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The U.S. Forest Service is studying ways minorities use public lands to determine how to better serve the increasingly diverse population of Arizona and the rest of the Southwest, according to a report in the Arizona Republic.
The research will be used to determine why so few minorities use public lands and to make changes in the way national forests are maintained – something that hasn’t happened in 20 years.
“We’re trying to do a better job managing national forests that are more responsive to ethnic minorities,” Forest Service researcher David Bengston said. “We’ve had kind of a monolithic approach that doesn’t reflect the kind of diversity our country is headed for.”
The research is especially important in the Southwest, home to vast swaths of national forests and a Latino population that has boomed in recent years.
At 1.3 million, Latinos make up one in four Arizonans. But at each of the state’s national forests – Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino, Coronado, Kaibab, Prescott and Tonto – 88% or more of the visitors are White, according to visitor surveys conducted by the Forest Service.
In addition to using focus groups, researchers in the fall plan to conduct random telephone and mail surveys in English and Spanish, said Reuben Weisz, acting regional social scientist of the Forest Service in Albuquerque. Up to 10,000 people in the Southwest will be asked how they use forest land and what changes they would like in the way national forests are managed, he said.
Dennis Garcia, a Forest Service researcher in Albuquerque, said Forest Service personnel have not always been attuned to different cultural practices, and that has led to conflicts in the past.
“I know when we would go to Slide Rock State Park (near Sedona in the Coconino National Forest) we would observe a lot of Hispanic families and they would be trying to get together in large groups, but the sites really didn’t allow that,” Garcia said. “It would cause some issues. Only one car was allowed per site, and they would show up with two or three cars.”
In California, researchers have been studying recreational practices of minorities for years. They found that minorities visit national forests for the same reasons as others.
“They come for rest, relaxation, the sun, to escape daily life,” said Deborah Chavez, a U.S. Forest Service researcher in Riverside, Calif. But they tend to use recreational areas differently, she said.
“It’s family oriented, just like the Anglos,” Chavez said. “But it tends to be extended families.” She oversaw the agency’s Wildland Recreation and Urban Cultures Project, which concluded that many of the recreational areas on forestlands are not compatible with large groups.
“Typically, they were designed to fit the users of the past, and the users were small White families,” she said. “So if you have this landscape where picnic tables are spread far apart and you get this large Latino group, that’s not going to fit their needs very well.”
The Forest Service in California has redesigned some recreational areas with ethnic groups in mind. At the Applewhite Campground in the San Bernardino National Forest, for example, picnic tables have been grouped around large barbecue pits to facilitate large groups, she said.