19 Jul Celebrating Latino Conservation Week
After several days of exploring Alaska’s Denali National Park, we’re heading south toward Kenai Fjords. As the resident National Park Expert, I have the great privilege of accompanying a group of environmentally conscious travelers for National Geographic Expeditions. Over the last decade, I’ve enjoyed many other trips to this remarkable place in hopes of encouraging others to follow. By sharing ourtransformational experiences in nature, we aim to build a more diverse constituency of park advocates. Throughout this same period, a wonderful organization called Latino Outdoors has proven to be a critical ally in this effort to bring more people of color into these wild spaces where we are far too seldom seen.
Founded by my good friend and colleague José Gonzalés, this social justice-focused affinity group is celebrating its tenth anniversary. Having traveled through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge– which covers nearly 20 million acres of northeast Alaska – with José back in 2016, it seems serendipitous to be back in this extremity state at the beginning of Latino Conservation Week.
On that more ambitious trip with José seven years ago, a different group of travelers, led by the Sierra Club, paddled inflatable rafts from the edge of the Brooks Mountain Range along the Hula Hula River. We journeyed 50 miles to the Beaufort Sea and the Arctic Ocean to follow the migration of the Porcupine Caribou herd into “the sacred place where life begins” – as the Guitchin’ People of Northern Alaska call it. Few things seal a friendship like adventure! It was on this trip that my commitment to Latino Outdoors was firmly fixed. Since then, I’ve devoted myself as a partner in preserving these fragile yet resilient landscapes for future generations.
“For the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, we have a responsibility, those of us who get to experience it, because we are storytellers in our communities and it’s important to have that voice be represented,” José said. “It isn’t about picking and choosing which public lands are most important. It’s the whole system. And as we are becoming more demographically diverse and pushing into more leadership spaces, it’s important to protect all public land.”
Our National Parks are at their best when they tell the stories of all our nation’s people. What I love most about my work as a journalist and a National Geographic Explorer is telling the stories of the many dedicated individuals who have helped to protect and preserve the public lands that so many of us love. Going back to the earliest days of the conservation movement, I am reminded of the great naturalist George Melendez Wright, who, in the 1920s, created many of the policies and methods of conservation biology that are still practiced today. A person of Latino descent, Wright led the charge to manage habitats that human visitors can negatively impact for the long-term success of these animal species. By emulating the environmental stewardship traditions of Native Americans – which date back thousands of years – he defined a preservation ethos that prevented the extinction of the bison, the trumpeter swan, the grey wolf and countless other animals that today are not only surviving but thriving in our national parks.
“If we destroy nature blindly, it is a boomerang which will be our undoing,” Wright once wrote. “Consecration to the task of adjusting ourselves to the natural environment so that we secure the best values from nature without destroying it is not useless idealism; it is good hygiene for civilization.”
Only when we share common stories are our national parks truly “America’s best idea.” The stories we tell ourselves about the past and how we express who we are in the presenthelp us better see ourselves as part of the same cultural heritage. “We don’t need to have a Latino connection to a place to know that we are part of one big natural system,” José said.
But as we find these compelling narratives of those who faithfully contributed to protectingour shared environmental legacy, we often discover that they can bring us closer together as a nation. As we celebrate Latino Conservation Week, I am excited to explore, find and share more amazing stories that reflect the natural heritage that unites us all.
Please join The Joy Trip Reading Project for our next online discussion with former acting National Park Service Director David Vela, author of “Hola Ranger: My Journey Through the National Parks.” We’ll gather on Thursday July 20, 2023, at 5PM Central Time.
Register for this online conversation via Zoom:
David Vela is the former superintendent of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. He has also worked as the National Park Service’s director for workforce and inclusion; director of the National Park Service Southeast region; and superintendent of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Site and Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. Vela has held other positions at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park in Texas, Appomattox Court House National Historical Park in Virginia; Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Nominated as director of the National Park Service in 2018, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted to advance Vela’s nomination, but he was never confirmed by the Senate. Vela joined the National Park Service’s Washington office as acting deputy director of operations. In September 2019, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced that he was promoting Vela to director on an acting basis. Vela is the first Latino to lead the National Park Service.
Author discussions on the Joy Trip Reading Project are made possible thanks to the support of the Schlecht Family Foundation, the National Geographic Society, and The National Park Service in partnership with the Together Outdoors and University of Wisconsin Madison Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies.