"We don't know if it's going to work," said Ranger Charles Taylor. "But it's a stab at making things more relevant."
To Ellen Sachtjen, a seventh-grade teacher at Thomas Edison Middle School in South-Central Los Angeles, parks can be an oasis of calm for children frazzled by city living. Sachtjen leads the school's Sequoia for Youth group, a park-sponsored program that takes children into Sequoia National Park, where they overcome their fear of nature and leave behind their fear of the street violence.
"At first, no one wanted to go," she said. "Now, it's encultured in the school. They go on a night hike, where they experience the night without the sirens and boom boxes and police presence. Those are life-changing experiences for them. I bring them back and the kids say they want to be rangers."
But for many African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos, the parks remain remote places they don't want to visit. In 2000, the park service commissioned a comprehensive survey of attitudes toward parks. While 34% told interviewers they were too busy to visit parks, others reported that they did not feel welcome or safe there.
One example of inadvertent exclusion was at Kings Canyon, where rangers began to notice in recent years that Latino families from the Central Valley visiting for the day complained they could not find enough space at family picnic sites.
The park service had assumed that a family would be able to fit at one picnic table that seated about six people. But the extended Latino families visiting Kings Canyon often numbered 15 to 20 people, a size the park defined as a "group" requiring a permit.
The park adjusted by enlarging the size of some picnic areas, placing tables closer together and doing the same thing at some campgrounds. Kings Canyon now has the only fully bilingual visitor center in the National Park Service.
Cultural insensitivity might be less of an issue if there were more minorities employed in parks. J.T. Reynolds, the superintendent of Death Valley National Park and an African American, said recruiting more diversity in the ranger ranks has been a long-standing but largely failed effort by the park service. Eighty percent of full-time park employees are white, despite minority recruitment efforts.
Wallace Stegner, the late author and essayist on the American West, once called the national park system "the best idea we ever had."
Most Americans seem to believe that it is, at least, a very good idea. Park service employees annually receive the highest favorable ratings of all federal employees. In public opinion polls, including a recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll, respondents have said they were in favor of expanding the national park system and affording it more protection.
Support for parks can also be measured by enthusiastic volunteer efforts. The Sierra Club and other groups continue to organize park cleanup days, and senior citizens and retirees in large numbers donate their time as campground hosts or visitor center docents.
According to the park service, volunteers donated more than 5 million hours to the parks last year, saving the agency more than $90 million.
But despite that goodwill, the tally of visitors paints a worrisome picture. Although a few parks are crowded in summer months, many others are empty year-round. The park service's forecast for next year predicts another drop across the board.
Some members of Congress have offered solutions they say would put parks more in step with what Americans want, including more commercialized activities and businesses. With the backing of industry, some politicians have called for opening more parks to motorized recreation.
James Gramann, a social scientist at Texas A&M University and visiting chief social scientist for the park service, cautioned, "We can't be driven simply by changes in public tastes, because we also have responsibilities to resources that we are mandated to protect."
Critics contend that if park service officials become slaves to recreational fashion, national parks would roar with the sound of jet skis, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, and cellphone towers would rise among redwoods and touch-screen computers would dot wilderness trails.
"When you put technical contrivances in, it replaces nature, and what sets the parks apart is their authenticity," said Bill Tweed, former chief resource ranger at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
"The next generation will challenge the national parks. They might ask, 'Why do we need parks when we can simulate them?' In a rush to make parks relevant, we will end up destroying what makes them unique."
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Fewer national park visitors
Visits to national parks have been declining for several years, and officials at the National Park Service are trying to come up with strategies to woo people back.
Visitors to selected parks, 1995-2005 (in millions)
*--* Sequoia Yellowstone Yosemite Death Valley 1995 0.84 3.13 3.96 1.11 2005 1.00 2.84 3.30 0.80 Percent change +19% -9% -17% -28%
Minorities and the national parks
Some findings from a 2000 survey of American adults:
X Sequoia Yellowstone Yosemite Death Valley
1995 0.84 3.13 3.96 1.11
2005 1.00 2.84 3.30 0.80
Percent change +19%-9%-17%-28%
18% of African Americans said parks were uncomfortable places to be.
24% of Latinos said parks were not safe.
74% of Latinos said they don't visit parks because they are too expensive.
75% of African Americans said they don't visit parks because they don't know much about them.
Source: National Park Service