A National Park Attitude Adjustment

By Alex Gustafson

Mt. Rainier National Park single vehicle fee: $25.00

Standard day pack starting price: $40.00

Granola Bar: $1.25-$3.50

Preserving the fate of the National Parks: A new persona


Mount Rainier National Park. Photo Courtesy of the National Parks Service/ Sue Russell

The natural spaces throughout our nation are landmarks of pride, beauty and are often emotionally stimulating in many individualized ways. John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Roosevelt and William Clark are a few who found inspiration and delight exploring in solitude among the beauty of the outdoors for long stretches of time. The history of the Parks transitioning from wild to governed space was ripe with its own challenges. Presently, the National Parks are public lands meant to allow each and every person the chance to “explore your America”1. However, a certain pretension surrounds recreating in the National Parks; an ill-fitted idea that our natural treasures may not be for everyone and that the experience is that of individuality. The National Parks must seek to widen their appeal. Inclusion is key, and perhaps a chance to change how we think about recreating.

When I first forged ahead on my journey towards becoming an outdoor enthusiast I was apprehensive. Unsure of the jargon and not certain what the right questions were. We all have to start somewhere and with nature to be my ultimate witness I thought this would be a pretty non-judgmental space. Turns out, this apprehension is shared among those new to getting outside for one reason or another. Mine was feeling vulnerable in my lack of knowledge; others feel that way because few are seen recreating that look like them.

Program at Old Faithful – Yellowstone National Park. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service/Jim Peaco

It is not a groundbreaking fact that most National Park visitors are not among the minority groups that populate the United States. In fact, the National Parks Service (NPS) is well aware of its need to appeal to a wider, more diverse audience. NPR featured Director of the NPS Jon Jarvis in an article discussing this exact issue. He acknowledges that the diversity of the nation does not match those visiting the parks, and in a Call to Action notes increasing diversity is a top priority for the NPS in the coming years. Later, the article goes on to illuminate the deep, unwelcome feeling situated over that National Parks; a solitary experience not resonating with minority groups and a sense of inclusion void from their perceptions. Sangita Chari, head of the Office of Relevancy, Diversity and Inclusion, echoes this same feeling in her National Geographic quote, “For me, it’s more about the culture of the NPS;” she goes on to say the Parks Service “ha[sn’t] become relevant” to a more diverse audience. I think this extends to anyone who has ever felt unable to relate to the culture of the Parks Service or of those who typically visit.

When asked “Why you don’t you visit the national parks more often” the NPS Comprehensive Survey reported:

Reason All White Hisp Afr. Am Asian Am. Indian
I just don’t know much about NPS units 30% 26% 34% 56% 34% 61%

Recreating in wild spaces is not intuitive to many. Reframing the outdoor experience to look more like a group activity may ease some apprehension of how to behave or what to do within a Park. It could also assist with issues of cost or limited resources, of which the survey discovered were the main reasons preventing people from visiting more frequently.

Rocky Ocean Drive Coast – Acadia National Park. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service/Kristi Rugg

Much to my surprise, when I looked at Yosemite National Park, Rainier National Park and Arcadia National Park, they all had numerous group and guided tour options. This is an excellent resource, the Parks Service provides visitors with many options of activities and further information. Organizations such as Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors and H.E.A.T. are leading the way in orchestrating improved opportunities for people of color (Nat Geo).

A trail to oneself is magic, but what makes me happy is seeing many using our public lands. A packed National Park is a success to me. If you are an outdoor recreationist, seasoned or aspiring, I challenge you to find enjoyment on a busy trail. Draw on the energy of knowing that our wild spaces are living up to their public intention. This is America’s greatest idea: A National Park filled with a representative image of our population; welcoming and eager to share.


1.National Park Service slogan