Despite some signs of progress, the impact of recession on public access to the natural world is a reality, and it could get worse. Take California, for instance. In coming months, as many as 70 parks, many of them in or near urban areas will close, according to California State Parks Director Ruth Coleman. This, she says, is the only way to absorb a $33 million parks budget cut over the next two years.
“California has never closed its parks in its history, through two world wars and the Great Depression,” Coleman said two weeks ago, in her keynote speech at the annual C&NN Grassroots Gathering.
Never, until now. During the Great Depression state and national parks were valued not only for the nature they preserved but for the jobs they provided and their positive economic impact on nearby private businesses. That was then, this is now. A different political climate, changing economic realities, and the widening gap between rich and poor could, literally, change the landscape.
In July, the Pew Research Center reported the “median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households. From 2005 to 2009, Hispanic household wealth fell by 66 percent; African American wealth by 53 percent, Asian wealth by 54 percent. During the same period, the median wealth of white households fell by 16 percent.
“These lopsided wealth ratios are the largest since the government began publishing such data a quarter century ago,” according to the authors.
A month after the Pew report was released, the results of a survey by the Wyoming Survey & Analysis Center at the University of Wyoming showed that despite efforts by the National Park Service to engage underserved populations, many blacks and Hispanics remain uninvolved in National Parks. The survey found that non-Hispanic whites comprised 78 percent of park visitors in 2008-2009, compared to Hispanics and African-Americans who accounted for only 9 and 7 percent of visitors, respectively, well below their actual proportions of the U.S. population.
Positive signs do exist, including the uptick in attendance at some national parks in the last year, which is often attributed to the recession. Nearby nature is cheaper than a European vacation. But public support for parks and open spaces, at least as reflected by government budgets, seems stalled or falling.
To turn that trend around, we’ll need more folks in the parks and at the conference table; we’ll need to tap our country’s “natural cultural capacity.”
I introduced that term in “The Nature Principle” to describe the strengths and capacities of how different cultures connect with nature. Cheryl Charles, C&NN’s president and CEO offers a more fulsome definition: “Natural cultural capacity is wisdom that is rooted in connections with the natural world uniquely associated with ethnic and cultural traditions. These traditions might be historic, or created anew in contemporary times; in any case, they are tied to cultural experience.”
Here’s one example. National and state park officials describe, with appreciation, how Hispanic families tend to use parks for family picnics and reunions — social activities now seemingly rare among non-Hispanic whites. Why not encourage that? Some park officials are doing just that.
African Americans also bring their own heritage to the outdoors. “Stereotypes persist that African Americans are physically and spiritually detached from the environment,” writes Dianne D. Glave, an African American, in “Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage.” “This wrongheaded notion is so ingrained in our culture that many of us have begun to believe it ourselves.” The symbolism and meaning of outdoor experiences are often very different from those experienced by other groups, she points out. There’s been some work (including Audubon’s excellent Latino Diversity Initiative) on cultural connections to nature. We need to know more.
Natural cultural capacity can also translate into natural political capacity. “Portland was once a lily-white city. With more Hispanic and Asian immigration, we’re changing rapidly,” says Mike Houck, director of Portland, Oregon’s Urban Greenspaces Institute and a member of the city’s park board. His own efforts to connect with minority communities (“minority” is a increasingly inaccurate word) fell short, until he turned to Spanish speaking residents of the neighborhood. They helped translate a local wildlife guide and a local Spanish-language radio station also helped the cause. At a subsequent rally, 450 Hispanic residents showed up and many became engaged in protection of the Columbia Slough watershed. “It all depends on your approach,” says Houck.
In addition, exit polls showed that California parks and open space bond measures during the last decade were overwhelmingly supported by Latino voters, in far higher proportions than non-Hispanic whites.
Today, the officials of many parks are working hard to promote greater diversity among visitors, rangers and other workers. Another focus is on children and youth, especially from minority communities.
Our experience with C&NN’s Natural Leaders program is that inner city youths can become the most profoundly convincing advocates for outdoor experience – when they get a chance to have that experience.
A 21st Century Youth Conservation Corps, as proposed by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar would help, especially as it connects young people to future jobs. Another way to build a new constituency among all groups is to connect our parks to mental and physical health. “Park prescription” programs that partner pediatricians with state and local park rangers are increasingly popular. “Prescribe parks, not Prozac,” says Coleman, who also hopes to enlist the help of businesses, outdoor recreation groups, and perhaps family nature clubs to keep some of parks now on the chopping block at least partially functional.
In addition, a recent article by The New York Times reports on a growing source of natural cultural capacity within many cities: refugee agriculture.
The article describes one effort, San Diego’s New Roots, which serves 88 growers from 12 countries, including “Congolese women in flowing dresses, Somali Muslims in headscarves, Latino men wearing broad-brimmed hats and Burundian mothers in brightly patterned textiles who walk home balancing boxes of produce on their heads.” This is one of more than 50 community farms dedicated to “an entrepreneurial movement spreading across the country.”
Refugee agriculture is, as described by the Times, a new twist on an old phenomenon:
“American agriculture has historically been forged by newcomers, like the Scandinavians who helped settle the Great Plains; today’s growers are more likely to be rural subsistence farmers from Africa and Asia, resettled in and around cities from New York [to] San Diego.”
We need a deeper understanding of all of these trends, in wilderness areas, urban parks and neighborhoods. C&NN would like to propose a national conference on the economic, social and cultural barriers to nature (all natural environments, not only parks) as well as the opportunities presented by natural cultural capacity. Building on work already done in this field, we’d like to learn how immigrant groups connect with nature. What wealth do they – or could they – bring to the American outdoor experience? What would encourage their use of parks?
Tapping natural cultural capacity won’t immediately bring back lost jobs or reopen parks, but it would help enrich the broader culture and create a new social and political constituency, with high purpose. Our parks, wildlife refuges, and other natural spaces are where Americans from all backgrounds and economic groups come together. They remain, at least for now, our fields of democratic dreams.
Some of this essay was adapted from “The Nature Principle.”
Richard Louv is the author of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. He is Chairman Emeritus of The Children and Nature Network.
Parks and Other Green Environments: Essential Components of a Healthy Human Habitat, a report for the National Recreation and Park Association by Frances E. (Ming) Kuo