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Oprah's Show Opens National Park System to Millions Who Don't Know

Watching “Oprah & Gayle go camping” last Friday brought a flood of conflicting emotions.

Shelton Johnson and Audrey PetermanAs an advocate for getting African Americans and other people of color outdoors (that's me with Yosemite ranger Shelton Johnson at right), I spent almost a month anticipating the show. I looked forward to the amazing beauty of Yosemite National Park that would be revealed, and the millions of Americans who would see the parks presented to them for the first time with an invitation to visit. They would see how easy it is to get to the park and how affordable it can be, with the choice of camping, staying in the Yosemite Lodge or the pricier, 4-star Ahwahnee Hotel. The show would be an introduction to the wealth of the entire National Park System (NPS), constituting 84 million acres of the most scenically beautiful, historic and culturally important places across our nation.

Yosemite FallsSo I was a little disappointed that we saw so little of the show. In Beaufort, South Carolina, where my husband Frank and I were visiting to be part of the First Annual Seafood Festival presented by the Gullah Geechee Fishing Association, the show was interrupted by the press conference on national security and by scores of political ads. When was the last time the Oprah show was pre-empted by a press conference? And did it have to happen on the day that she’s focusing on black Americans and the parks?! My chagrin was real, compounded by frustration at being able to answer so many of Oprah’s questions yet not being able to get on her show.

When Frank and I first experienced the National Park System on our round-the-country road trip in 1995, we had the same sense of shock that Oprah’s show focused on: How could the visitors and workforce be so uniformly white in a country where the fastest-growing groups were Hispanics and African Americans?

Frank and Audrey in Sequoia NPWe knew that a key part of the problem was lack of information. Like us, many of our family and friends (including journalists, business people and college presidents) did not know that there was a system of national parks. We knew of the Grand Canyon and Yosemite mostly as faraway places that had nothing to do with us.

In the intervening 15 years, we have dedicated ourselves to get information about the existence of the National Park System to the public, and particularly to Americans of color. Many people tell us that they don’t know much about the parks, where they are, or what there is to do there. Others think they’d have no choice other than to camp, and fathers unfamiliar with setting up tents do not want to appear incompetent to their families.

Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National ParkWith 156 units of the 394-unit NPS under our belt and a burning desire to experience the next one and the next one, we have been rewarded with so much more than we could have expected. Besides the amazing natural beauty of our national parks, we have traced the history and contributions that African Americans and other Americans of color have made to the park system, from the Dry Tortugas off the coast of Florida to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in the panhandle of southeast Alaska.

So we’ve tried to communicate the spectacular assets of our national parks by publishing the periodical Pickup & GO!; with innumerable speaking engagements; with articles in the black and mainstream press; and the recent publication of our book, Legacy on the Land. We’ve worked with partners such as REI and the National Parks Conservation Association to physically introduce new constituents to the parks, and watched with the delight the transformation that occurs. People readily take on the responsibility of being stewards of our natural treasures once they know they exist and that they are relevant to their lives.

But nothing compares to the millions of people who have been reached instantaneously by the Oprah show. Like a thousand other environmental leaders of color across the country that are dedicated to making the publicly owned lands known and loved by all Americans, I am almost literally holding my breath for the outpouring of interest that will hopefully follow the show.

Look for part 2 of the "Oprah and Gayle go camping" segment on Wednesday, Nov. 3.

Audrey Peterman is an environmental advocate and co-author of Legacy on the Land. Below, Yosemite National Park ranger Shelton Johnson talks about the impending impact of Oprah at Yosemite.


Posted on at 7:01 PM

Tagged: African Americans, Oprah, Shelton Johnson, Yosemite, diversity, national parks and rei

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handy man in stehekin

everyone should visit a national park in the west, it doesn't matter which one as they all are spectacular. and i am not talking about a drive through either, but get out of the car and hike into the backcountry, it will change your life.

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It's nice to see that Oprah likes REI too.


My husband and I were really looking forward to the show, and we were disappointed at how little of the park was shown. It was more of a comedy act watching them get the "campsite" set up and then serving drinks. Can I just say that I have never had anyone serve me a fancy mixed drink while camping in the fabulous national parks! Beer yes, fancy stuff no. I set the dvr for the second segment of the show and am hoping that more of the park will be explored. I can't wait to see Oprah strap on a pack and hike! This should be good. :)


I was a bit disappointed in the show as well. I called all of my African American friends, hoping to get them to join me on the trail at a National Park someday, or at least pique their curiosity, and they stated that the show did little to get them interested in National Parks, and that it seemed more like a comedy sketch. The worst part is that most of the time was spent either in their trailer, or just outside of it. How can you possibly be at Yosemite, and show so little scenery, is beyond me!

Dr. Nina

I watched both shows with great anticipation and excitement - I, too, thought this production was a great comedy act. In fact, I actually loved it because Oprah and Gayle kept it real. As one of few minority women, who is a professional in the field of outdoor recreation and parks management, I was encouraged by the fact this show occurred to begin with. As an avid outdoor enthusiast for over 30 years, I've both traveled the backcountry with 40 lbs on my back, and enjoyed slumber parties in the pop-up camper. I've lived on everything from dried fruit and powdered milk in remote wildlands, to halibut on the grill with fancy mixed drinks in the front country as well.
The national park experience and camping is all what you feel like making it. A cliché perhaps, but true. The magic of our parks offers the visitors a chance to develop a relationship with the splendor and wonders of nature in ways that are meaningful and deep. That is all up to individual interpretation and always intensely personal. With ethnic minorities (or even insert the variable of female and stir), there are often added cultural and/or gender-based phenomenon that can be assumed or even misunderstood. Hence their satire of playing up the "black thing" was brilliant given the both the constraints to visiting national parks as well as an attempt to dispel the myths – I appreciated their willingness, multi-layered messaging, and ultimate appreciation for having the experience while encouraging other minorities to venture out as well.
They could have shown more of the park, sure - at the same time, that was clearly not the intent. That's what the Discovery Channel and Nat'l Geographic do for us. Oprah's crew clearly showed enough of the park to peak the interest of non-visitors across the NPS spectrum. And, what was is absolutely essential (in my mind) is when she said this: "Everyone should visit Yosemite at least once in their life" - Whether Yosemite or some other national park across the country, the lifetime of benefits are greater for those who seek rather than sit – For readers of this thread, especially to all the racially diverse sisters and brothers out there, I say this: Get out and experience YOUR national park! You'll be glad you did.


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