Our national parks got a huge boost 99 years ago this week. The Mather Mountain Party gave some of the most influential Americans a hard-sell on one of America’s “best ideas.” (Yes, Ken Burns fans, I said “one of.” Establishing a democratic republic and abolishing slavery were pretty good ideas, too.)
The party’s weeklong trek through Sequoia National Park was a revelation to the assembled power-brokers, including National Geographic Society President Gilbert H. Grosvenor. (He took the photo below.) It convinced the group to actively pursue uniting all the nation’s national parks under one agency—what would ultimately become the National Park Service. Read more about the Mather Mountain Party here—it’s a great story.
The Mather Mountain Party had a pretty exclusive guest list. Who was there?
- Stephen Mather was there—he was the millionaire businessman who became the first director of the National Park Service.
- Ernest O. McCormick was there—he was the millionaire vice-president of the Southern Pacific Railroad.
- Henry Fairfield Osborn was there—he was the long-serving president of the American Museum of Natural History.
- Lots of journalists, scientists, politicians, businessmen.
Who wasn’t there?
No women. No working-class people. One person of color. (Ty Sing, the cook who prepared the luxurious meals on which the campers dined, was Chinese.)
People of color are still radically underrepresented as both employees and visitors to our national parks. According to the 2013 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, which reports the “Best Places to Work”, the National Park Service ranked 258th out of 300 federal agencies in terms of support for diversity. (Top of the list? NASA.)
According to a terrific Grist article from earlier this year, “Last year’s third quarter statistics show a roughly 82 percent white workforce [at the National Park Service], with black workers making up just above 6 percent of the staff. For Latino Americans, it’s less than 5 percent; Native American, less than 3 percent.”
According to a comprehensive, fascinating 2009 report, “Racial and Ethnic Diversity of National Park System Visitors and Non-Visitors,” (get excited!) in 2008-2009, 78% of all visitors to national parks were white. Only 9% were Latinos (any race), 7% African American, 3% Asian, and 1% Native American.
There are deep historic roots for this ambivalence. “For many Americans,” the report says, “the national parks represent both a sense of place (what America was before European settlement) and a marker of identity (a rugged and untamed character). However, because different groups of people arrived on the North American continent at various times and under different conditions, the lands set aside as units of the National Park System may not have the same subjective meaning for all racial and ethnic groups in America.”
For example, the establishment of Yosemite National Park actually included the forced relocation of the Ahwahnechee. Mather himself didn’t invite any Mono, people native to the region that became Sequoia National Park, to his party. Native Californians might have a different view of the parks than visitors who were not so personally affected by the parks’ creation.
“Historically,” the report continues, “to be viewed as non-white in America has had large implications for access to society’s important institutions, including government (and national parks).” This understatement—“implications for access to society’s important institutions”, like, you know, voting—may contribute to why people of color are less enthusiastic about visiting and interacting with government institutions like our national parks.
The key to the Mountain Mather Party’s success was that Mather’s carefully crafted the experience. He allowed his guests to interact with a national park on their own terms—bathing in the river, but dining on white linen tablecloths. Mather was canny enough to let his guests enjoy the space as they wanted. And it worked. This could be the key to engaging all Americans—regardless of class, national origin, or native language—with our national parks.
The National Park Service has a great, three-pronged approach to how to extend this appeal to all Americans—to make Mather’s party inclusive instead of exclusive.
Raise awareness—there are great opportunities for people of color in our national parks. American Latino Expedition, for example, “is a public education and awareness campaign designed to connect YOU to America’s national parks and bring the national parks to American Latino and multicultural communities everywhere.”
Turning awareness into visits—greater community involvement in all parks may increase the number of people of color visiting the sites. “For example,” the report says, “although it is relevant to interpret the significance of slavery at Civil War battlefield sites, it is equally relevant to interpret stories of African American success, in addition to African American enslavement.” The New York Times has a fantastic article about a ranger, for example, whose family tradition goes back to when his ancestors were slaves on the land through which he now guides visitors—Mammoth Cave National Park.
Welcoming visitors—this might include providing information in Spanish, Mandarin, or another language. It might include seeking out and employing people of color as rangers and other park personnel. This Facebook page supports “a day when African Americans across the country will congregate in one of their local National Parks,” focusing on the legacy of Buffalo Soldiers.
The Mather Mountain Party is not a throwback—it was a great first step in making our public parks truly national. It’s up to us to keep stepping, and join the party!