COLUMN ONE : Opening Parks to All of America : From Yosemite to the Great Smokies, officials are trying to draw more minorities to areas long seen as the province of affluent whites.

TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

It has been close to 100 years since President Theodore Roosevelt stood beneath the majestic stone archway at the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park and proclaimed the democratic ideal that has become the informal credo of the national park system.

"It is the preservation of the scenery, of the forests, of the wilderness life and wilderness game for the people as a whole, instead of leaving the enjoyment thereof to be confined to the very rich who can control private reserves," Roosevelt declared.

The people have enjoyed, in numbers that annually outstrip the National Park Service's ability to accommodate, look out for or clean up after. But the numbers don't tell the whole story. In Yellowstone and elsewhere in the park system, Roosevelt's vision of democracy does not square with reality.

As the nation's population has grown increasingly diverse, the system's 368 parks, monuments, historic places, seashores, waterways and recreation areas have remained largely the province of middle- to upper-class white people.

African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans each make up a tiny fraction of those who visit the nation's most treasured natural preserves.

"If it weren't for a handful of urban parks, the national park system would be white and elitist," said Gary Machlis, a Park Service sociologist whose office has surveyed 20,000 visitors at 60 parks. Those surveys indicate that nearly 50% of visitors had household incomes of more than $40,000 a year.

Alarmed by the trends, National Park Service Director Roger Kennedy said in a recent interview that the parks must attract a broader slice of the American people or eventually risk losing taxpayer support for their $1.5-billion annual budget.

"The kinds of people who saved the parks in the first place are declining relative to the rest of the population," he said. "That requires us to reach out our hands and make new friends and allies in the fight to continue to take care of the wonderful resources that we are in charge of protecting. The survival of these places depends on our success in building a new constituency."

The issue of ethnic imbalance also has troubling implications for the future. If coming generations of Americans, 50% of whom won't be white by the middle of the next century, are indifferent to the nation's most spectacular outdoor places, what will happen to public support for protecting natural resources? "No diversity. No biodiversity," one Park Service official said.

The imbalance is partly a byproduct of one the parks' great virtues--their remoteness from the clamor of urban life. With minorities and immigrants typically clustered in large cities, only the more affluent are likely to know about the parks, let alone go to them. Moreover, some minorities that do use them express wariness about traveling to remote places through rural America.

Park Service officials shoulder some of the responsibility for the absence of diversity.

"We're victims of our own isolation," Kennedy said. "We need to make stronger connections with school systems. We need to start putting visitor centers in the middle of cities. We can't assume that you already know it's neat to go camping in the Santa Monica Mountains because you have a family camping tradition that Grandpa started."

"What if Grandpa wasn't around? What if he was living somewhere south of Chihuahua?"

Even before ethnicity was an issue, there was an air of exclusivity about the national parks that belied Roosevelt's ideal. The feeling was encouraged from the earliest days, when the railroads built grand hotels in Yellowstone and Glacier parks to entice well-heeled travelers.

"During Yellowstone's first 50 years, it catered largely to the first-class trade," William C. Everhart wrote in a 1983 history of the Park Service. "It was operated in a way to discourage the less favored."

A brash English journalist named Rudyard Kipling captured the spirit when he curled his lip at the prospect of sharing the parks with common folk. Arriving at Yellowstone on July 4, 1889, Kipling stepped into a rowdy mob of holiday visitors and immediately recoiled.

"I'm in Yellowstone park and I wish I were dead," Kipling moaned. "The tourists--may their master die an evil death at the hand of a mad locomotive."

By 1920, Yellowstone was receiving 20,000 visitors annually. Last year, 3 million came. In all, Americans made 270 million visits to national parks in 1993. The grand hotels are still there with room prices of more than $200 in some cases. On the other hand, park entry fees average about $5 and their cabins, motels and campgrounds offer some of the best travel bargains in America.

But if their modern popularity suggests that the parks ultimately did become places for the "people as a whole," as Roosevelt put it, the demographics say something else.

A recent Park Service survey at nine sites found that minorities made up 7% of visitors. (They constitute one-quarter of the nation's population.) The survey looked at several of the most popular parks, including the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee, Grand Teton in Wyoming and Gettysburg in Pennsylvania.

