Alongside the Rio Olympics and a presidential election, 2016 is an important year because it marks the 100th birthday of our national parks.
Our national parks help tell the story of who we are as a nation. Some of these places are memorialized for the human history of the area, while others are preserved for their wild character and natural heritage.
While the history of our national parks is often discussed through figures such as Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir, there are scores of other stories embedded into our nation’s lands that aren’t told enough.
In fact, a 2014 analysis of all our national parks and monuments found that only 112 out of 460 national park units across the country had a “primary purpose” of recognizing the history, culture, or contributions of a traditionally underrepresented community.
Luckily, this deficit has been recognized and things are changing. Several of our new national parks are devoted to telling the full story of this country. These include the Stonewall Inn in New York City that is an important historical site for the LGBT rights movement, the Cesar Chavez National Monument in Southern California that tells the important story of Hispanic migrant laborers, and the Pullman National Monument which describes the history of the “first all African-American union in the country.” .
Colorado’s national parks are doing an excellent job of telling diverse stories. Our analysis of our national park units’ online materials reveals that seven out of the twelve have a primary purpose of telling the stories of underrepresented communities.
Colorado’s twelve national park units tell many different stories. For example, Mesa Verde National Park has incredible artifacts and remnants of Ancestral Puebloan cultures, while Bent’s Fort National Historic Site weaves together the tales of Hispanic settlers, European fur trappers, and Native Americans on the Great Plains.
How can we do this?
There are plenty of excellent ideas that have been under discussion. A national coalition of civil rights, environmental justice, and conservation groups have been pushing to increase the use of national parks by minorities, employment of minorities at parks, and the number of parks and monuments that highlight the role of communities of color in American history. The coalition has also called on President Obama to issue a memorandum to encourage federal land management agencies to reflect the growing diversity of the country.
While these changes represent huge progress towards more discussion of diversity in our national parks, we recognize that this change isn’t going to happen immediately nor without the effort of everyone who enjoys national parks. Colorado is an incredibly diverse place, and this second century of our incredible national parks, should ensure that they are accessible to and honor all people of our nation.