Earl Nottingham | TPWD
Parks for All
There’s a welcoming smile for everyone at Brozos Bend and at other Texas State Parks.
When visitors arrive at Brozos Bend State Park outside Houston, a sign at the entrance station welcomes them in six languages.
The greetings — in the typical yellow-lettering-on-brown-background style found in Texas State Parks — come in English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Vietnamese and Mandarin Chinese, the most widely spoken languages in the Houston area.
“I contacted the Houston Chamber of Commerce to try to figure out the top languages that were spoken in the Houston area, and they sent me the top 23 or 24 languages,” says park Superintendent Jim Cisneros. “Obviously we couldn’t do a sign with 24 different languages on it, so we went with the top six.”
The sign, installed in March 2021, reflects the changing face of Texas as people from all over the country and the world move here, and it reflects the efforts being made by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to ensure that all Texans feel welcome to enjoy their natural resources and state parks.
Earl Nottingham | TPWD
SERVING ALL TEXANS
State park visitation doesn’t match the demographic shifts that have shaped our state in recent decades. Traditionally, the vast majority of state park visitors have been white. The trend is reflected nationally as well. The 2021 Outdoor Participation Trends Report found that nearly 75 percent of people participating in outdoor recreation in 2020 were white.
Meanwhile, census data released in 2021 shows that Hispanics, Asians and other racial and ethnic minority groups have largely driven Texas’ phenomenal growth over the past decade, making up 95 percent of new Texans from 2010 to 2020. The state is now 39.8 percent white, 39.3 percent Hispanic, 11.8 percent Black, 5.4 percent Asian and increasingly urban.
This data further highlights the role Texas State Parks must play in bridging the divide between Texas demographic trends and the residents who make use of the state’s abundant outdoor recreation opportunities.
For Texas State Parks to serve all Texans, they need to make people of all races and ethnicities feel welcome and invited, says David Buggs, TPWD’s chief officer of diversity and inclusion.
“Our objective is to serve all of the public,” Buggs says.
TPWD has embarked on a wide-ranging effort to engage audiences underrepresented in the outdoors: Community Outdoor Outreach Program grants targeting underserved populations; the Texas Outdoor Family Program teaching families to camp; Buffalo Soldiers telling the story of Black soldiers on the frontier; state parks reaching out to underserved schools; and new positions and strategic plans focused on diversity and inclusion.
Earl Nottingham | TPWD
MULTICULTURAL BRAZOS BEND
One park that does reflect the new demographics of Texas is Brazos Bend State Park. Brazos Bend sits in Fort Bend County, one of the most diverse counties in the United States.
On any given weekend, the park’s picnic tables may be filled with Hispanic families celebrating a birthday, Black families having a picnic, Vietnamese families getting ready for a hike and Pakistani families eager to see one of the park’s alligators.
“It’s not uncommon to hear three or four different languages on a mile hike on one of our busy trails, which is one of the first things that I noticed when I came here,” says Cisneros, the park's superintendent.
Cisneros and the park staff realized their English-only signs were not serving visitors well.
In addition to creating “Welcome” and “Come Back Soon” signs in multiple languages, the park remodeled its Nature Center and incorporated five languages — English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese and Arabic — in the exhibit signs. The remodeled center opened in September 2021.
“I think one of the best things has been actually watching our customers go and read those panels in their own languages, and they’re really excited about that,” says Montse Canedo, park volunteer coordinator. “We’ve had people come and thank us for that.”
Spanish speakers Jesus and Sahilis Moreno have visited Brazos Bend about 20 times since immigrating to the area 12 years ago. They said the displays in multiple languages are “a great idea” and help them feel welcome in the park.
Fort Bend County’s overall population grew by more than 40 percent from 2010 to 2020. Its population is 31.9 percent white, 24.9 percent Hispanic, 21.3 percent Black and 20.9 percent Asian. Asian Americans account for a larger share of the population in Fort Bend than in any other county in Texas. The Asian population itself is quite diverse — Indian Americans account for the largest group, followed by Chinese and Vietnamese.
The park staff’s next step is to install signs in multiple languages at all the major trailheads, along with warning signs in different languages.
“My goal for putting up the signs to begin with was to let people know that we see them and that we know that they’re coming,” Cisneros says. “We appreciate their patronage. This park is also their park. By not sharing what we have in other languages, I think people don’t truly appreciate everything that we have to offer. By being able to share in their language, they start to appreciate the park that much more. Of course, the ultimate goal is to create stewards for the long term, for generations to come.”
The park’s engagement goes beyond signs. Canedo offers park programming in Spanish and knows American Sign Language. The park also hired a Vietnamese-speaking staff member who started training to offer programming in Vietnamese.
Cisneros says inclusivity is the prevailing mindset at the park. Headquarters staff members regularly use Google Translate to communicate with visitors who aren’t fluent in English or Spanish.
Diversity has extended to the park’s volunteer crew, too.
“Our latest recruits for volunteers and training were a very diverse class,” Cisneros says. “I mean, it was probably most diverse set of volunteers ever seen anywhere in state parks.”
In addition to the diversity of visitors and volunteers, Brazos Bend enjoys some of the most diverse wildlife in the state park system. Ecosystems include wetlands, woodlands and prairie, and besides the park’s famous alligators, a variety of mammals, other reptiles and birds make their home in the park. Just as biodiversity is important for a healthy ecosystem, a diversity of visitors can make our parks stronger.
“I think nature is initially what connects us all because that’s already what brought us to the park,” Canedo says. “We’re all here to connect with nature. Our common language is the common language of nature.”
VISION FOR THE FUTURE
Rodney Franklin, director of Texas State Parks, says it’s important for everyone to feel welcome at state parks.
“These lands are for everyone,” he says. “The outdoors are for all Texans because of the inherent benefit to your mind, body and soul. We already know that nature has an intrinsic value for your health and your well-being, and if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is the value of getting outside.”
At the same time, he recognizes that barriers have kept some Texans away from state parks.
“Some folks have had a generational fear of going to state parks and being outdoors,” Franklin says. “Some folks may not have the knowledge or may feel they have not been invited.”
Josie Gutierrez of San Antonio went to her first state park at age 20 when a friend took her to Garner State Park in the 1980s. She was “blown away” by the beauty of the river and cypress trees and vowed to keep visiting parks.
However, she said, “I noticed there was not a lot of ‘me’ out there. I thought, ‘This is everybody’s. Why are we not taking advantage of this, too?’”
She joined Latino Outdoors as an ambassador and now takes Latino families camping in state parks.
“I want to make sure they know these parks belong to everybody,” she says.
Programs such as Latino Outdoors and Black Outside are paving the way for greater and broader involvement in the outdoors.
Texas State Parks, too, are embarking on programs geared toward outreach and engagement. They are reaching out to schools and churches; providing more informational and educational material geared toward first-time park users; and putting together cultural calendars to find avenues for engagement with new audiences.
The future of conservation depends on getting people outdoors and engaged with nature.
“We want everyone to see themselves in a state park or see themselves in the outdoors, see themselves as a part of nature, because it all leads to everyone being supportive of conserving these very special places,” Franklin says.
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