RELEASE: New Data Show Communities of Color and Low-Income Communities in the West Have Less Open Space and Natural Areas Nearby

Washington, D.C. — New data released today by the Center for American Progress show that communities of color and low-income communities in the western United States have less open space, parks, and natural area nearby than the overall population in their state.

The finding is contained in a report, released to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service this week, that examines how America’s parks and public lands can be made more inclusive and accessible to all people. Visitation statistics from the National Park Service and polling commissioned by CAP indicate that there are deep economic, racial, and ethnic disparities in who is visiting and using the national parks; a majority of visitors are white, aging, and fairly affluent.

“The 100th anniversary of our national parks is a moment to both celebrate our nation’s proud conservation history and to build a system of parks and protected areas that is more accessible to and inclusive of all Americans,” said Jenny Rowland, Research and Advocacy Associate for the Public Lands team at CAP and author of the report. “Through the protection of places like the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles and the Stonewall Inn in New York City, President Obama is rightly putting a focus on protecting places that reflect the diversity of our nation’s history, peoples, and culture, but there is much more that needs to be done.”

The report released today finds that 122 of 480, or 25.4 percent, of national parks and national monuments in the United States now have a primary focus on preserving the history of diverse groups, a 1.5 percent increase since 2014. Half of the 23 national monuments designated by President Barack Obama have had a focus on honoring or expanding access to traditionally underserved communities.

The report released today includes a joint analysis by CAP and the nonprofit Conservation Science Partners, or CSP, of how communities of color and low income communities in 11 western states are affected by the rapid loss of natural area in the West. Using environmental justice demographic indicators from the Environmental Protection Agency, and development data from the Disappearing West project, CAP and CSP identified census tracts where underserved communities have disproportionately less natural area.

According to the data, there are indeed environmental justice concerns with the distribution of natural areas among communities of color and low income communities. Nearly 84 percent of communities of color and 80 percent of low-income communities in the West live in areas where the amount of natural area is less than the state average, compared with nearly 60 percent of nonminority and 61 percent of non-low-income tracts.

“The rapid urban sprawl we are witnessing in many parts of the country is pushing natural areas further and further away from many low income communities and communities of color,” added Rowland. “The loss of close-to-home outdoor spaces is a major problem that must be addressed through a renewed commitment to the protection of open space at both the local and national level.”

The report identifies three policy recommendations:

  1. Create more parks and monuments that tell the story of all Americans.
  2. Increase opportunities for frontcountry recreation and preserve lands for underserved communities.
  3. Engage underserved communities in decisions about development, conservation, and the expansion of outdoor recreation opportunities.

See the full report here.

For more information on this topic or to speak with an expert, contact Tom Caiazza at or 202.481.7141.