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.Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
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.

Aaron Ableman, co-founder of Balance Edutainment, which aims to teach kids about conservation through entertainment, says one way to do that is through the "ubiquitous power of pop culture."

He said kids are even more interested in conservation than adults, especially when it's presented in a way that resonates with them, like through hip hop or YouTube videos.

The key, he said, is that "at the root of it, there needs to be a powerful story."

Rue Mapp, co-founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, an effort to get minority kids into nature, said the park service needs to do a better job of conveying that there are national parks and monuments near many urban areas and that they are affordable.

She cautioned against bundling all Latinos together or all African-Americans in a group. Different communities will respond differently to information, she said, so the parks need to test what works and not assume that a blanket outreach effort will be successful.

The National Park Foundation, the official charity of the national parks, has focused recently on improving access to the parks for Latinos and other minorities. The organization has an American Latino Heritage Fund devoted specifically to making sure the national parks and monuments tell the Latino experience as an integral part of the American story. (Disclosure: Fusion Executive Producer Miguel Ferrer is on the ALHF Board). Last year, for example, the César E. Chávez monument was established to recognize the contributions of the renowned labor leader.

Midy Aponte, executive director of the American Latino Heritage Fund, said her organization tries to educate Latinos through social media and other campaigns that the parks are open to everyone and that Latinos and other minorities have played a critical role in their history. The foundation use things like Twitter and Facebook to combat the myths that the parks are expensive or that memberships are required. They also run a program called Ticket to Ride that offers transportation to the parks.

Aponte said the foundation wants to "educate this audience not only about their history and heritage being reflected in the parks, but also that they're here and 'Let's go enjoy them.'"

'White people aren't going to save the earth," Griffith said. "It's going to take all of us and so all of us have to be engaged. The people right now making the calls need to be reaching out to user groups and kids and making sure they feel welcome."

He added that if there were more of an outcry from the public, he thinks that would already be happening.

"I think it has to happen or our natural parks are going to become obsolete," Griffith said. "If they want to stay in the game, we need to diversify."