After 16 days of rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon I was still covered in a fine layer of dust and sand. Even having taken a shower eariler that morning I carried that residual film of grime you inevitably accumulate while camping. Noseblind to my own body odor I’m sure that I stank, but with a few hours left to kill before my flight back home to Wisconsin I just had to make a visit to the Canyon Rim for one last look and to begin the next great adventure.
Though we had never met before Johnny Tyous and I recognized one another immediately. Making eye contact in a crowd of strangers outside the Bright Angel Restaurant he smiled and with an upward nod of his chin he said almost in a whisper, “Good seeing you.”
In an instant we became friends. We shared in common a kindred spirit that we would soon realize. Returning his nod I smiled and said, “Hey, good seeing you too.” Then after a beat, “Is this your first visit to the Grand Canyon?”
When people of color meet one another in public it’s not uncommon to share a sense of kinship. Circumstances of culture and past oppression often serve as convenient pathways of communication that speak volumes of knowledge more intimate than a lifetime conservation. And in this most iconic National Park it was indeed good seeing him.
But from the look in his eyes I could also see that Johnny had never before experienced this remarkable landscape. Visiting with his wife and grown daughter from Charlotte, North Carolina he marveled at the colors of red, orange and yellow set against the contrast of a blue-grey sky. There in the Arizona sun of late spring deep striated fissures of sandstone and granite spread across the horizon from one end to the other as far as the eye could see. And with a profound sense of awe and wonder I watched as Johnny made a direct connection with the land.
“I travel all over the country but I’ve been missing places like this,” he told me. “I visit New York and Chicago and other urban areas across the United States, but it’s nice to experience nature and get spiritually connected to such an amazing place.”
As we spoke taking in the view I found myself becoming wildly excited for Johnny and his family. Even though I had been to the Grand Canyon many times before I envied their opportunity to see this great natural monument to our heritage and legacy of environmental stewardship from the fresh perspective of a new visitor. As I witnessed them take their first tentative steps in their exploration of our national parks I felt an overwhelming sense of hospitality. After a long career in outdoor recreation, having seen so few African-Americans enjoy the majestic beauty of their public lands, I was eager to make them feel welcome and I wanted to do all that I could to assure that they had a positive experience.
In my enthusiasm to encourage their journey I made suggestions of other places they should visit. I recommended the ancient ruins of Mesa Verde near Cortez, Colorado and the iconic desert formations of Arches, Zion and Canyonlands in Utah. I wanted nothing more than to share with the Tyous family my own life’s passion for these and many other wilderness areas across our great nation. And if I could inspire them to fall in love with these places as I have, I just might persuade them to become involved in efforts to protect and preserve these sacred public lands for generations yet to come.
As the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary I hope that we can all support and encourage those among us who have yet to experience the wonders of nature. Part of a broad coalition of public land advocates I’m working to help shape and illustrate a vision for the next 100 years of service to environmental protection that includes the practical interests of all Americans. In a policy document drafted for President Barack Obama our coalition has outlined five key areas upon which the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture can focus their attention in order to make the management and conservation of public land more diverse and inclusive. These areas of focus include:
* Access to Public Lands
* Historical, spiritual, sacred and cultural preservation
* Landscape-Scale Conservation
* Stakeholder Engagement
* Workforce Diversity
The details of the policy document and vision statement for the Centennial Initiative are available online in a petition at Change.org Under the authority of an executive order these policy items can be used to direct a philosophical change in how federal agencies and non-profit preservation groups create and implement strategies for the thoughtful protection of public land. The coalition is asking President Obama to issue a Presidential Memorandum on the Centennial Anniversary date of the National Park Service, August 25, 2016. And with the support of the American people as demonstrated by those who sign the petition it would indeed be possible to create a cultural environment where everyone, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender identity or socio-economic status is made to feel welcome to enjoy the natural world.
In much the same way that I had shared my personal excitement for the Grand Canyon with Johnny and his family, I hope that these policies might encourage other individuals and institutions alike to work toward greater diversity and inclusion in the National Parks, National Forests and other wilderness areas they love most. With a friendly nod and a smile I hope that we can all welcome new visitors into nature and say sincerely, “Good seeing you.”
In order to prompt members of Congress and the heads of various organizations across the country to support this vision I aim to connect with real people at different sites around the country. I want to get their impressions of how these policies might impact the future. Through a series of audio and video interviews called the New Century Vision Project I hope to demonstrate that the idea of more inclusive public land management has merit and is worth pursuing. With any luck we might indeed establish a new conservation movement for all Americans that will last well into the next century.
Initiative Vision Quest is supported by Choose Outdoors
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