National Parks Face Bleak Future Without Latinos

PHOTO: US President Barack Obama speaks with Helen F. Chavez at the grave of her husband Cesar Chavez during a tour of a memorial garden at the Chavez National Monument October 8, 2012 in Keene, California.

The Republican Party and the National Park Service have something in common: They want to attract Latinos and they face a bleak future if they can't figure out how to woo this powerful demographic.

Just as the GOP faces a shrinking pool of white males, so too does the park service. There aren't enough of the cookie-cutter families of four who have traditionally visited parks to sustain them long-term.

While that makes some people nervous, it shouldn't. It means there's a huge, largely untapped pool of potential visitors.

But just as Latino voters need to know a Republican president won't tell them to self-deport, Latinos need to know that they're welcome at parks.

ABC/Univision previously detailed some of the reasons minorities are reluctant to travel to parks, and they range from fears about safety to a lack of transportation.

Some of those concerns are difficult to tackle, and looming budget cuts don't help the situation either. But advocates of increasing the diversity of park visitors say there are steps the park service needs to take if they want a future.

John Griffith, a supervisor with California Conservation Corps, an agency that gives young people who might not otherwise have the opportunity a chance to work outdoors, says simply adding more picnic tables at parks would be a good start.

"If you think about a typical white family, there are four people in that family and they need one picnic table," he said. "But when Latin American families come, they often come with grandma, grandpa, aunts and uncles and one table is not enough."

Why not just rent multiple campsites? Park planners might ask that question but if they included Latinos in the planning process, they'd have an answer before it became a problem.

Latino families don't want to be split up into different sites. They want a bunch of tables in one place where they can all be together. It might not sound like a huge drawback, but it contributes to the sense that their preferred style of vacationing is not considered and that is a big issue.

"If you have a Latino and black population, then you should make sure to include those user groups in the planning of parks," Griffith said. "If I was planning a park, I'd want the urban population to have access, so I'd run bus lines, and I would have multiple tables for extended family groups. If you're engaging user groups with the design, I think you have much higher engagement."

Spanish-language trail signs would also help, as would including stories about more than just the white settlers and native populations in park exhibits.

That sounds easy, right? Except it's not really happening.

Griffith says park planners have assumed minorities are not interested in the outdoors so they haven't planned for them. And even though minorities might be interested in going to the parks, the parks don't reflect what they need, so they don't feel welcome.

"There's a negative assumption loop going on," he said, and it needs to be broken to keep the park system vibrant.

One way to do that, Griffith says, is to engage children, especially racial and ethnic minorities who might not get to parks on their own.

"Kids are not engaging, they're not playing outdoors," he said. "No great conservationist has been raised indoors. Those early outdoor experiences are super important. We need our kids, all of our kids, to have a relationship with nature."

And that's not only important, it's vital to the future of the park system.

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