In search of diversity in our national parks

  • The Griffin family of Daytona Beach, Florida enjoying a summer vacation on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

    James Mills

In the crowd of tourists on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, the Griffin family immediately caught my eye. Allen, Hashmareen and their two small boys were surrounded by thousands of other visitors, but the Griffins stood out because they were among only a handful of African-Americans I encountered in my travels.

People of color are conspicuously absent at national parks and many other outdoor recreation areas. Why should that be so? Seeking an answer to that question, I recently drove to various well-known Western natural landmarks. In addition to the Grand Canyon, I explored Mesa Verde and Yosemite national parks, and spent time with conservation groups in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

That day at the Grand Canyon, I introduced myself to Griffin with a smile and handshake. I briefly explained to him the nature of my project -- I'm hoping to write a story on this issue -- and asked if he'd mind answering a few questions. He was surprised to discover that African-Americans make up less than 6 percent of visitors to national parks.

"It's very disconcerting," Griffin said. "We (African-Americans) have to be here. Otherwise, we're cut out of the opportunity to learn about and be part of our history and our country."

Throughout my travels, I was on the lookout for information and experiences to help me understand why, relatively speaking, so few people of color recreate in natural areas or pursue careers in conservation-related fields. At times, my journey resembled a search for a possibly mythological creature -- the kind of exotic beast that is glimpsed from a distance, but never fully seen in the clear light of day. And after three weeks, I ultimately found some clarity on two elusive issues: racial diversity in the national parks and the existence of Bigfoot.

As a person of color with 20 years' experience in the outdoor industry, I've long wrestled with vague notions about the racial tensions in this field. Despite a successful career, unfettered access to professional opportunities and no practical limitations on my enjoyment of the outdoors, I have always had a terrible feeling that I don't belong. And as I traveled around the national parks, I discovered I'm not alone in this perception.

Cliff Spencer, the superintendent of Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park, has worked for the Park Service for 27 years. Spencer, who is African-American, is one of few park superintendents of color in the agency.

"It's nothing I can prove, nothing I can bring into a court of law," Spencer said "But there's something else, beyond being an outsider. There's something there."

In today's allegedly "post-racial" America, this uncomfortable sensation is almost impossible to define. While there are no official barriers like the Jim Crow segregation laws that once barred blacks from parks, there remain several uncodified cultural limitations that discourage people of color from spending time outdoors or pursuing wilderness-related careers. Too often, when I've asked about recreating in nature, I've heard the phrase: "It's something that black people just don't do."

There are no longer signs that read "whites only." And there are no gun-toting Ku Klux Klansmen defending the entrances to our national parks. Despite this, relative to our percentage of the population, racial minorities in the United States utilize our national parks and recreation areas significantly less than our white counterparts. We possess an unsubstantiated belief that we just don't belong. And so we stay away. But the barriers blocking us from nature are not real things. Today, they exist only in our own minds.

Which brings me to Bigfoot. Now, I never entertained seriously the idea of a gigantic hominoid creature stalking the woods of North America. But in my first round of traveling through Colorado, I met a true believer.

Frank Smethurst is a professional fly-fishing guide from Telluride, who co-starred in the 2010 documentary film Eastern Rises. Set on the Kamchatka Peninsula of Eastern Russia, the movie details an amazing journey through one of the last truly pristine trout streams in the world. During several hilarious moments in the film, Frank expounds upon his belief in the legendary Bigfoot; there's even a scene at the end where he pulls on a hairy black costume. But there was a lot more to what I saw than just a gimmick intended for comic relief.

At the 5 Point Film Festival in Carbondale, where Eastern Rises was screened, I sidled up to Frank at a cocktail party. Over margaritas, he shared his beliefs.

"The thing about Bigfoot or Sasquatch or the Yeti or whatever you want to call it is their ability to suspend people's perceptions," Frank said. "There are things you just can't explain, but that doesn't mean they're not real."

At times, throughout the course of my research, I felt like I was looking for Bigfoot. With little to go on but my own gut feelings and sporadic sightings of black folks at campsites, I was hard-pressed to find an actual explanation for a strange phenomena: the fact that so few people of color spend much time in the natural world. Frank's words gave me a jolt, reminding me that just because I couldn't find a definitive answer did not mean the problem did not exist.

