A crown jewel in the National Park System, Yosemite National Park has seen its fair share of high profile visitors--including the latest, Oprah Winfrey, who taped her travels with best friend Gayle King to share with America. As millions watched their camping adventure in Yosemite, Oprah and Gayle helped bring to light the fact that people of color remain largely absent from our national parks as both visitors and National Park Service staff.
She left her "comfort zone" and rode a mule, cooked dinner on a campfire, and went fly-fishing in the Merced River. She also met with Yosemite Park Ranger Shelton Johnson, whose initial invitation to Oprah to visit Yosemite asked her to help in "spreading the word that the national parks really are America's best idea, and that this beauty belongs to every American, including African-Americans."
Oprah has done a great service to our national parks by highlighting that even though the National Park System protects all of America's heritage--including sites of significance to ethnic groups--recent surveys show that national park visitors in no way reflect the diverse make up of the U.S. population as a whole. For example, at Yosemite National Park, less than 1 percent of the visitors are African American. And in Florida, only 4 percent of visitors to Everglades National Park are Hispanic or African American--nearby Miami is 54 percent Hispanic and 14 percent African American.
At the National Parks Conservation Association, we have worked for more than a decade to attract new audiences and diverse populations to our national parks, and we are pleased to welcome Oprah and her viewers into the fold. Our parks are the soul of America, telling our diverse stories and teaching valuable lessons about our shared heritage, from the Underground Railroad and Buffalo Soldiers in Yosemite to the San Antonio Missions. Attracting the next generation of park advocates and enthusiasts from all walks of life is an important part of ensuring that our national parks remain relevant in a modern world.
We now have an opportunity to ensure that our national parks remain relevant to a changing America. President Obama recently established the America's Great Outdoors initiative to create a 21st century strategy for reconnecting Americans with their rich natural heritage. National parks provide some of the best means of connecting Americans, young and old, to America's Great Outdoors, and the Administration should improve opportunities to reconnect all Americans with our national treasures.
America's national parks have something for everybody--all races, all interests, and all aptitudes. But much like when your mother advised you "How do you know you don't like something, if you've never tried?" You have to get out there and try. And that is exactly what Oprah did.
So I encourage all Americans to get out there and explore the natural beauty of our national parks. There are nearly 400 national park sites across the country, maybe even in your own backyard. Besides, you never know who you'll run into out there. Maybe even America's number one media mogul, who while she may never choose pop-up trailer accommodations and sea bass cooked over a campfire again--readily admits, she will be back: "Just the beauty of the park. Everything about it is spectacular...being surrounded by the cathedral of stone. Now I want to see all the other national parks."