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WhiteParks 1stLd-Writethru 07-07

Park Service seeks to reach changing population

Eds: ADDS information on audio slideshow. Multimedia: An audio slideshow on how Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is trying to attract new, diverse visitors is available in the —national/national—parks—change folder.

AP Photo WVMC102, WVMC101, WVMC104

By VICKI SMITH

Associated Press Writer

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HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. (AP) — She’d spent a lifetime less than an hour’s drive away, but it had never crossed Joquetta Johnson’s mind to visit Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. What, she wondered when a friend suggested it, could a park in rural, lily-white West Virginia hold for a black teacher from Baltimore?

More than she could have imagined.

She found herself enthralled by the place where white abolitionist John Brown tried to start a slave uprising, the place where the Niagara Movement, forerunner of the NAACP, first met on U.S. soil. It is the home of Storer College, which began educating newly freed slaves in 1865, the 40-year-old library media specialist at Milford Mill Academy learned.

Yet Johnson, like many people of color, hadn’t gotten the message that the National Park Service admits it’s struggling to deliver.

"We do not reflect the changing face of America," said David Barna, a park service spokesman in Washington. "The national parks are still a middle-class Caucasian visit, primarily."

The agency has been working for years to change that, an effort that is taking on a sense of urgency with the browning of America.

From Florida to California, the Park Service has brought minority children from cities to places they’ve never seen, hoping they will return with their parents. To make its staff more reflective, it has begun recruiting high school students for summer jobs that can be the springboard to a career.

And it looks for ways to make historical exhibits like those at Gettysburg National Military Park more relevant, refocusing on the role of slavery in the Civil War rather than battle strategy.

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"We need to get beyond the ’Field of Dreams’ notion, ’OK, we’ve built it and they will come.’ They may come and they may not," said Harpers Ferry spokeswoman Marsha Wassel. "But we know for certain that when people have an understanding of something, they can reach a greater degree of caring. ... They can become stewards. They can help fight for us."

Surveys have found Hispanics and blacks are far less likely to visit the parks and far more likely to describe them as uncomfortable places. It’s a problem of relevancy that, if left uncorrected, may lead to a day when taxpayers will decide they no longer value and are unwilling to fund preservation of the nation’s historical and natural treasures, Barna says.

That’s a real fear for an agency with a $100 million wish-list for land purchases in fiscal 2009 alone, an agency that once saw a park-closure bill floated in Congress.

While there are sites that reflect the stories of black and Native Americans, the Park Service has done what Barna calls "an appalling job" of celebrating Hispanic Americans. Nor does it offer much to Asian Americans.

There is Manzanar, a Japanese internment camp in California. There is Utah’s Golden Spike, a symbol of Chinese laborers, many of whom died building the nation’s railroads. Neither is much to celebrate.

Last fall, the Park Service dedicated New York’s African Burial Ground, a site in lower Manhattan where free blacks and slaves were buried more than two centuries ago. The project cost more than $50 million.

The Park Service is prohibited from buying advertising, forcing it to rely on word of mouth, media coverage, outreach through schools and advertising done by concessionaires within or near the parks.

Even with such marketing roadblocks, breaking down cultural and psychological barriers is a tougher challenge, said James Gramman, chief social scientist for the Park Service and part-time professor at Texas A&M.

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"If your parents don’t go to parks, you’re not going to go to parks," he said. "I grew up in Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest, and my family took me. But if you live in the inner city and you’re surprised to see grass, a national park can be a very foreign thing."

When rangers at Cuyahoga Valley National Park near Akron, Ohio, visit schoolchildren, they get questions about lions, tigers and bears.

"Some people are startled by butterflies," Gramman said. "It’s not like that can’t be overcome, but if you don’t do something, it will persist and it won’t be overcome for generations."

At Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve in Jacksonville, Fla., Brian Loadholtz and staff also had to overcome long-standing skepticism of the federal government and its offers of aid in minority communities. With help, they were able to convince parents to let children tour a former plantation with slave quarters, then learn to kayak within sight of an ocean they seldom visit.

Loadholtz, chief of resource education, worked with leaders of a subsidized housing community to arrange permission and transportation for last year’s pilot project. Afterward, he offered vouchers so the kids could return with their families for free.

"Disappointingly," he said, "none of them were claimed."

At Santa Monica Mountain National Recreation Area in California, where some 200 languages are spoken within 50 miles, educational programs reach 12,000 children a year, some so popular they have a two-year waiting list, spokesman Charles Taylor says.

Santa Monica also targets teens, particularly Hispanics, for summer jobs that show there are environmental science careers beyond farming.

That program changed the life of 25-year-old Fernando Villalba, who was considering a law career until the environmental science club at Wilson High School in East Los Angeles traveled to Yellowstone National Park.

"Up until then, my entire life experience had been in the city," said Villalba, now a biologist at Fire Island National Seashore in New York. "I had never seen anything green but little lawns in tiny parks."

That summer, he spent six weeks pulling weeds and studying reptiles at Santa Monica. By fall, he was at college studying wildlife biology, his family laughingly comparing him to crocodile hunter Steve Irwin. On summer breaks, he worked at Utah’s Zion National Park.

This fall, Villalba will enroll at the University of California-Davis to study ethno-ecology, or how different cultures perceive themselves in the environment, and transfer to a job at Point Reyes National Seashore.

"Just give it a try," he urges those wary of the open spaces. "Go to Yellowstone or Yosemite and experience the power of nature, not just in a physical sense, but a spiritual sense ... see why we need to protect and preserve."

And if Yellowstone’s a bit daunting, start with a local park.

"Just get out there and go for a walk."

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