Strawberry Garcia
Strawberry Garcia says:
Jul 23, 2011 08:40 PM
Man this whole article was racist, the Bigfoot you we looking for is your own racism. As you admit there isn't anything overt or apparent but you feel it because there are no one there like "you". Because african Americans are absent you blame white Americans as you say with no evidence. You just feel comfortable with your own kind get over it most people feel that way.
James Mills
James Mills says:
Jul 24, 2011 07:20 AM
Strawberry Garcia, thanks for your comments. Your response reminds of a great piece that ran on NPR a few weeks ago: The story discusses how simply calling something racist diminishes a serious accusation into a meaningless expression that is almost comical. But in effect to call simply call something racist detracts from any attempt to engage in a worthwhile conversation on this topic. As race in our country in general and the environmental protection movement in particular is still a serious matter I want to respond to your thoughts with the gravity this subject requires. As my essay was meant to convey when it comes to experiencing nature today we have no one to blame but ourselves when we choose not to venture out into wild places. While I do indeed experience some degree of discomfort as typically the only person of color at a campsite or wilderness area I recognize that these feelings of apprehension are my own and not caused by external forces (like white Americans) at work to block my access. As I pointed out in my essay those days are long over. And now is the time for people of color and white’s alike to set aside our misgivings about spending time in nature. As we take steps forward toward a more diverse National Park System that truly reflects the face of the American people we should now each look within ourselves to discover ways to become engaged in the natural world and take part in efforts to protect it for future generations.
Strawberry Garcia
Strawberry Garcia says:
Jul 24, 2011 10:26 AM
Your article's attends there is racism but there is none as you state,"It's nothing I can prove, nothing I can bring into a court of law," Spencer said "But there's something else, beyond being an outsider. There's something there."
Then you point me to a story that states claiming something is racist takes my argument off the table, but the point of your story is there is racism at the parks because people of color are not there. You bring up the klan and Jim crow, maybe you should have wrote an article about being a trendsetter for African Americans or about how great it feels to be in nature.I went to a Chris Rocks show when he toured a few years back,the crowd was what it was Chris Rock fans mostly black a few whites not racist because it wasn't broken up on racial lines in our population to the correct percentages. The national parks are that way to, national park fans if you are not a fan you won't go, it is that simple.
James Mills
James Mills says:
Jul 24, 2011 11:35 AM
I sincerely appreciate this thoughtful conversation on this very important issue. And as there are a broad range of ideas on diversity in the National Park System I believe that it’s important to recognize that this topic is not simple at all.
    I bring up racially motivated violence and Jim Crow segregation because within the living memory of many African-Americans there remain very real prohibitions to spending time in nature. It is my intention however to assert that those barriers no longer exist. But as memory persists and with limited cultural context of positive experiences outdoors racism of the past encourages a lack of diversity today. I don’t believe that it is intentional. So it’s hard or even impossible to define it as racism. But it is a cultural phenomenon that exists and I believe needs to be understood.
    Your Chris Rock analogy is apt and highly appropriate to this conversation. I agree that an audience comprised primarily of African-Americans is by no means an indication of racism. However, as Rock’s style of entertainment is meant to reflect the cultural values and interests of black people the audience he intends to draw is obvious and conforms to his expectations. But the National Park System is completely different. As an American institution parks are meant to attract equally all citizens regardless of race. I believe there should be an expectation that one day domestic national park visitors will directly reflect the U.S. population in proportion to the demographic percentage of each race. We’re not there yet. And until we are I believe that we have a lot of work to do. That is not to suggest however that I advocate programs comparable to affirmative action. We can hardly install a quota system to boost numbers of minority park visitors. I do believe though that conservation groups that wish to become relevant and inclusive to a more diverse audience should directly engage communities of color and seek to address their cultural values and belief systems to encourage their participation in outdoor activities and wilderness conservation.
Strawberry Garcia
Strawberry Garcia says:
Jul 24, 2011 12:12 PM
Your answer to my Chris Rock statement answers your perceived problem of the lack of diversity in the park system, the parks do not attract blacks or whites they attract people that want to associate with the outdoors. If blacks are not comfortable outdoors you will not find them there in the numbers you want, this is what I content is your problem because the numbers don't match up you see a problem,  I  see people that are or are not interested in the outdoors. Because there are a lack of women fishing doesn't mean there is a diversity problem with fishing it just means there is a lack of interest in women fishing.
Beverly Brown
Beverly Brown says:
Jul 24, 2011 12:55 PM
Strawberry: I think you are missing one of the significant points of the article. The author states very clearly: "We possess an unsubstantiated belief that we just don't belong. And so we stay away. But the barriers blocking us from nature are not real things. Today, they exist only in our own minds."

