as John Muir, who is credited with launching the conservation movement and creating the national park system, and Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the U.S. Forest Service, openly espoused racist beliefs, he said.
“It was just appalling to see that these beautiful infrastructures that we have here were ultimately not meant or designed for us to enjoy,” Bembry said. “The things that make you feel whole are the things that are not shared with us in a way to make us feel whole.”
Feeling vulnerable and out of place in what has traditionally been a white space was the top barrier for participation, the work group found. Other obstacles are inadequate transportation, entrance fees, cost of equipment and lack of knowledge around outdoor activities.
Fortunately, parks officials are paying attention.
The work group was part of recent efforts by Washington State Parks to identify and remove barriers, spokesperson Amanda McCarthy wrote in an email. Other initiatives include a website redesign to make it easier to use for first-time visitors, revamped signage at select parks, partnerships with groups that support underrepresented communities, and plans to expand the Check Out Washington program, which provides free access to a park pass at local libraries.
“We will continue to listen, learn and integrate changes into our systems to create welcoming spaces for all,” she said.
Officials at the state and federal level also have recognized the need to increase the number of minorities on staff and in leadership roles. In November, the U.S. Senate confirmed Charles Sams III, a citizen of the Northwest Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, to head the National Park Service. Washington State Parks is searching for a new director of diversity, equity and inclusion, who will be tasked with examining agency culture and developing practices that support a diverse workforce.
Freely enjoying the region’s natural beauty is an essential part of being a Washingtonian. That connection to nature will also be essential to the future of public lands and the environment. Parks officials must continue to work to help overcome obstacles that keep Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities from fully participating.
Our state and national parks belong to everyone. It’s about time everyone feels they belong in our state and national parks.
Correction: An earlier version of this editorial misstated the percentage of Black residents living in Washington state. The figure is just over 4%.