As Americans plan their summer vacations, states around the country are struggling with a persistent challenge: how to attract more Black residents and other visitors of color to their parks.
The racial gap in park visitation is longstanding: Officials estimate that about 3 in 4 visitors to America’s state and national parks are White, well above the population rate of 60%. But since the police murder of George Floyd in 2020 sparked a national reckoning on race, state leaders have intensified their efforts to increase diversity. The coronavirus pandemic has further sharpened the focus on access to state parks, state officials say.
“We all want our user base to be as diverse as possible. It hasn’t been,” said Rodney Franklin, director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Parks Division, in an interview.
Federal officials have made similar efforts. The National Park Service in 2013 opened an Office of Relevancy, Diversity and Inclusion and has developed several African American history sites, including in 2017 the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in New York and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Maryland, where federal and state agencies operate a visitor center together.
In addition to equity and social justice, public health is at stake. Studies suggest millions of Black and Hispanic Americans miss out on the health benefits of being in nature—stress reduction, weight control and physical exercise among them—because they lack access to parks. Those add up to larger health costs.
States have used various strategies to increase diversity, including building new parks in underserved areas and creating panels to recommend ways to encourage people of color to participate in outdoor recreation. State parks give away free park passes, lend camping equipment, teach families how to put up a tent and make a campfire, invite community influencers such as pastors to visit parks, fund groups that organize outdoors trips for diverse groups of visitors and sponsor Black History Month events.
Since 2020, more state park systems have hired diversity and inclusion coordinators and are seeking to recruit more diverse staff and open new parks closer to urban areas to meet demand. And many leaders agree that if visitors see staff at state parks who look like them, they will feel more comfortable.
For example, in Texas, already a state where fewer than half the residents are non-Hispanic White, the parks agency has set up employee affinity groups to explore how to make the workforce more diverse.
Franklin is secretary-treasurer of the National Association of State Park Directors, which in September 2020 sponsored a webinar intended to raise awareness about racial issues.
“People don’t even realize a career in parks is possible because they haven’t been exposed,” said Franklin, who is Black. “My family didn’t take me camping.” Instead, he got interested in the outdoors through scouting.
“I’m here because someone thought enough of me to invite me to become an intern in high school,” he said. In that role, he mowed grass, gave tours and found a career.
Myron Floyd, now dean of the College of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University, co-led the wide-ranging webinar discussion, which asked big-picture questions such as, “How do we get to the point where Black visitors are not an anomaly in state parks?” The session encouraged officials to consider how Black people perceive their parks, how they prepare their visits and how they are treated.
State parks’ focus on low-income people from diverse backgrounds is important, Floyd said in an interview, but he warned against limiting outreach.
“There is ethnic and socioeconomic diversity within the Black and brown community,” he said. “Middle- and upper-class people have the discretionary time and money, and they are doing things.”
Diversity will be on the agenda again at the park directors’ convention in Oregon in September, when Earl Hunter Jr., formerly one of the few Black executives in the RV industry, is scheduled as keynote speaker.
Hunter founded Black Folks Camp Too, a business that educates park officials in how to promote camping for Black people, after he took a three-month RV trip with his son Dillon in 2017. They stayed in 49 campgrounds in 20 states and provinces—and saw exactly one other Black family camping.
“For a lot of Black people, particularly in the South, we were told the woods are not for you,” Hunter said in an interview. “My great-grandmother told us not to go into the woods because of the heinous things that happened there.”
“I educate state parks on why they haven’t seen us,” he said. “We don’t know how to make a campfire. We don’t know what poison ivy looks like. We don’t know what the endangered flower on the trail is. Don’t treat us like we’re ignorant.”
And, he said, if Black campers see Confederate flags all around, “It’s not a welcoming place.”
Close to Home
Some states have begun to pay more attention to where their parks get built and who visits.
California, which has the largest state park system with 279 parks, including 340 miles of coastline and 4,500 miles of trails, estimates 6 in 10 residents live in “park-poor neighborhoods,” with less than 3 acres of park and open space per thousand residents.
“Parks were the perfect antidote” to being inside during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, said California Parks Director Armando Quintero in an interview. “Our parks were overwhelmed.”
California state parks announced grants in December of $548.3 million to revitalize about 100 community parks, largely in underserved areas, and build a new one. The first new state park in 13 years is proposed for the Dos Rios Ranch Preserve, a 2,500-acre property in the San Joaquin Valley.