The author is saying that African Americans stay away on their own and he is hoping to turn that around. Wanting diversity is not always an accusation of racism. The national parks are treasures that all Americans should want to use. Outdoor activity is healthy and every community should get involved with the wonderful outdoor activities available to us. The author is an advocate for universal appreciation and use of the parks and he wants his own community to be a part of it.
Strawberry Garcia
Strawberry Garcia says:
Jul 24, 2011 01:13 PM
Some of the most hateful things "exist only in our own minds"
As the author states "As a person of color with 20 years' experience in the outdoor industry, I've long wrestled with vague notions about the racial tensions in this field. Despite a successful career, unfettered access to professional opportunities and no practical limitations on my enjoyment of the outdoors, I have always had a terrible feeling that I don't belong. And as I traveled around the national parks, I discovered I'm not alone in this perception." this is what is in his mind. Because he wants diversity is not were I see racism, it's his belief that there is and underlying or hidden bias on the part of whites that there is a lack of blacks at the parks. So what is your answer for african americans "conspicuously absent at national parks"?
James Mills
James Mills says:
Jul 24, 2011 02:10 PM
By sharing my personal experience in this story I ran the risk of opening my thoughts and impressions up to public scrutiny. In doing so it is with deep anguish that I admit the contents of my own mind but there they are and here we begin our discussion. It is these thoughts that give me pause when venturing into wilderness and as some conversations have revealed to me there are others who share my apprehensions. But in taking responsibility for these limitations I put these beliefs aside and allow each experience, each interaction with every person I encounter in nature to inform and therefore define my reality. Having few if any negative experiences outdoors as it pertains to my race I am pleased to say that many if not all my fears and misgivings are unfounded. And it is my sincere hope that all people regardless of race will venture out and discover what I have discovered. Our access to nature is limited only by our desire and willingness to embrace it.
Strawberry Garcia
Strawberry Garcia says:
Jul 24, 2011 02:56 PM
I agree with you, the more people that enjoy the outdoors is just one more thing that's brings a shared experience that will bring us all closer in the end as Americans
Beverly Brown
Beverly Brown says:
Jul 24, 2011 03:19 PM
Strawberry, I am not sure why you do not seem to hear the fact that the author, though wrestling with this subject, continues to emphasize the fact that it is the African American community that has to open itself up to the world of the outdoors. I think if you want to understand some of the fears and hesitancy African Americans have about frequenting public parks, you might start by reading about the limitations of all travel we experienced in the US until perhaps the early 1970's. There is nothing hostile in simply acknowledging the fact that there were, for instance, many hotels until the late 60s and early 70s that did not accept African Americans as guests in the south, southwest and rural places in general. I am sorry if that is uncomfortable to hear, but in the context of this exchange you have to understand that many African American did not bother to go to many places simply because it was difficult logistically. Hence a culture that avoided many kinds of travel, including to national parks, evolved. The author is saying that those barriers do not exist anymore and that we have to rethink and open up to these opportunities. The author is openly voicing the process of introspection that sheds light on the fact that few African Americans frequent the parks and which is likely to help them understand why and to overcome unfounded fears that keep them away. Don't be offended by open discussions that touch on difficult topics. It is all good. This is a positive article. Sit back and let it sit for a while. I am sure you will hear the intention of the author if you do.
martha the great
martha the great says:
Jul 24, 2011 03:22 PM
strawberry, i'm not seeing where the author says there is racism. can someone point this out to me?
martha the great
martha the great says:
Jul 24, 2011 03:39 PM
beverly, thanks for the background. i think that most people don't know much about this history, which i think is useful in understanding this issue. it's been my experience that some people's reaction to any specific mention of race or culture or ethnicity is to say that the mere mention of such is in itself racist, which simply takes dialogue off the table. obviously, that's counterproductive when what we all want is a healthy discussion that will benefit everyone, ultimately.
Strawberry Garcia
Strawberry Garcia says:
Jul 24, 2011 04:16 PM
As the author states, again let me quote "As a person of color with 20 years' experience in the outdoor industry, I've long wrestled with vague notions about the racial tensions in this field. Despite a successful career, unfettered access to professional opportunities and no practical limitations on my enjoyment of the outdoors, I have always had a terrible feeling that I don't belong. And as I traveled around the national parks, I discovered I'm not alone in this perception." Why does he not belong, who is keeping black american's from the parks?

"In today's allegedly "post-racial" America, this uncomfortable sensation is almost impossible to define." His use of the term "allegedly post racial" says there is a racial component to the fact of the lack of minorities in the parks.
"Seeking an answer to that question, I recently drove to various well-known Western natural landmarks. In addition to the Grand Canyon, I explored Mesa Verde and Yosemite national parks, and spent time with conservation groups in Los Angeles and San Francisco." Who goes to national parks with the goal to encounter people of color, i've never heard of this.
I would content the answer he is looking for is simple, just like my fishing analogy people stay in their comfort zones and right now national parks are not in the comfort zones of many african americans because the population of african americans in this country is mostly urban, this is why you don't have the numbers in the parks it is that simple. White or black city folks just aren't as comfortable in these settings. half the stupid reality tv shows on tv today take people out of there comfort zones, this is what we call entertainment today.
martha speaks
martha speaks says:
Jul 24, 2011 04:49 PM
i'm still not seeing where he is supposed to be saying that it's racism. unless by '[His use of the term "allegedly post racial" says] there is a racial component to the fact of the lack of minorities in the parks' what you really mean (but haven't actually said) is racIST component? because he's talking about one specific racial minority, so that would be your racIAL component. pointing out that there aren't many black people visiting our national parks is not saying that there is racism. to continue the longstanding tradition of really bad examples, there aren't very many non-white characters on primetime broadcast non-cable network tv shows set in new york city or los angeles, yet those tv shows are supposed to be meant for more or less everyone, and are supposed to and assumed to reflect what those cities look like in reality. if i say that, in those words, do you hear "primetime tv is racist"? because that's not calling that racist either.

have you ever wondered why you think that "the population of african americans in this country is mostly [more] urban [than that of white americans]"?

i'm going to have to disagree with your idea that city dwellers don't feel comfortable in national parks... and especially with the implication that rural people do.
Strawberry Garcia
Strawberry Garcia says:
Jul 24, 2011 05:01 PM
Martha Did you even read the article? I can cut and paste his quotes all day but if you don't read it that is up to you. The author is looking for the reason why there is a lack of minorities that visit national parks don't you get that i gave you my reason for the lack of it what is yours? The author I contend the reason is some hidden racism that he cannot see, or that might be in his mind. I stated my reason. When Martha speaks i guess that should be the last word.
martha speaks
martha speaks says:
Jul 24, 2011 05:12 PM
another couple of really bad examples and potential exceptions that prove the rule:

hot springs, arkansas (as in hot springs national park) is 20% black or asian or native or latino or some combination of the above. and a little over half of st john, usvi is a national park.

so, some african americans actually live really close to some of the national parks of this country.
Strawberry Garcia
Strawberry Garcia says:
Jul 24, 2011 05:20 PM
I didn't write the article that is James's contention maybe he should have visited those parks maybe his numbers would have been better.
martha speaks
martha speaks says:
Jul 24, 2011 05:25 PM
strawberry, i read the article three times because i thought i was missing something.

the way i understand it, the author is saying not that there is a vat conspiracy of racism locking black people out of national parks, but that there seems to be something that black people are feeling that keeps them from visiting national parks. i could be totally wrong about that.

it seems to me that the your understanding of the article is that the author is saying that what is keeping black people away from national parks is racism -- but i can't find that in the article, even with your quotes.

