When Deb Haaland was sworn in as Secretary of the Interior recently, the Native American former congresswoman became the nation’s top official in charge of most federal land. Her responsibilities include the National Park Service (NPS), which is trying to address a lack of diversity. At least 79% of full-time permanent employees are white. African Americans make up just under 7% of the permanent full-time workforce, despite making up 13.4% of the U.S. population. Latinos are also underrepresented, making up 18.5% of the population but only 5.6% of the park system’s permanent full-time employees. Only Native Americans exceed their representation of 1.3% of the general population, making up 2.5% of the full-time permanent workforce.  Not only is the staff of the NPS overwhelmingly white, but so are most of the people who visit the national parks. While 63% of the U.S. population is white, they make up between 88% and 95% of all visitors to U.S. public lands.  FILE – A class of eighth-grade students and their chaperones sit in a meadow at Yosemite National Park, Calif., below Yosemite Falls, May 25, 2017.Visitor numbers dropped last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but natural spaces have emerged as one of the few places people can travel to while respecting social distancing restrictions.  Data collected by the NPS and published in 2018 by the George Wright Society, an organization promoting conservation of parks, indicates that Latinos and Asian Americans each made up less than 5% of visitors to the national park sites surveyed, while less than 2% of visitors were African American.  One National Park employee told VOA that he hopes Haaland will help draw more people of color to the national parks. The employee hopes people who have stayed away in the past will see that the doors to the nation’s crown jewels are “fully opened to the people, by the people and for the people.” Generations of racism Many experts believe that African Americans don’t take full advantage of the country’s national parks because of a history of segregation. For the first few decades of the national parks’ existence, African Americans could not be sure they would be welcome in the parks.  Early ads for the parks were aimed at white audiences. Photos from that time show only white visitors. Shelton Johnson, a U.S. Park Ranger at Yosemite National Park, calls this a “culture of exclusion” and says it has a deep impact on people of color.  FILE – Shelton Johnson, park ranger at Yosemite National Park in California, in costume as a Buffalo Soldier. (Craig Kohlruss, The Fresno Bee/Associated Press)Johnson has made it his mission to tell park visitors the story of the so-called “Buffalo Soldiers,” a group of African American soldiers who policed the park beginning in the late 1800’s. The nickname “Buffalo Soldier” was given to the African American soldiers by Native Americans, who compared the soldiers’ curly hair to the mane of the buffalo that roamed the lands of the park. Using the tale, he teaches visitors that people of color had a place in America’s wilderness from the early days of the park system. In the film, an unnamed woman talks about the mindset that had kept her from visiting Yosemite for many years. She said her family did not have a tradition of visiting national parks — or, in fact, taking much time off for leisure at all. “My mother, she had to work for us to survive,” she said. “To have a vacation, a real vacation? It just wasn’t for us.”  As for any outreach from the National Park Service, she said, there was none. “We were not included,” the woman in the film said. “We had never heard of anything like this.” That situation still exists. Brad Branan, a journalist in Sacramento, California, has been volunteering with the local Sierra Club’s Inner City Outings, a program to help disadvantaged kids get out to experience nature.FILE – A group of extremely happy kids from Sierra Club Outing, emerging from the ocean, at Point Reyes National Seashore, Aug., 2018. (Brad Branan)The trip to Point Reyes National Seashore, a nature preserve administered by the National Park Service, is always a hit. Sometimes a kid from Sacramento, just two hours’ drive from Point Reyes, will be seeing the ocean for the very first time.  “We hike a short trail along some marshland before reaching some dunes that obscure the beach and ocean,” Branan said. “The kids will sometimes be tired from the hike and it doesn’t seem like they’re having a great time … But when we walk over the dunes and see the beach and the crashing waves, they run to the water and really don’t stop playing and smiling until we have to leave a few hours later.” ‘This is your property’ While Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes, the nation’s longest-serving Secretary of the Interior, worked for decades to end segregation in the parks. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1963 that such segregation became illegal. More than a half-century later, the legacy of segregation lingers. FILE – American contralto, Miss Marian Anderson, right, is shown with Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes before a concert on the steps of Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939.Ranger Johnson said the park system lacks an essential element to draw in African Americans, who still feel the pain of exclusion. “A greeting,” he said. “A welcoming. And only someone who had not had that, would see [the lack of] it.”  Johnson, who describes his ancestry as a mix of African American, Native American, and Irish, emphasizes to groups he speaks to that they have a place in the parks system. “I say, ‘This is your property. … You own the Grand Canyon. You own Yellowstone. You own all of these lands and things that are celebrated throughout the world. So go out and check out your property,’” he said. He also invited Oprah Winfrey to visit Yosemite. Traveling with her friend the broadcaster Gayle King, FILE – A rainbow is seen across the Yosemite Valley in front of El Capitan granite rock formation in Yosemite National Park, California, March 29, 2019.Nature heals Much of that love, “starts with a personal and direct appreciation for flora, fauna, sun, soil, water, and wind. All the things that we as human beings have in common,” Mills said.Johnson described a different reason: the intensely personal transformation that can come from an experience in natural spaces.  “There’s an incredible amount of healing that can result” from a person connecting with the natural world, he said. To make his point, he described an encounter with a young African American man who participated in Yosemite’s WildLink program, designed to bring inner-city teens to the park. Johnson said he was guiding a group to Lower Yosemite Falls — one of the park’s most impressive landmarks — when he realized the boy had fallen behind and was transfixed by the view. “He had just stopped,” Johnson said. “He was enthralled, literally, by what he was seeing. … I remember asking, ‘Is everything all right?’ He said, and I quote, ‘Yeah, I’m fine. I just had no idea such beauty existed.’”  Johnson repeated the line, lingering on the words: “I just had no idea such beauty existed.”

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