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Why do so few minority people visit National Parks? Visitation and the accessibility of “America's Best Idea”

Summary


Geographical access is a limiting factor for minority visits to national parks

Weber and Sultana investigated geographic access as an explanation for lower visitation at national parks by people of color with a focus on equity, the long-term sustainability of national parks, and on public health. They also considered marginality, subculture/ethnicity, cultural assimilation, and discrimination as explanations for low national park visits, but suggested that geography may also play an important role.  To address this issue as the primary purpose of their study, they asked these two questions: “Are national parks accessible to areas where racial and ethnic minorities live?” and “Does park visitation reflect local minority population patterns?”

They theorized that one reason relatively few minorities go to national parks is because relatively few live close to these places.  At the same time, they expected to find that, due to differing experiences of mobility from whites (most people of color are less likely to travel long distances to national parks), minority groups who lived in close proximity to certain parks would be more represented at those places than other minority groups, and the relationship between proximity and visitation would be stronger than for whites. The authors emphasized the importance of these questions for equity, the long-term sustainability of national parks that benefit from support from visitors, and public health that might benefit when people spend more time in nature.

Accessibility was defined in a geographical sense by measuring driving times between 285 national parks and county populations.  The authors looked at different types of national parks (battlefields, wild and scenic rivers, etc.) to determine their general distribution and location in the U.S. They then used data from an annual park survey conducted by the University of Idaho to get information about the racial and ethnic make-up of visitors to 51 parks between 1999 and 2010, and compared these data to the measures of accessibility.

As expected, Weber and Sultana found that parks were most accessible to white populations, with African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, and Native Americans having progressively lower levels of accessibility that varied widely with regional distribution of populations.  Actual visitation differs markedly from accessibility, and the visitation differences between whites and other groups are far greater than for accessibility. Overall, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanics are more likely to visit parks closer to them, a relationship that does not hold for whites, who seem to visit regardless of distance.

Therefore geography does seem to matter.  However, other factors are also important in determining visitation.  For example, African Americans are more likely to visit smaller, newer parks, while Hispanics seem to prefer older, more iconic parks.  Parks with relevant historical themes, like Manzanar National Historic Site, the location of a Japanese WWII internment camp, or Pipestone National Monument, a site that provides stone used by Native Americans for ceremonial pipes, get the highest visitation overall by certain minority groups.

Ultimately, Weber and Sultana praise efforts to bring “parks to the people,” by creating programming and even new parks that are more relevant to minority visitors.  They emphasize that if the national parks are to remain accurate reflections of American values, these efforts must be continued and expanded, bringing in families from across the spectrum.

 

Citation

Weber, J., Sultana, S., (2013). Why do so few minority people visit National Parks? Visitation and the accessibility of “America's Best Idea”. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 103(3), 437-464.

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