am i understanding you correctly? or are you saying that you -- you, not the author -- think that whatever it is is racism?

i think part of my problem understanding what you're saying is that there's no way to edit these comments after sending and your comments are missing some words here and there in your comments.

i get the vibe that you are feeling a little attacked, maybe, with the first and last sentences of your last comment (starting with "Martha Did you even read the article?"). that makes me feel bad for you, because i don't think anyone here is doing that or wants to give that impression. i don't, for sure.

i'll think some more about my reason for the lack of minorities visiting our national parks and get back to you. i'm not so sure i agree that it would be some hidden racism.

what does anyone else think?
Strawberry Garcia
Strawberry Garcia says:
Jul 24, 2011 05:48 PM
My answer is simple people stay in their comfort zones and right now national parks are not in the comfort zones of many african americans because the population of african americans in this country is mostly urban, this is why you don't have the numbers. Urban populations aren't as comfortable in a natural setting is my contention.I believe the author sees racism as an unseen force that he can't put his finger on, is what i take is his reason for lack of minority visitors.
Felicia Davis
Felicia Davis says:
Jul 25, 2011 03:48 AM
I love the outdoors and I have spent time and resources introducing African American urban youth to the wonders of nature. While we all experience nature in similar ways we approach from our cultural base. I can remember as a child my parents having to seek out places where Blacks could find lodging at the beach or in the mountains. The "No Vacancy" light came on and reservations evaporated upon arrival because we were Black. The experience angered and humiliated my parents but we still hiked, camped out and have memories that inspire us to pass on a love of nature to our children. It would have been easy to avoid these encounters and many did. For people with a history so connected to the land this is one way that the separation from nature took place. We also have caution in our DNA placed there by our history. Just consider the representation of Blacks in literature. Compare images Black slaves chased by dogs running through the woods to Tom Sawyer's adventure or Waldon Pond. Race is a factor only because it permeates American society. We actually see people as Black and White and we believe color makes a difference let's call it hyper race sensitivity. It is in our collective best interest to encourage all groups to experience our National Parks. Frank and Audrey Peterman's Legacy of the Land is work a read for anyone seriously interested in this topic. Audrey and Frank Peterman have been pioneers in the green and conservation movement since 1995.They are among the leading experts on America’s publicly-owned lands system. They are tenacious advocates for breaking the color barrier and integration of our natural treasures as a way for all Americans, including children, youth, adults and seniors regardless of ethnic heritage to better appreciate our collective history and achieve a truly democratic society.

Audrey’s journalistic abilities are apparent in Legacy on the Land as she so vividly describes their adventures from the east to the west coast in the national parks. Opening the door to a little-known world of beauty, history, inspiration and opportunity
in our own backyards:Legacy on the Land: A Black Couple Discovers Our National Inheritance and Tells Why Every American Should Care.
• Exhorts us to explore these public lands while exposing our children to their birthright.
• Demolishes the common stereotype that people of color are not interested in the environment.
• Reveals the systemic barriers that keep the face of conservation white and Anglo.
• Shows that all Americans have a role to play in the protection of our public lands, and that our environment can only be “saved” when all of us are included and committed to the effort
For Whites that don't believe racism exists I encourage you to tell your friends and employers that you just found out that your great-grandmother was Black. If you are right there won't be any reaction and you won't have any problem with the little experiment. Try it for just a week. You might be surprised.
James Mills
James Mills says:
Jul 25, 2011 05:14 AM
Thanks for sharing your story Felicia. Frank and Audrey are good friends and constant sources of inspiration that encourage my own continued interest in exposing outdoor recreation to a broader audience. Definitely check out their book and website:
Beverly Brown
Beverly Brown says:
Jul 25, 2011 06:10 AM
Thank you Martha for your perspective on the article and comments made. Thank you Felicia for addressing, so eloquently, some of the deeper issues that had been unstated to this point and for mentioning Audrey and Frank Peterman who inspire me everyday
James, keep writing on the subject. It is so important!
Angelou Ezeilo
Angelou Ezeilo says:
Jul 25, 2011 08:38 AM
Thank you, all, for this spirited discussion on a very important topic. As an African American woman who has committed her career to ensuring there is access to the outdoors and opportunity in the outdoor industry for youth of color, on some level, I believe this is exactly where we must start- talking. Although the discussions at times will be uncomfortable, we have to push through and keep asking the tough questions. Education and marketing are critical. Great article!
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell says:
Jul 25, 2011 09:04 AM
James you might be interested in looking into the America's Great Outdoors Program. I read a lot about it when it was being conceived and it seems to address peripherally some of the issues you bring up. Urban people establishing a connection to the public parks and forests especially under represented minorities. I also somewhere remember reading of some sort of mentoring or summer hire program to encourage lifetime employment in the Parks and various departments of fish and wildlife.

