Since the development of public lands in the United States, Black, Indigenous, and people of color have been excluded from the outdoors in various ways. Through colonization, Indigenous groups were forcefully removed from their lands. Later, National Parks were built informed by the sometimes romanticized views of the wilderness expressed by Henry David Thoreau and campaigned for by President Theodore Roosevelt (“Origin of the National Parks Idea”). These narratives of the outdoors as a place of solitude away from society developed into a privileged understanding of nature. Even though much of the early maintenance and mapping of National Parks would not have been possible without the help of the Buffalo Soldiers and other BIPOC figures, these groups were still excluded from using these public lands. Desegregation of the National Parks did not occur until 1945 and even then there was local pushback against it. KangJae Lee, a researcher on the racial gap in outdoor recreation and professor on race and outdoor leisure, claims that National and State Parks were created and managed strictly as white spaces (Scott and Lee 75). This historical segregation of nonwhites from receiving access to the outdoors fostered what is now known as “the adventure gap” (Asmelash).
Latinos & Outdoor Recreation Findings
Researcher Deborah Chavez finds that throughout southern California, Latinx populations have the same amount of desire as white populations to engage in outdoor recreation, however, a variety of barriers restrict them from doing so (Chavez 74). According to Chavez, the top three recorded barriers include the following.
A major deterrence to using outdoor recreation areas for Latinx groups is the language barrier and lack of Spanish-language brochures, signs, and notes throughout the park. Many Latinx visitors preferred to learn about sites through word of mouth with family and friends. On-site communication is preferred in the form of brochures, road signs, and notes that are site-specific (information for a stream area vs. a picnic site) (Chavez 75).
Chavez’s study also found that discrimination and feeling uncomfortable in the outdoors are some of the strongest barriers felt by Latinx populations. The lack of Latinx representation among park workers only further fuels this barrier.
Of all respondents, 32% reported feeling discriminated against while visiting a national forest (Chavez 76).
3) Site Development
The third barrier highlighted in Chavez’s research, site development, shows that outdoor recreation areas are generally not designed for Latinx recreation and do not consider how the reasoning for recreation might look different across racial groups. Many Latinx respondents showed a preference for larger picnic areas and improved facilities to host day-long picnics for their immediate and extended families. Latinx populations are primarily day-use visitors due to having fewer days off of work and challenges with finding transportation to outdoor recreation areas which influences how they perceive recreation versus whites who have less employment and transportation barriers (Chavez, 75).
Chavez’s findings show that Latinx groups want to participate in outdoor recreation, but face a variety of barriers, many of which are racially motivated, and suggest that the structural development of what outdoor recreation looks like in the United States has been tailored toward white preference. The barrier of site development further proves that outdoor recreation was “designed” for white people, as many areas prioritize overnight camping and trail maintenance over day-use park resources, such as picnic areas and facilities, that Latinx groups are more likely to prefer (Chavez, 75). This claim also supports Lee’s previously discussed research on the development and management of public lands strictly as white spaces for white visitors. General discrimination in outdoor spaces and concerns about safety shows how structural racism extends itself into the outdoors, impacting the representation of both visitors and employees in these space (Scott and Lee 75).
NPS Visitors Report Findings
A study done on the ethnic and racial diversity of visitors and nonvisitors of National Parks shows similar findings to Chavez’s related to safety and discrimination concerns for Latinx populations, as well as Black populations. Published by Northern Arizona University’s Social Research Laboratory in 2003, this study interviewed members of 3,515 households across all seven National Park regions of the United States. This study was initiated by the National Park Service (NPS) to analyze the ethnic and racial makeup of visitors and non-visitors of the National Park System. Major findings show that 32% of respondents had visited a National Park within the past two years. Visitation rates consisted of the following amongst the total respondent for each racial group: 36% of White respondents, 33% of American Indian respondents, 29% of Asian respondents, 27% of Hispanic respondents, 13% of African American respondents, and 11% of Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander respondents. It is important to note that the sample size for each racial group varied drastically with a sample size of 2478 White respondents versus 21 American Indian respondents (Solop et al. 4). This explains why the percentages of visitation rates across groups were seemingly so close.
The study further analyzed reasons for respondents not visiting National Parks, however, this was limited to only White, Hispanic, and African American respondents. Hispanic Americans were concerned about safety more than any other racial group, African Americans believed parks to be uncomfortable places for people like themselves than any other racial group, and both Hispanic and African Americans listed inaccessibility through financial and transportation barriers more than whites (Solop et al. 7).
NPS 2018 Comprehensive Survey
In a more recent survey conducted by the National Park Service, using data from the year 2018, results showed that 77% of visitors identified as white and 23% of visitors identified as Black, Indigenous, or a person of color. While this is still a low percentage, it is important to note the steady increase in the percentage of BIPOC visitors at National Parks since the year 2000. All nonwhite racial categories increased between 2000 and 2018. Hispanics by 3%, Blacks by 2% (with a dip of 1% between the years 2008-2009 and 2018), Asians by 1%, and American Indians by 1% (National Park Service 9). The specific percentages of BIPOC visitors are detailed in comparison to the 2021 U.S. Census in the pie chart to the right, showing that BIPOC make up 40% of the population (U.S. Census), and approximately half are visiting National Parks (National Park Service 10).
Of those classified as non-visitors in this particular study, the number one reason for not visiting parks, regardless of race, is related to travel requirements, either distance or access to transportation, to reach National Parks (National Park Service 12). Besides this general barrier, we can see in the following bar charts the various reasons respondents gave for not attending a National Park, organized by racial group.
This survey’s general consensus shows that Black, Indigenous, and people of color face various accessibility barriers that stop them from visiting National Parks and participating in outdoor recreation. This valuable data can be applied to the National Park Services’ further programming to engage more BIPOC communities in public lands through providing resources such as transportation and fee waivers or discounts. Additionally, something the NPS has conducted in recent years is developing historical sites and parks in more urban regions of the country to accommodate the large populations of outdoor recreationists living in cities, many of whom identify as BIPOC (Root).