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An Inclusive America Should Mean Inclusive National Parks | Commentary

By Nidhi Thakar Our national parks and monuments should honor all Americans. Yet today, less than one-quarter of all monuments and national park units in the United States tell the full story of our nation’s rich history and reflect the mosaic that we are today.  

With the National Park Service’s centennial a little over a year away, now is the time to rethink how we view our national parks and monuments.  

Last month, the U.S. Department of the Interior came one step closer to fixing this problem by designating the Henry Gerber House in Chicago as a National Historic Landmark to honor the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. This is only the second time in U.S. history in which a National Historic Landmark has been designated for the LGBT community. And yet, there are no national parks or monuments dedicated to this community, even though the LGBT movement has deeply shaped our nation just as the Civil Rights movement.  

The LGBT community is not the only group whose story is untold by our national parks and monuments. Asian-Americans, Latinos, African-Americans, Native Americans, and women are just a handful of other groups that remain underrepresented in the National Park System. With the rapidly changing demographics of the United States, policymakers should work to conserve places that better reflect America’s diverse population so that existing and future generations feel connected to national parks and monuments and value this heritage.  

A recent report by the Center for American Progress found that while national parks and monuments have become more inclusive in the past 25 years, federal policymakers — Congress in particular — can and should do more. The report found that presidents, in comparison to Congress, put more weight on promoting diversity by designating inclusive national parks and monuments, with 33 percent of all designations by presidents being inclusive compared to only 22 percent by Congress.  

Exacerbating Congress’ mediocre track record are attempts by the Republican leadership to not only block congressional monument and national park designations, but also efforts to undermine the president’s power to designate new monuments under the Antiquities Act, a backbone of conservation. In spite of bipartisan support for this law — 16 different presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to George Bush have used the Antiquities Act more than 100 times to designate national monuments, including the Statute of Liberty and Grand Canyon — anti-conservation lawmakers continue to try to gut this more than century-year old law.  

Meanwhile, the same congressional leadership has sat idly while the clock is ticking for the expiration of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, or LWCF. Created 50 years ago by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the LWCF uses royalties paid by offshore oil and gas to create and expand federal, state and local parks, refuges, and outdoor recreation areas. This highly effective program has protected more than 7 million acres of land and resulted in over 40,000 state and local outdoor recreation projects. However, without congressional action in the next 100 days, America’s best parks program will come to an end.  

Congressional leadership needs to stop wasting its time on advancing an anti-conservation agenda that is out of step with American values and instead should focus on reauthorizing the LWCF and protecting treasured places that reflect our nation’s story.  

In the words of Jesse Jackson, “America is not like a blanket-one piece of unbroken cloth, the same color, the same texture, the same size. America is more like a quilt-many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread.” We should be building a more inclusive park system that preserves our nation’s history and, at the same time, envisions our identity years from now. Each of us deserves to see our stories represented in our national parks and monuments. After all, each park and monument designation is another chapter of our national heritage and identity.  

Nidhi Thakar is deputy director of the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress.  

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