On a personal level I know that AAs are under represented in the sportsmans community and wish more would take part in what is an enjoyable and enriching pursuit, (besides providing nutritious chemical free meat for the table)
James Mills
James Mills says:
Jul 25, 2011 09:18 AM
Thanks for pointing that out Robb. I wrote about America's Great Outdoors Program a few weeks ago at the High Country News environmental justice blog "A Just West":[…]/americas-great-outdoors-diversity-initiative This recent writing project took it off my radar screen over the past few weeks but it would be a good idea to check in to see how it is progressing. Truly, early engagement of youth to outdoor recreation as both a pastime and a career are vital to increase diversity. By targeting low-income and minority youth in particular we have an excellent opportunity to inspire a generation of multi-ethnic activists.
Strawberry Garcia
Strawberry Garcia says:
Jul 25, 2011 10:12 AM
I filially see the racism is mine because of the sins of my father, but not my father he is from Canada. How about this, In search of diversity at Air-shows (insert any related non ethnically supported activity) sounds good.
Small numbers of minorities there has to be racism or some hidden past maybe Jim crow laws in hotels on the way to decades past Air-shows (insert any related non ethnically supported activity). The narrative fits so lets use it. To be "post racial" is to think post racial, I now what you are thinking: that sounds good coming from a honkie.
    "Your Freedom ends where my Freedom begins and vice versa"
James Ezeilo
James Ezeilo says:
Jul 25, 2011 11:54 AM
 Wow! After so many years in this industry, not much has changed. In fact it may be worse. This (outdoor diversity) has been a constant theme in conversations from the administration (America’s Great Outdoors) to the people that work in the outdoor industry (REI, Patagonia etc.). However talk is cheap!
What is stopping people of color from enjoying the great outdoors has very little to do with access or knowledge or information. I still hesitate to visit certain sites with my family because I am tired of the looks and comments from white visitors when we arrive. I feel as though some white visitors that we encounter are surprised and disappointed that we have decided to crash their outdoor experience. The same can be said for the people working at some of our nations national outdoor treasures. On more than one occasion, my family has into the visitor’s center to buy maps and ask questions, after having witnessed a warm greeting offered to the white family ahead of us in line only to be faced with a cold stare when we reached the counter. Yet in an effort to not ruin the trip for our kids, my wife and I become overly friendly to the people working there to hopefully “warm them up” and convince them that we are good visitors to “their” outdoors.
I believe the problem rests with the outdoor industry and their marketing bias. For many years, the industry has perpetuated an image of what the outdoor family should look like. Almost always we see a white family properly outfitted (the right backpack, the right boots, the right jacket etc...) and ready for action. This image is not isolated in one single brand but is constant throughout the entire industry.
As I know many people working within the industry I am convinced that they have no ill intentions or racist motives. However almost all the people I know working in the industry are white. And as far as I can tell, all the ad agencies contracted to sell their products are run and staffed by white people – see a trend?
It’s no surprise that white people believe that the outdoors belong to them. This is not a racist view but a learned position. Most white people have grown up seeing people that look like them in advertisements and promotional material depicting outdoor activity and recreation.
For people of color however, the issue is different but connected. A person of color must first overcome the mental hurdle of not seeing any images of people that look like themselves participating in outdoor activity. After completing this jump, they must now deal with the frustration and fear of feeling unwelcome and unwanted in that environment.
With a population that is increasingly multi-cultural, not simply white or black but Hispanic, Asian and an ever growing number of mixed-race children from non-traditional households, there has to be a change in the projected imagery of the outdoor enthusiast.
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder says:
Jul 25, 2011 04:46 PM
Strawberry seems to be engaging in a bit of defensiveness or axe-grinding. Fact is that for most people, beliefs such as the ones the author tackles are multi-generational and handed down within families and communities. They're not set aside at the snap of a finger.
Strawberry Garcia
Strawberry Garcia says:
Jul 25, 2011 08:43 PM
Sorry I couldn't blog I was enjoying a diversity free activity "sailing". It was awesome no people of color no homosexuals no lgbthc's mno kids,no budist, christians or jews, just pure sailing with 100% white people.I didn't no sailing was so white but i guess if you are the only one out there its 100%. The point is quit whining and get out there enjoy the outdoors don't worry what the head counters think. A little diversity would have been nice, if one other person would have shown up we would've had a lot of diversity.
Clayton Bliss
Clayton Bliss says:
Jul 25, 2011 10:26 PM
Even if the author's piece did allude to perceived racism, he makes it clear in his first response to Mr. Garcia that he did not intend to accuse anyone of racism. As is made clear both in the original piece and Mr. Mills' responses, it is an open question as to why the numbers of blacks in public lands is disproportionately small, and to me his piece was an exploratory one; not a manifesto rallying against an evil imposed by non-blacks, but an introspective essay looking for any possible answers. As a white person, I did not feel that Mr. Mills expressed any rancor towards me or my race, but was simply broaching a topic that many of us--white or black or whatever--have long noticed but rarely discussed.

On the other hand, Strawberry makes a valid point (probably also made by Mr. Mills; and if not I'm sure he recognizes it) that it isn't just African Americans who are underrepresented in public lands, but urban-dweller (regardless of color). To me, this seems a much more fruitful approach--focusing on what is really preventing people from experiencing public lands, which is the disconnecting effect that living an urban existence has on many people. We all can relate to this, even those of us who only rarely (and grudgingly) spend time in cities. And it affects us all, regardless of race. Obviously, this issue is becoming more of one, as cities become home to increasingly larger numbers of people.
James Mills
James Mills says:
Jul 25, 2011 10:45 PM
Clayton Bliss, thank you very much for your thoughtful and kind comments. I'm very pleased that you understand the sincerity of my intentions to engage this very complex issue with as much sensitivity as humanely possible. You reiterate an excellent point made by Strawberry. As historic issues of race fade into the past our concern over creating a constituency of citizens motivated to spend time in and protect the natural environment will ultimately full to a growing population that primarily inhabit urban centers. In 2007 for the first time in humane history numbers of people world-wide were greater in cities than in rural farming communities. That trend is not likely to reverse itself any time soon. Therefore it has never been more important to provide experiential education to urban youth and their parents to encourage stewardship of the natural places on our planet that are so critical to supporting human life.
Peter Benson
Peter Benson says:
Jul 26, 2011 03:18 PM
To quote Avenue Q "We're all just a little bit racist"
In other words, The way someone looks influences what we expect of them. Our own ethnicity or notion of group membership affects what we think we can or should do or say.
Thankfully capital R Racism with conscious exclusion or meanness or belittling is quite rare and frowned upon, but expectations can change people's actions, and those little r racist expectations generally come out in ways that are harder to pin down.

