Yosemite seeks a more diverse visitor base
Their Yosemite Valley tour was nearing its end, and the church ladies and gents from South Los Angeles had heard enough. Almost.
“He’s been telling us stories he thinks we want to hear for two hours,” said Ann Hale, 70, heaving a sigh of frustration from the back of the tram.
In fact, guide William Fontana had been regaling his listeners — most of them white — with stories about John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, about fur trappers and rock climbers.
“We’re still waiting for at least a few words about Yosemite’s African American Buffalo Soldiers,” Hale grumbled to a fellow passenger.
After filing off the tram, some women from Grace United Methodist Church surrounded Fontana on the sidewalk outside the Yosemite Lodge.
“Questions, ladies?” he asked.
“Yes,” Hale said. “We want to know why you left out Yosemite’s African American story.”
Fontana seemed puzzled. “I don’t have enough time to talk about Buffalo Soldiers in a two-hour tour,” he explained.
Hale nodded politely and walked away.
For more than 60 years, the National Park Service has been trying to reach out to African Americans and Latinos. But its 395 parks, monuments, waterways, historic places and recreational areas remain largely the province of white Americans and tourists from around the world.
In an interview, Park Service Director Jon Jarvis reiterated an old lament: Parks must attract a more diverse slice of the American public or eventually risk losing taxpayer support. Yet only about 1% of the nearly 4 million people who visit Yosemite each year are African Americans.
So officials were elated earlier this month when they learned that two groups of African Americans, the one from Grace United Methodist and one from the Inglewood Senior Center, were touring the park on the same day.
That meant there were more than 65 black Americans on the valley floor on the same day, an event so rare that ranger Shelton Johnson — who is of African American and Native American descent and has worked in Yosemite for 18 years — called it “possibly unprecedented.”
“But I also believe it’s the start of a trend,” Johnson said, “triggered by a series of recent events that are having a cumulative impact on African American perceptions about places like Yosemite.”
With the entire nation watching, he pointed out, the first black president and his family visited the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone in the summer of 2009. That same year, filmmaker Ken Burns featured Johnson in his 2009 documentary, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” Then last year, Oprah Winfrey aired her “Big Yosemite Camping Adventure.”