Michigan, which operates two state parks in downtown Detroit, announced in March a new $30.2 million state park to be built on the site of a former Chevrolet plant a mile from downtown Flint. The riverfront park will be the first state park in Genesee County.
“We want to go where people are and where they can have a healthy, clean and safe experience at a state park close to home,” said Ron Olson, chief of Michigan Parks and Recreation.
Residents who have never ventured outside Detroit can get a taste of Michigan’s great outdoors at the state Department of Natural Resources’ Outdoor Adventure Center on the Detroit riverfront. They can see what it’s like to sit in a kayak, catch a fish, ride a snowmobile and shoot a hunting rifle.
State legislatures considered at least 27 bills over the past two years related to diversity, equity and inclusion in state parks and other outdoor areas, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. At least five states—Colorado, Maryland, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington—enacted laws aimed at reducing barriers to the outdoors.
Maryland began a process to create new parks and expand existing ones. New Mexico transferred administration of its Outdoor Equity Grant program, which was created in 2019 to support outdoor activities for low-income and disadvantaged youth, to the Outdoor Recreation Division of the Economic Development Department.
Oregon established a committee to make recommendations on outdoor recreation policy, including how to increase public access. Washington appropriated $85,000 for a work group to develop recommendations on how to increase participation of Black residents in state parks and other public recreation areas.
Efforts to increase diversity at state parks often focus on youth and disadvantaged families.
“If someone didn’t grow up going outdoors, they’re not going to go outdoors as an adult,” said Lewis Ledford, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors and a former director of North Carolina state parks, in an interview.
To remove cost as an obstacle to park visitation, some states are making annual park passes free.
The California State Park Adventure Pass allows fourth graders and their families free day use of 19 parks for a year. It’s similar to the National Park Service’s Every Kid Outdoors pass for fourth graders.
And the newly revamped California Golden Bear Pass gives free vehicle day-use passes to more than 200 parks and beaches to families with low incomes.
Prospective parkgoers’ limited economic resources, proximity to parks and feeling of security are also potential obstacles to visitation, said Ledford of the park directors association. Someone who has never spent time outdoors might not know how to protect themselves from injury, overexertion or a wild animal, he said.
In South Dakota, physicians can write a prescription for exercise that patients can turn in at a state park for a free day pass. State parks also work with nonprofit groups such as Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors and GirlTrek, all of which sponsor outings.
The Texas Outdoor Family program lends camping equipment to families, teaches them how to use it and guides them on their first camping trip.
Public libraries in Colorado offer free backpacks for check out containing park passes, maps, wildlife brochures and binoculars. Despite Colorado’s many outdoor opportunities, not all youth have access to them, said state Rep. Leslie Herod, a Democrat and fly-fishing enthusiast, in an interview.
She sponsored a new outdoor equity grant program funded by the lottery that will provide $3 million a year to groups that work with disadvantaged youth and their families to have meaningful outdoor experiences.
Another new state law will issue a discounted state park pass to everyone who registers a vehicle in Colorado, unless they opt out.
“Just because we have these programs, though, doesn’t mean every park is welcoming,” Herod said. As a woman of color and queer woman, she said, she at times has felt unsafe in state parks and has heard from constituents who also have felt unsafe.
When Jimmy Warren was growing up in Memphis, his family only felt comfortable visiting T.O. Fuller State Park, about 2 miles from their home. It was the first state park built specifically for, and only for, Black people east of the Mississippi River.
It was built in 1938, a time when Black visitors were barred or excluded from Whites-only parks around the country. But even after Tennessee integrated its state parks in 1962 and the 1964 federal Civil Rights Act prohibited racial discrimination, the Warrens wanted to visit only the formerly segregated park, he recalled.
Warren, now 59, learned to swim in the pool and danced to the jukebox at Shelter 2, and he still marvels at the delicious hamburgers, shakes and malts at the park’s concession stand.
After he retired with 30 years’ service as a Memphis police officer, Warren began a second career four years ago as a park ranger and manager of the 1,200-acre park. Today he makes a point of greeting groups such as, recently, a large birthday party of Hispanic visitors, Indian American athletes playing cricket and Black RV campers.
“What we’re trying to do now is be more diverse,” he said. “We want to be all-inclusive. We welcome everybody with open arms.”