If US national parks are to continue to thrive they must reflect the diversity of our population

As the National Park Service turns 100, a new campaign aims to make the countrys natural spaces more appealing to all Americans, regardless of race, over the next century

In the sweltering heat of a summer day, I walked along the visitor trails of Yosemite national park. I had just made the five-hour drive from my childhood home in Los Angeles to glimpse a vision of the future. There in the valley surrounded by high towers of stone, I watched as thousands of tourists from all over the world marvelled at the sheer granite walls of El Capitan, Washington Column and Half Dome. Like ancient cathedrals of divine architecture, these magnificent features stand as monuments to the notion that the natural heritage of our nation must be preserved for all time.

Throughout my life I have enjoyed spending time in the outdoors. Despite having grown up in the urban heart of LA, I frequently ventured into the wild places of California, from the slopes of the San Gabriel mountains to the summit of Mount Whitney. Though I was blessed, thanks to sacrifices of my parents, with a lifetime learning and playing in nature, on this occasion, as with many visits to the valley, I noticed that I was among the very few people of colour there. And though I felt no less welcome to enjoy the splendour of this magnificent place, I wondered how it might be possible to encourage tourism to Yosemite and other national parks that reflects the diverse population of the US as a whole.

There are many reasons why African Americans and other ethnic minorities dont make more use of the great outdoors. Racial oppression of the past gouged deep wounds which persist today, in the form of the limited disposable income and leisure time necessary to holiday in remote places. Add to that few personal mentors or family traditions of days away from the city to enjoy camping, hiking and fishing, and the result is a generation of citizens disenfranchised of a rich cultural legacy.

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James Edward Mills with Yosemite national park ranger Shelton Johnson.

We are seldom told of the Buffalo Soldiers, black members of the US Cavalry, who patrolled Yosemite and Sequoia national parks at the turn of the last century and became the worlds first park rangers. And few know about George Melendez Wright, an El Salvadoran-American biologist who conducted the first scientific survey of fauna for the National Park Service (NPS).

On this latest visit to Yosemite I reconnected with my old friend Jonathan Moose Mutlow. As the project director of the National Environmental Science Center, Moose has dedicated much of his life to inspiring young people to spend time in the outdoors. A long-time staff member at Nature Bridge, an environmental education institute based in San Francisco, he has worked to help kids appreciate and revel in the wonders of nature. But as young black people predominantly live in urban areas, Moose says he is constantly challenged to create opportunities, such as nature walks and natural history lessons, that are culturally and socially relevant to the emerging ethnic groups.

When the national parks were first conceived, the grand lodges were a way to sell the idea to the American people. But they were places for the elite to stay, people of power who would back the parks with their money, Moose said. The grand lodges of the 21st century need to be schools. The constituent group were building now are the users, people whose experiences in nature as kids sparks their sense of exploration and discovery and that belongs to them.

He puts it simply: They will own it. And if they own it, they will fight to protect it.

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Jonathan Moose Mutlow, project director of the National Environmental Science Center

Moose is currently overseeing the construction of the National Environmental Science Center building, a remarkable education facility for young people. With a budget of more than $35m, this state of the art hands-on learning centre in the heart of Yosemite national park will open this autumn and expects to receive 17,000 students a year. This beautiful campus will give young people many of whom live in low-income urban neighbourhoods or rural farming communities the chance to experience the wonders of nature, as well as learning practical skills in camping, hiking and climbing.

As the NPS celebrates its 100th anniversary this week, the idea of public land for everyone to enjoy is the basis of a new vision of environmental conservation to carry us through the next 100 years. Though rival candidates in our presidential election debate the many social issues which drive us apart, too often along racial and socio-economic lines, I am optimistic for the power of nature to bring us together, despite our differences, as a united people. The Next 100 Coalition, led by national park advocate Audrey Peterman, aims to raise awareness about making our natural spaces more accessible and inviting for all people, regardless of race or ethnicity, to enjoy.

The Next 100 Coalition includes a variety of different organisations, including Outdoor Afro, a community network with leaders in 28 states, which promotes positive experiences in nature for African-American families.

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Buffalo below the Grand Teton Mountains, Yellowstone national park. Photograph: Matt Anderson Photography/Getty Images

Similar groups in the coalition, such as Latino Outdoors, the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, the Hispanic Access Foundation and Eco Cheyenne, are working together with agencies of the federal government including the NPS and the US Forest Service.

In the next century of national park conservation, the coalition insists that we must acknowledge the contributions of African-American, Latino, Asian and Native American explorers and adventurers. Matthew Henson (it is the 150th anniversary of his birth is this week) was a black man from Baltimore, Maryland, who, with Robert Peary, was the first person to reach the North Pole in 1909. And Walter Harper, a native Athabaskan of Alaska, was the first to reach the summit of Denali, the highest peak in North America, in 1913. We have to inspire young people from all backgrounds to pursue study that will expand their knowledge and love of the natural world and preserve it into the future.

Our national parks were created as an escape from the tribulations of the modern world. Described by the writer and naturalist Wallace Stegner as the best idea we ever had, the parks are meant to instil not only a passion for the outdoors but also a spirit of co-operation in the long-term preservation of humanity. As the Next 100 Coalition rallies the collective interests of under-represented members of our society, we can envision a new century in which our national parks continue to thrive.

James Edward Mills is creator of the Joy Trip Project a blog covering outdoor recreation and environmental conservation, and author of The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors, which chronicles the first all-African-American summit attempt on Denali

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2016/aug/21/us-national-parks-survive-must-reflect-diversity-of-population