"In a soul-searching, head-scratching journey of its own, the agency that manages some of the most awe-inspiring public places is scrambling to rethink and redefine itself to the growing number of Americans who do not use the parks in the way that previous — mostly white — generations did. Only about one in five visitors to a national park site is nonwhite, according to a 2011 University of Wyoming report commissioned by the Park Service, and only about 1 in 10 is Hispanic — a particularly lackluster embrace by the nation’s fastest-growing demographic group.
View of Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park
April 2008[…] But the new effort goes further, to the question of how, and how much, the parks themselves must change to attract a fundamentally different audience. Wireless access, for example — still nonexistent in much of the Park Service universe — could divide older park visitors from minorities and young people, the so-called millennial generation, who want to share the experience live in social media with their peers.'Boomers maybe want to get away, and millennials want to be connected; that changes how you use the space,' said Laura Swapp, REI’s director of diversity and inclusion. Music events could be another potential generational dividing line — peace and quiet versus entertainment — but would also draw the demographic the Park Service is after, Ms. Swapp said."
Although I, too, would like to see more cultural and racial variety on our parks' trails, further developing the parks with WiFi towers and concert venues would be a myopic and ultimately fruitless move. Few areas of the American landscape afford us with the opportunity to "tune in" by tuning out, and the National Park Service should not fundamentally alter its mission in an effort to appeal to younger and more diverse demographics.
Instead, the NPS needs to celebrate the conservation heroes of color -- Majora Carter and Van Jones, for example, as well as the growing number of African American and Latino NPS rangers -- thereby providing role models for today's youth. Most importantly, we need more programs that get urban kids into our parks, encouraging them to recognize that these tracts belong to them. It's possible that their time afield without phone calls, Facebook, and Reddit will stay with them, appreciated, even if they're less than enthusiastic about the mosquito bites.
Photo credit: Christopher Reiger, 2008