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College of Health Researcher Examines Black American Representation in Nature

Ensuring Parks Are For All People

Sarah Shebek

Parks are for the people, but are they really for all people?

In 2018, less than one percent of National Park visitors were African American, while White individuals made up roughly 90 percent of park visitors.

As a result, researchers and practitioners have favored terms like Black under-participation or under-representation in nature tourism. But that’s disingenuous, according to KangJae “Jerry” Lee, PhD, assistant professor of parks, recreation & tourism in the College of Health at the University of Utah. 

In his recent publication in Tourism Geographies, “The myth of African American under-representation in nature tourism,” Lee pointed out that there is no scientific and objective standard to distinguish “over” or “under” participation in outdoor recreation management.

“The standard for ‘under-representation’ has always been White Americans’ outdoor recreation participation rates, meaning that African Americans don’t participate in outdoor recreation as much as Whites,” he said. “Using the term ‘under’ is a subtle way of saying that Whites are the standard or benchmark of everything. For instance, most of us never state that Whites are overrepresented in outdoor recreation.”

Arches National Park
Arches National Park

But more problematically, according to Lee, using the term “under-representation” erases Black Americans’ deep historical relationship with nature. Most African slaves brought to North America were experienced farmers from agrarian societies, and Black cowboys contributed to the development of the American West. 

And while John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt are idolized for their contributions to the national park system, Black Americans also made huge strides for outdoor recreation. For example, U.S. Army Buffalo Soldiers served as some of the first park rangers, patrolling Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks in the late 1800s.

In 1866, Congress established six all-black regiments to help rebuild the country after the Civil War and to fight on the frontier during the Plains Wars. The nickname Buffalo Soldier came from American Plains Indians. In the parks, the soldiers constructed trails, roads and other infrastructure, fought wildfires and protected wildlife from poaching. 

During the Great Depression, more than 200,000 African Americans served in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a work relief program that designed, built and renovated both national and state parks in multiple states. 

The history of the park system also created an exclusionary experience for Black Americans. Until the 1940s, many national parks were off-limits to African Americans or had segregated facilities due to Jim Crow laws. In the 1950s, nine different Southern states had 180 state parks for White Americans, but only 12 were available for African American visitation. 

“Let’s say my great-grandparents couldn’t visit parks or participate in outdoor recreation,” Lee said. “This pattern gets reproduced across generations, while White individuals are accustomed to outdoor recreation and are more likely to pass down this lifestyle to the next generation.”

Lee also notes a need to investigate the authentic experiences that African Americans and other people of color have in nature, which might look different from the White European experience that celebrates independence and individualism. 

“I would argue that our idea of outdoor recreation needs to be reconsidered and questioned,” he said. “The dominant narrative is that outdoor recreation is heavily based on individualistic exploration or escapism, like conquering a mountain and solo or small group expedition. That doesn’t always resonate with other groups, who prefer to spend time in nature in a more collectivistic manner—family camping and social gatherings in a local park, for example.”

Head Shot of Dr. Jerry Lee
KangJae “Jerry” Lee, PhD, Assistant Professor of Parks, Recreation & Tourism

Although today the National Park Service is “committed to lead change and work against racism” and work to promote racial and ethnic diversity, there’s still work to be done to make parks more inclusive. One solution is to recruit more Black environmental leaders. 

“If you’re African American, you go to parks and see Black rangers, you feel more connected and comfortable in that place,” Lee said. “If you’re in an environment where people don’t look like you, it’s a natural instinct to feel discomfort.”

Black environmental leaders are critical in terms of resource allocation and decision-making, which demonstrates a long-term commitment to diversity and inclusion. Their work honors a legacy of stewardship and a culture rooted in nature. 

“We need to better highlight the history of African Americans and people of color,” Lee said. “They have made significant contributions to lay the foundations of this country and protect its great outdoors.”