How Inclusive Are the U.S. National Parks?

By Maura Mulholland

For the past week, the Washburn fire has been ravaging through Yosemite National Park in California, the biggest national park in the continental United States. While the fire has been controlled by park officials, at its peak, the iconic, ancient Mariposa Grove of sequoia trees were threatened by the blaze. 

Mariposa Grove rose to the forefront of public consciousness during the environmentalist movement of the mid-twentieth century, when the national parks system expanded dramatically after World War II. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. There are, however, some disturbing patterns involving the accessibility of Yosemite National Park. In 2009, a survey revealed that 88% of visitors to the park were white, while another 11% were Asian or Hispanic. This means that less than 1% of visitors identified as black or Native American. 

The demographics of Yosemite visitors reveals a troubling pattern that developed in the national parks following World War II. During that period, black people were much less likely than whites to visit national parks and other outdoor facilities. This is not usually an intrinsic personal preference, but more a question of historical accessibility.  

“White flight” is the term most often used to describe the phenomenon of affluent white people migrating from inner-city neighborhoods to the suburbs in the mid-twentieth century. As the white population increasingly commuted for work, they purchased cars at much higher rates, which they then used on cross-country vacations. Their city-dwelling black neighbors, by contrast, were more likely to use public transit and less likely to own their own vehicles. This gap in mobility made white families more likely to vacation in places beyond the confines of the city, like national parks, and created and enforced stereotypes that white people were more attuned to the environment and its politics. 

A new generation of people are becoming aware of the struggles of environmentalism, emphasized in recent years by dramatic struggles between climate protestors and authorities across the globe. As that process continues, it is necessary to acknowledge how racial divides have affected access to places of natural wonder, and how those gaps in experience continue to adversely affect underprivileged groups like African Americans.