Skip to main content

The National Park Service in Our Time

View of
Photo by Ironside Photography / Stephen Ironside.

Ansel Adams in Our Time, now open at Crystal Bridges through January 3, 2021, features a section called “Picturing the National Parks,” highlighting the ways Ansel Adams and other photographers contributed to the creation of many of our celebrated (and cherished) national parks, among them Yosemite and Yellowstone. Ken Burns’s 2009 PBS documentary on the national parks hailed them as “America’s Best Idea,” yet these parks suffer from a troubled history that continues to challenge that claim today. In an age of increasing awareness of the importance of diversity and inclusivity in our nation’s cultural institutions, the NPS is not immune to systemic change. Here, we take a moment to look at the national parks in our time to highlight issues related to our current temporary exhibition.

Park Visitation

Let’s start by looking at some statistics provided by the NPS. Of the 419 total parks in the system (which includes 84 million acres in each state and the American territories of Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and Guam), the vast majority tell American stories largely from a white perspective, welcome a majority white audience, and employ predominantly white people as park rangers and staff members. 83 percent of the service’s more than 21,000 employees are white, which is about 20 percent higher than other government agencies (compare this number to the United States Postal Service, which reported 61 percent white employees in 2019). Six percent of the agency is Black, and five percent are Hispanic, and the trend is further reflected throughout its leadership. Park rangers are 85 percent white (with 15 percent persons of color), and guides are 83 percent white (with 17 percent persons of color).

Visitation numbers reflect similar patterns. A 2014 internal report conducted by the NPS comparing park visitation to the 2010 Census data found that while Hispanic people made up 16 percent of the US population, only seven percent attended national parks. In terms of race, 95 percent of park visitors were white, with one percent Black/African American, two percent Asian, and two percent American Indian/Alaskan native. According to the numbers, the National Park Service has a diversity and inclusion problem. So how did this come to be?

Racist Origins

Photos of John Muir, Madison Grant and Gifford Pinchot.
John Muir, Madison Grant and Gifford Pinchot. H.W. Bradley & William Rulofson/Holt-Atherton Library/University of the Pacific/Wikipedia (Muir); Our Vanishing Wild Life/Wikipedia (Grant); Library of Congress/Wikipedia(Pinchot).

When the National Park Service was founded in 1916, racism plagued the United States through the overtly discriminatory Jim Crow laws in the American South and the more subtle, yet equally divisive, racist customs and practices throughout the rest of the country. It was against this backdrop that leading conservationists espoused the importance of protecting many wilderness areas for the white elites–people who had time, money, and freedom of mobility to access and enjoy the parks in leisure time. Author Carolyn Finney explores this issue in depth in her book Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors.

Many influential conservationists, including close allies of Theodore Roosevelt such as Madison Grant and Gifford Pinchot (pictured above), held racist views against Indigenous peoples and African Americans that influenced their ideals for the national parks as being primarily white spaces.

Finney also notes that John Muir, a pioneer of conservation and a key figure in the formation of the national parks (pictured above), expressed clear racist ideas and viewpoints in his writings. As founder of the Sierra Club in 1892, Muir holds a near-mythic status in environmental and conservationist circles, yet even this organization confronted Muir’s racist views in a public statement on their website in July of this year.

These sentiments carried over throughout the twentieth century, as many national parks and beaches remained segregated for decades. This legacy of American racism has led to a continuing diversity problem in park attendance and a lasting challenge in making visitors of color feel welcome and safe in these outdoor spaces.

Sign from the 1930s advertising a “negro area” at segregated national park
A sign from the 1930s advertising a “negro area” at segregated Shenandoah National Park. Courtesy of the National Park Service.

Looking Ahead

The National Park Service understands this troubled history and has been steadily working to improve the diversity of its workforce while also shifting its visitor outreach efforts to communities of color. They continue to add new historical sites and monuments dedicated to African American history and other important cultural heritages. The NPS also recognizes that there is much more to do. Acknowledging this complex and painful history signals an important step toward creating a better understanding of visitor expectations and building stronger relationships with a variety of communities that truly reflect the United States.


Ansel Adams in Our Time is on view at Crystal Bridges now through January 3, 2021.

Exhibition organized by

MFA Boston sponsor logo

Written by Stace Treat, head of interpretation, Crystal Bridges.