Come 2016, the National Park Service will turn 100 years old. In anticipation of the centennial milestone, the agency announced this week a new public engagement campaign to “reintroduce the national parks … to a new generation of Americans.”
This is the federal agency responsible for not just Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, but also the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and Governor’s Island in New York City, which holds the Statue of Liberty. Still, it is having a hell of a time attracting young people to the parks, particularly people of color.
Shelton Johnson, an African American ranger at Yosemite National Park in California, talked about the challenge of getting black youth into the great outdoors in Ken Burns’ 2009 PBS documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. “How do I get them here?” Johnson asked. “How do I let them know about the buffalo soldier history, to let them know that we, too, have a place here? How do I make that bridge, and make it shorter and stronger? Every time I go to work and put the uniform on, I think about them."
Part of the problem is that, despite the mosaic of nationalities of people who’ve frequented the parks, there’s not a lot of people like Johnson putting that uniform on. The staffing at the Park Service has remained perpetually and overbearingly white throughout its century-long history.