Those preconceptions and a sense of group membership can provide some comfort, but also can be used to generate fear.

The point I'm trying to make is that most of us live up to the stereotypes about the group we belong to. If neither your family nor your family's friends have a camping out or outdoorsy tradition then you will be out of your comfort zone going camping. If you're a Mets fan, and someone says "Mets fans don't go camping", even jokingly, then you are even less likely to even try something outdoorsy when the opportunity arises.

This is a political issue. If most people don't think outdoorsy issues affect them, then the political or industry group with the most money to make will be driving all the decisions.
Janet O Chapple
Janet O Chapple says:
Jul 27, 2011 09:01 AM
I am glad to see a discussion of the numerical imbalance of people of color in our national parks. This is an issue that has been on my mind for several years, but so far, I have not begun to understand why so few black and Hispanic folks visit Yellowstone Park, which is the park I visit every year.

As I watched the 2009 Ken Burns/Dayton Duncan TV series on our national parks, I thought it might help that they interviewed the very articulate and obviously dedicated black Yosemite ranger, Shelton Johnson, at some length.

That was before I attended an independent publishers meeting (in May 2010), where I brought up the subject with two black women publishers I met at an informal gathering. I asked them what I could do or what could be done in general to encourage people to try the outdoor experience. Their suggestion was to get a famous black musician or athlete to set an example and publicize his or her trip in media popular with black people. That conversation happened to take place shortly before Oprah went on her well-publicized camping trip. When she did that, I thought that might help the situation, but trips like that probably need to be replicated by many other prominent and influential people of color over a period of time to begin to make a difference. Incidentally, at least in Yellowstone, it is not necessary to camp out to enjoy the park; there are cabins and hotels ranging in price from $30 to $235 a night.

This summer I saw more black people in Yellowstone than in former years—but not very many more. And the most interesting thing was that at least three or maybe four of the families I observed consisted of two white parents and one small black child. And those families were not traveling in a group. I speculated that the parents had had previous positive outdoor experiences and wanted to introduce Yellowstone to their adopted children. Unfortunately, I did not feel it was my place to introduce myself to anyone or start a conversation, as James Mills did on his trip.

So I have no answers, but I plan to keep seeking them. I grew up in a Montana town with almost no black residents. Now I live in a California city—one with a large black population (28%)—and I can understand how people with no experience of forests, rivers, and mountains would feel out of place in our parks. Fortunate to live near Yellowstone as a child, I learned early on what a difference a week or two spent outdoors every year can make in your life. I’m sure it would do the same for anyone willing to go, observe, ask questions, and absorb the lessons nature can teach us.

All Americans, as well as people from other countries who are able to travel, should feel welcome in our national parks and should be given the opportunity to appreciate what the parks have to offer us. Programs like the NPS Academy Mills tells us about are surely a good idea. I can’t say how we should solve it, but discussing the problem is a step in the right direction.

Janet Chapple, author and publisher
Yellowstone Treasures: The Traveler’s Companion to the National Park
Oakland, CA
James Mills
James Mills says:
Jul 27, 2011 09:22 AM
Thanks for your comments. Shelton Johnson and I became friends during the lead up to the release of Ken Burns' documentary. He's been very helpful in defining my thoughts around this issue and has contributed mightily to several of my other stories in recent years. He was a primary source for a peice I produced for the Public Radio International program "To The Best of Our Knowlege" on The Buffalo Soldiers and their role in creating Yosemite at the turn of the last century:
In fact he shared with me his letter to Oprah in early 2009 that prompted her visit to Yosemite last summer. If you haven't yet I suggest you read Shetlon's novel "Gloryland". Or catch his live presentation next time you're in the park.
Rue Mapp
Rue Mapp says:
Jul 27, 2011 11:23 AM
Thank you James,

I am so excited about this article because 1) it's well done, and 2) it is pushing this challenging discussion in the direction it needs to go.

The only way we are going to collectively move the needle toward greater participation of ALL Americans in the outdoors and in nature, is to aim sunshine on the thoughts and opinions that symbolize some of the barriers we must dissolve.

So thank you Strawberry Garcia, and all others who take exception to this needed focus - you help us understand better the work we need to do.

