As fate would have it, I was heading to Yosemite any way. It was just a few days in advance of my departure on a two-week Joy Trip with stops in California then Utah, a sharp right turn to Washington DC and back to California. I had already arranged a few interviews to gain some additional perspective on the role that people of color play in efforts to protect and preserve the natural world. So when a travel editor from the Guardian newspaper in London contacted by email I was more than willing and able to write a feature article on diversity and inclusion in our National Parks.
“I know that you have written about the historical divide in the US between those who spend time in the outdoors and those who don’t,” wrote Isabel Choat, online travel editor for Guardian News & Media. “I wondered if you would be interested in writing an article for us – of about 1000 words – covering what is being done to encourage more ethnic minorities to use the park(s), in terms of any specific programmes or projects; referring to people involved in raising awareness of the issue; and bringing in the historical background and context to it.”
Naturally I was psyched to learn that my previous work had come to the attention of an internationally renown news organization. Of course I jumped at the chance to write the article and highlight some of the excellent projects currently underway to make our national parks more accessible and socially relevant to all the American People. Sadly though once again readers adamant in their opinions regarding this topic have accused me of being divisive.
“This article is racist!” wrote AnotherEnglishman as a comment beneath my article when it appeared on August 20th. “It is not the fault of non Afro-Americans that there is a dearth of Afro-American’s visiting nature reserves or National Parks so why should extra money and extra facilities be made available to encourage Afro-Americans? If they want to visit they will visit!”
Despite my best efforts to be rational and balanced in my assertions, readers now even across the Atlantic are jumping to the same false conclusion. And though I have been counseled by writers more talented than I with thicker skins to avoid reading the comments, it always grates at the core of being when trolls come out from under their bridges to raise issues and arguments long ago put to rest. I have never suggested that anyone is at fault in the current make-up of national park visitors. There is nothing to be gained by assigning blame. I do however believe that we have a remarkable opportunity to assure the continued longevity of our public land by making sure that everyone is encouraged to use and enjoy them. I believe that rather than pointing fingers to find the cause of these disparities, we each need to take responsibility for efforts to improve diversity and inclusion in our National Parks.
One Guardian reader described my position as “extreme”. With National Park visitation now at an all-time high of more than 300 million people per year the idea of boosting that number is indeed absurd. That is especially true when we realize that our parks have a back-log of repairs and maintenance totaling more than $12 billion. Rather what I am suggesting is that by growing the constituency of park advocates to include more people of color who are U.S. citizens we can raise wilderness protection to a much higher priority. It is my hope that as our population grows to reflect a more diverse demographic we can inspire emerging communities to love our public lands so much that future generations will fight to protect them.
But many of my readers apparently find it distasteful to link their desire to preserve the natural world with issues of race, inclusion and equity. Frankly I too find this correlation more than a little uncomfortable. Despite a lifetime of spending time in nature I understand that it is important for all of us to look past the presumption that access to the outdoors is purely egalitarian and without cultural bias. And though there are indeed no legislative or physical barriers preventing people of color from visiting our national parks and other wilderness areas I believe there are too few signs of explicit welcome. We must ask ourselves, what can we do to proactively invite and encourage people of color to experience the public land that is their right to enjoy?
It would seem that there are many who would choose to do nothing at all. When we shrink from conversation of diversity and inclusion we adopt a posture of indifference. Perhaps we fail to take action in the vain hope that the disparities of privilege which too profoundly define our culture will simply fade from our memories. As we move forward in the care and management of our public land, as we hope to purge from ourselves the racial hatred of the past we falsely assume that our love of the national parks we so dearly cherish is all that remains. But as the Nobel Prize winning author Elie Wiesel once said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”
Those who insist that the ethnic make-up of national park visitors does not matter are missing a critical point. If the U.S. population does indeed shift to favor a non-white majority as is predicted to occur by the year 2042 what will happen if this more diverse demographic has no interest in natural resource preservation? When people of color become the leading constituency of voters who then will allocate funds and pass legislation for the continued support of our National Parks? How will we ultimately reduce that $12 billion backlog of deferred repairs and maintenance if one day fewer than half of the American people decide that our money is better spent elsewhere, if they are indifferent to the protection of our natural heritage?
As a fate best avoided the solution is simple. I believe that for our National Parks to survive we must do what we can to share our love and enthusiasm for these wonderful lands with everyone, particularly those who for whatever reason are least likely to experience them. By telling stories and crafting narratives that include the interests and cultural heritage of all people we can make our public lands more relevant and by extension more accessible to a broader cross-section of the American public. We transform indifference to love. And when it comes time to protect, preserve and maintain these precious natural resources we will be united in our efforts, not as a divided populous of estranged and disenfranchised individuals, but as one people.
This essay is part of the New Century Vision Project and is made possible with the support of our partner Choose Outdoors. Find out how you can get connected to our public lands through outdoor recreation at ChooseOutdoors.org.
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