Studies reveal a similar pattern in California. A 1991 review of visitors at Yosemite, conducted by researchers at Texas A & M University, found that more than 80% of visitors were white, less than 6% were Asian American, less than 5% were Latino and less than 3% were African American.

Whites accounted for 95% of the visitors to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in the Los Angeles Basin, according to a 1992 Park Service study.

Ironically, the trends don't hold true for foreign visitors, who arrive in droves, often in the most inhospitable weather. One explanation officials give is that a package tour of parks offers foreign tourists an economical way to see the United States.

Minorities who do visit the parks often express a strong attachment to them.

"I really like the parks," said Margaret Juarez, a Los Angeles doctor of Mexican ancestry. "The people who work in them are special. They are so open and helpful."

But Juarez is apprehensive about traveling to parks outside the Southwest. "I look Indian. When I go to one of the parks in Arizona, I'll stay at a hotel on a Navajo Reservation where I know people are going to think I am one of them. But I haven't gone to any of the parks in Wyoming or Montana, and I guess that has something to do with the feeling of apprehension about going into unknown territory."

Meanwhile, the pressure to lure more Americans is creating a problem for the Park Service just when it is trying to ease overcrowding by reducing traffic and scaling back lodging and concessions.

The Texas A & M study of Yosemite also reported that overcrowding was a main factor cited by Californians of all races who avoid the park.

Moreover, an increase in incidents of violence and occasional racial flare-ups at parks, including Yosemite, have soured some segments of the public on diversity initiatives.

"Bringing more minorities into the parks would probably raise the crime rate," said one letter that is typical of several responses to an article promoting diversity in National Parks, a magazine published by the nonprofit National Parks and Conservation Assn.

The current Park Service administration is not the first to grapple with the issue of diversity. For more than 20 years, the agency has tried to reach out in various ways.

In the early 1970s, it began creating big city parks such as Gateway National Recreation Area in New York City and Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco close to ethnically mixed urban neighborhoods. The Park Service also expanded the number of monuments honoring nonwhite historic figures such as Martin Luther King Jr.

But while the Atlanta monument honoring King has become a magnet for black visitors, long years of segregation still cast a shadow over many parks, especially in the South.

At Florida's Canaveral National Seashore, for example, Supt. Wendell Simpson, an African American, said 95% of visitors are white.

"It's taking longer than anyone thought for the stigma (of segregation) to wear off," he said. "I was hoping my presence here would change things, but after four years I cannot say it's made that much difference."

Outside the South, the cost of getting there has been the main reason minorities haven't traveled to the parks. But poverty is not the barrier it once was. By the beginning of this decade, minorities were traveling almost as much as whites and likely to take longer trips, according to travel industry surveys.

But Norma Pratt, president of a 300-member association of black travel agents, said she has seen virtually no interest among black tourists in the parks.

"I don't think people two generations away from sharecropping are interested in going back to the fields on their vacations," said Pratt, adding, "When people who have been poor a long time suddenly can afford a vacation, they're going to want to spend it on something a little more luxurious than a campground in the middle of nowhere."

Yosemite Ranger Sheldon Johnson, an African American, said he thinks attitudes about vacationing in the wilds would change if people saw some of the country that he has been living in for the past decade.

Johnson has worked at four Western parks and, at times, was the only black employee. The social isolation would get to him, he said, if the outdoor life weren't so appealing.

"I love being up here, and I love teaching other people about the wilderness," said Johnson, who conducts a nightly interpretive program on coyotes.

But he and other minority employees readily agree that there are cultural obstacles to enjoying the parks.

Many minority Americans are urban dwellers susceptible to the same creepy crawly unease felt by any city dweller contemplating a first trip to the woods.

"It's everything from bugs to snakes to dirt to the idea that you may have to travel through rural America, where you might not be made to feel welcome," said Jerry Belson, a black former assistant superintendent at Yosemite who directs Park Service operations in southern Arizona.

Belson knows firsthand what it's like not to feel welcome.

Earlier this year, he asked to be transferred from Yosemite after unpleasant experiences in a neighboring community. His daughters' high school gave the top prize in a Halloween contest to two children in Ku Klux Klan outfits and a third who was in black face with a noose around his neck.

"We made it known we wanted the principal fired," Belson said. "Then my kids started getting harassed and we decided we'd had enough."