Rolling up my sleeves,

Rue Mapp
Outdoor Afro
Wayne L Hare
Wayne L Hare says:
Jul 28, 2011 11:15 AM
Good blog. Good discussion. Strawberry Garcia's angry comments should be a heads up. Although Mills was neither playing the blame game, nor the so-called race card, Garcia chose to fabricate accusations where none exist. The lack of diversity in National Parks is an important wake up call for the future protection of public lands for sure, and an issue unto its self. But it is also just one of many windows into the current and continued state of our relations. As Garcia sarcastically points out, diversity hardly exist anywhere, not just National Parks. His solution would be, 'get over it!(and live with the way things have alway been). But I gotta believe that the current state of angry political and social discourse, largely fueled by the Tea Party and their "Take Back America" (to exactly what?) campaign and philosophy, is a less-than-conscious reaction to the changing demographics, made all the more visible by a black president, and the perceived change in privilege and power. Yeah, diversity in National well as elsewhere. Sailing for instance, Mr. Garcia.
Stephanie Christophe
Stephanie Christophe says:
Jul 28, 2011 02:51 PM
I don't see that any part of this is racist. But I also don't want to participate in beating that dead horse. What I would like to point out, however, is that WE (Black Americans)hold ourselves back from SO many experiences! Some of us are lucky enough have been exposed to enjoying and appreciating the great outdoors from an early age. My husband and I are that way. So, when we go hiking, we make it a point to invite others that may not have had those experiences. We've convinced some, and most have loved it once exposed. Others say it's not their "thing". OK, no problem. But the ones that get to me are the ones that say, "That's stuff white people do." I find that kind of talk assinine. Tanning (for instance) is something white people do. Enjoying nature should be universal!
Cornelia Throp
Cornelia Throp says:
Jul 28, 2011 03:13 PM
Incidentally, I wonder how much of this has to do with urban/rural demographics. I am not African American, but most of my African American friends and acquaintances have been urban and have just plain not been into the wilderness and/or camping-- just like many urban white and Latin American friends. On the other hand, most of my white and latin American friends have been "into the outdoors", but are from suburban or rural backgrounds. My few African American friends who have been interested in more wilderness oriented activities (rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking, camping, and riding horses) have been from more rural or suburban backgrounds. In any case, I don't think that is the single explanation by any means, but I do wonder if there is a correlation. I have seen statistics saying that a higher percentage of African American people than white or Latin American people (I don't remember the statistics for other demographic groups) live in urban areas and it would make sense that people from urban areas would tend to frequent "the great outdoors" less, due to less exposure growing up, etc.
Stephanie Christophe
Stephanie Christophe says:
Jul 28, 2011 03:25 PM
Yes, Cornelia Throp, that is definitely part of the reason, however, once exposed to different activities, people should be open to give it a try. For instance, I don't SCUBA because 1) I was not brought up around that activity, 2) I have a fear of deep water, 3) I get a strange claustrophobic feeling just thinking about it, but I will NEVER not SCUBA because I don't think it's a Black thing!
James Mills
James Mills says:
Jul 28, 2011 03:58 PM
Despite the very personal and sensitive nature of this very complex issue, ALL the comments to date have been very thoughtful and well reasoned. At this point in the discussion serves no one to resort to name-calling or personal attacks. Please everyone. Let's keep this conversation civil and be respectful of each others' opinions. I'm truly honored to have to privilege of moderating this exchange all I ask is that we maintain the integrity in which it was created.
Shadia Wood
Shadia Wood says:
Jul 28, 2011 05:39 PM
Thank you James, so much for your article and the comments. Take Care.
Donna Childress
Donna Childress says:
Jul 28, 2011 11:30 PM
You may have seen this already, but there's a roundtable discussion on the topic in the July issue of Outside magazine, billed as "The Outdoors Are Too White. Discuss." Outside mentions that even in their own pages, only 103 photos of nearly 7,000 over a decade showed African-Americans - and yet shows a white man on the cover of that issue.

There's also a new group called Black Women Bike DC ([…]/gIQA9cPm7H_story.html) that addresses the racial gap in cycling.

Perhaps the issue is starting to get more visibility?
James Mills
James Mills says:
Jul 30, 2011 01:30 PM