But he and other minority Park Service employees make a point of distinguishing between those experiences and the treatment they receive from colleagues.

"Life inside the park is very rewarding," Belson said. "It's like family. It's the reason I can stand in front of people and tell them that despite some of the experiences I've had I would strongly recommend a career in the Park Service."

Still, he believes the Park Service could go a long way toward making minority visitors feel more comfortable simply by hiring more minority employees.

"Park visitors are comfortable with people they can relate to," Belson said. "If you're not going to have people of color working in the parks, you are not going to attract people of color as visitors."

Only seven of Yosemite's 600 permanent employees are black. Twenty-one are Latino and five are Asian American.

Nationwide, the Park Service's professional staff, including rangers, is 87% white, 6% African American, 4% Latino, about 1% Asian American and about 1% Native American.

Park Service officials insist that they are trying to diversify the work force, but point out that low starting salaries--around $14,000 for a ranger--and shabby living conditions at many parks have hampered their efforts.

In the meantime, the Park Service has been looking for new ways to highlight the role of minorities in American history.

Last year, it opened the Manzanar National Monument at the site of a World War II detention camp in Central California. Its purpose is to tell the story of Japanese Americans who were interned there.

Three years ago, it changed the name of Custer Battlefield National Monument in Montana to Little Big Horn Battlefield. This was part of an effort to make Native Americans feel more welcome at a site long identified with the last stand of an army officer engaged in driving them off their ancestral land.

Officials are also evaluating a plan for a monument in southeast Idaho to pay tribute to Shoshone Indiansmassacred by the U.S. Cavalry in 1863. And they contemplate a site that would pay homage to the Underground Railroad, the network of black and white abolitionists who smuggled slaves out of the South.

At established sites, the Park Service is exploring the past with a pointedly populist flavor. With the aid of letters and oral histories, the American experience is being presented from the perspectives of ordinary people.

"It may be interesting for a minority person to go to a site dedicated to a President or a general or a captain of industry," said James Horton, a special assistant to the Park Service director. "But you won't hold their attention long if you don't let them see their own history writ large in these places."

Not everyone is happy with what the Park Service is trying to do. Some critics accuse it of trying to turn the parks into open-air classrooms for anti-white revisionist history. Agency officials insist they are not promoting any particular point of view, but admit they risk alienating people who think that national parks and monuments--unlike universities--should stay away from social commentary.

Bill Gwaltney, superintendent of Booker T. Washington National Monument near Roanoke, Va., acknowledged that some of the exhibits on race have been unsettling to some visitors.

"Some of the teachers who bring their students here found it a little frightening," Gwaltney said. "There are images of the Klan and racial violence, and some of the teachers thought this was pandering to anti-white hatred. We felt it was an important element of the times, the post-Civil War period, that helped to shape Booker T. Washington."

But the warts-and-all approach to history at the parks clearly has its supporters.

Among them is Susan, a Japanese American who recently visited Manzanar and the Pearl Harbor memorial in Hawaii, dedicated to the Arizona, the battleship sunk by the Japanese. Susan, who didn't want her last name used, said she thought it proper that the Park Service chose to honor both.

"It made me sad to go to those places," she said. "But I was also glad that they have chosen to acknowledge what did happen. It's good the government doesn't want to hide things from people."

The Parks

The national park system includes approximately 20 different classifications of parklands, such as national parks, monuments, historic sites and recreation areas.

THE SYSTEM

* Total sites: 368

* Size: 75.2 million acres, 45.6 million acres in national parks

* Attendance: 270 million visits in 1993

FIRST PARK

* Yellowstone National Park

Established: 1872

Size: 2.2 million acres

Location: Idaho, Montana and Wyoming

BIGGEST PARK

* Wrangell/St. Elias National Park

Established: 1980

Size: 8.9 million acres

Location: Alaska

NEWEST PARKS

* Death Valley National Park and Joshua Tree National Park, both upgraded from national monument status under the Desert Protection Act.

Established: Oct. 31, 1994

Size: The act protects more than 7 million acres of desert lands.

Location: California, Nevada

* The Presidio, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Established: Oct. 1, 1994

Size: 1,480 acres

Location: San Francisco

Sources: National Park Service, World Book Encyclopedia

Researched by NONA YATES / Los Angeles Times

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