I actually got wind of this panel discussion while in the process of my own research on this topic. I’ve met or spoken to each of the people involved. This particular discussion was prompted by the work of Dr. Carolyn Finney of my alma mater UC Berkeley who briefly presented her findings at the first Breaking the Color Burrier to the Great Outdoors Conference in Atlanta a few years ago. I wasn’t terribly surprised to hear that of 6,986 photos that appeared in 44 issues of Outside Magazine between 1991 and 2001, only 103 showed African-Americans. It should also be pointed out that of these images most of them depicted a prominent black sports figure photographed in an urban setting.
    While I applaud Outside for publishing these finding and the transcript of a very interesting discussion I have to take them to task for not responding with an acknowledgement of the role this magazine and other forms of popular media play to reinforce the idea that people color do not speed time in nature. Several phone calls and emails to senior editors and the public relationship department at Outside for a comment on Dr. Finney’s research went unanswered. Having posted this story online (I don’t know if it appears in print) the magazine is taking a very positive step in the right direction. However, I believe that if Outside is serious about addressing this issue they should invest the time and resources to devote editorial attention to it as High Country News has in hosting this conversation.
James Mills
James Mills says:
Jul 30, 2011 01:31 PM
Again to Outside’s credit, in 1997 the magazine published an outstanding story on the black experience in nature by Eddy L. Harris called Solo Faces This author of “A Mississippi Solo”, “South of Haunted Dreams” and other excellent stories explores people of color and their relationship with the natural world. The piece was apparently republished in 2004. But that was a very long time ago and I am personally eager to read more accounts of African-Americans and other minorities as they venture into wild places.
    But frankly I will not blame Outside Magazine or other adventure publications for leaving out people of color. It’s up to us to tell our own stories and develop audiences for tales that come from our journeying outdoors. Popular media as the name implies will typically only pursue stories that are clearly in the public eye. And if African-Americans expect better media coverage of our lives outdoors we really must be more vocal in extolling our exploits. I know from my own experience that professional adventurers and explorers aggressively lobby magazines and newspapers to tell their stories. So if black climbers or skiers or paddlers want more pictures in print we’re going to have to do a better job of promoting ourselves and our stories. The fault can only lie with mainstream media if they fail to seek these stories out and continue to assume they do not exist. And as many who have written here can tell you they certainly do.
Travis Imel
Travis Imel says:
Jul 30, 2011 02:03 PM
Enthusiasts are made and not born. Here is an example of the importance to get children and families involved in being outdoors early. Not just the teaching in schools and what is on television. All people must have the desire to do something before you can expect get them to be involved. A little simple minded thought be a simple minded person.
Meagan Stewart
Meagan Stewart says:
Aug 01, 2011 10:15 AM
James, have you read any academic studies on diversity in parks? That to me seems like a good starting place when looking for any 'bigfoot' (elusive answer) and I'd love to hear more about what research has been done so far.
Marcelo Bonta
Marcelo Bonta says:
Aug 04, 2011 06:58 PM
Thanks for bringing the issue and the stories of people of color to the mainstream. It’s a great article- very thoughtful, questioning, bringing curiosity, not blaming. As someone who has studied the lack of diversity in the environmental movement for over a decade, a root cause is the institutional and cultural race issues and exclusion that pervade the environmental movement. In today’s day and age, the lack of diversity in the environmental movement is no one’s fault, but everyone’s responsibility. One of the main reasons there is such a visible lack of diversity is because the NPS and the mainstream conservation movement was founded in the late 1800s, when racism was prevalent in U.S. society and no one has made a conscientious and comprehensive effort to address the situation. The National Park Service was created in a time when our nation was drastically much different in terms of race relations- people of color were excluded in many parts of society, with Jim Crow laws and other written and unwritten rules. Interracial marriage was not permitted. Native Americans were kicked off their homes to create parks, like Yellowstone, for the dominion of rich, white males (see Environmentalism’s Elist Tinge has Roots in the Movement’s History at Some of the mainstream conservation movement’s foremost names held racist tendencies- Teddy Roosevelt was part of the Eugenics Movement (see Conservation and Eugenics: The environmental movement’s dirty little secret at[…]/) and John Muir described Native Americans as "mostly ugly, and some of them altogether hideous” and “poor, lazy, and dirty” (Letters from Alaska by Muir, Edited by Engberg & Merrell)
While these gentlemen have been key in creating the park system and protecting wilderness, its important understand them as real people with their greatness and flaws alike. Understanding our complete history will allow us to fully address the gravity and truth of the situation and to understand why there is a lack of diversity in park visitation, the NPS, and the mainstream conservation movement as a whole. While people of color have agency in deciding to connect with National Parks or not, it would be ignorant of us all if we don’t recognize the cultural and institutional (stemming from a history that has not treated people equally or equitably) barriers in place that continue to divide us. Once we comprehensively address these challenges, then we will truly see a National Park Service for all.
bill stout
bill stout says:
Dec 18, 2011 05:41 PM
I agree with the author that lack of diverse visitors and supporters of the outdoors is a problem, and I welcome efforts by NPS and others to overcome it. I am a white, middle aged Coloradoan who grew up in the deep south. Here are a few thoughts I have about the situation. Many of the people I know like outdoor pursuits because of good memories with our parents, churches and scouts who planted these seeds in our formative years. Also, outdoors sports can be intimidating until you get enough experience to know what you are doing. I see many classes now that cater to women for teaching outdoor skills for this reason. Historically, participation in scouting and camping organizations has mostly been middle class, and these organizations were racist and classist until the late 60's or early 70's--and change comes slowly even with good intentions. In Colorado today, middle class Latino kids seem to be joining eagerly in organized outdoor activities through schools, clubs, etc., but I get the impression that most lower income families are not. I am also starting to see more Latinos who recognize that camping and boating can be done on a moderate budget and who seem to see car camping in a national forest as affordable way to get away for a weekend. Camping and the outdoors was simply "cool" in my slice of society, so we were encouraged to do it.
James Mills
James Mills says:
Dec 18, 2011 07:37 PM
Good comments Bill. There is a lot to be said for making the outdoors simply "cool" for as many people as possible
Kina Rebekah
Kina Rebekah says:
Dec 20, 2011 08:13 PM
First of all James, this is not just your quest. There are several organizations dedicated to increasing diversity in conservation, environmental justice, biology, and ecology. Some of those are The center for Diversity and the Environment, The Diverse Partners for Environmental Progress and there are others including our own National Park Service. So this is by no means your personal mission. Try reading the book, Diversity and The US Environmental Movement by Emily Enderly. Look up Audry Peterman, she has a whole newsletter on the subject. My father is the former Deputy Director of the National Park Service and the Former Director of the California State Parks, we are as African American as they come. There are lots of reasons why people of color do not enjoy the wilderness in the same way that white people do. One of those reasons is the rather insensitive and horrific stories that were told about Native Americans and African Americans on the interpretive signs in parks, which have now been changed. But there are endless reasons. Engaging in dialogue with overly sensitive white people, I suspect, will only send you backward in time and your endeavor. The last thing any people of color need is more programs set up by white people to "HELP" us. One of the first National Park was donated by a black family, and they received much persecution for it that lingers to this day, not for doing it, but because our national gov did not want a park donated by "Black People". One of the first activist for the National Parks was a black family who walked across the country to raise money for the parks at a time when we could not even vote. So try getting in touch with some organizations who actually have already researched this stuff and know a lot about the facts instead of instigating the same old tired arguments, where white people yell that you are racist because you actually value who you are instead of thinking THEY have the answers to anything. Loving ones self does not make one racist and yep, the environmental movement will not survive without people of color because white people are soon to be the minority.
Kina Rebekah
Kina Rebekah says:
Dec 20, 2011 08:21 PM
Didn't see all the comments. I see Marcelo already commented.