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

Page 2

I left the Grand Canyon and went to Los Angeles, where the West Los Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club invited me to visit a California recreation area. Kenny Hahn State Park is located less than four miles from where I grew up. Since high school, I'd driven past it thousands of times, never having realized that it was home to miles of hiking trails and a reservoir stocked with fish. On this particular occasion, I walked with a group of African-Americans who had been invited by the Sierra Club to explore a natural area close to home. Prior to this outing, the hikers never even realized that such a beautiful and easily accessible patch of nature was there, located at the very center of their community.

Sometimes, people -- regardless of race or ethnicity -- fail to spend time in nature simply because we don't know it's there and accessible. Truly, nature is all around us, but only those who seek it out are going to see its face.

On our hike, I met Felicia Richard, a 53-year-old African-American schoolteacher who has traveled all over the world. She told me of her trips to Europe, Africa and Asia.

"But I've never been to a national park," she said. "I just never liked the idea of all that camping."

Richard is well-educated and has the time and income to travel widely. Yet somehow, she was convinced that visiting a national park meant roughing it in a tent. And that is something she just doesn't do. Her perception is shared by many, people of color and whites alike. But it's a limiting one that takes a visit to a park out of the realm of possibility. And once that perception becomes a reality, Richard, like other African-Americans, gives up on the national parks. Instead, she seeks out alternative travel destinations.

"But then I saw Oprah went to Yosemite," she said. "And if Oprah can do it so can I.

And just like that, Richard's perspective changed. Oprah Winfrey's televised visit to Yosemite last year showed an audience of millions that the most prominent African-American citizen after the president of the United States could enjoy an overnight camping trip. With the right role models, encouragement, information and positive exposure, there's no reason in the world why more people of color can't spend time in nature –- and enjoy it.

But a change of this magnitude will require a shift in tactics by organizations like the Sierra Club or The Nature Conservancy –- groups that want to encourage diversity in the conservation movement. First, they have to overcome the apprehensions that many minorities feel. As West Los Angeles Sierra Club chairman David Haake put it, a multi-ethnic cohort could help to fulfill the organization's primary mission of preserving wilderness –- if it could directly engage communities of color.

"The Sierra Club actually comes in all different colors," he said. "We need to make a better effort to be inclusive and help everyone to participate."

As the demographic landscape of the nation shifts toward a non-white majority, the conservation movement's current lack of racial diversity could become its downfall. Environmental groups will need minorities (who will soon become the majority) to support state and federal legislation to preserve our wild places.

In response, conversation groups and the National Park Service are creating programs that are more welcoming and inclusive. Vanessa Torrez is a ranger at Teton National Park. As youth and diversity coordinator, she was instrumental in creating a new program called the NPS Academy. The program invites college students to visit the park on spring break, and thereby be exposed to many of the careers open to them in the National Park Service. Working in conjunction with the Teton Science School and the Student Conservation Association, the academy drew 29 students of racially diverse backgrounds from across the country.

"We were looking for students that had leadership skills, who were interested in the outdoors and wanted to take on this kind of commitment," Torrez said, "not just committing their spring break, but committing to internships during the summer. We placed 21 of the 29 students in summer jobs with the SCA or working for the National Park Service."

By inspiring a group of qualified minority applicants, programs like the NPS Academy are beginning to build a more diverse pool of Park Service workers. These programs are also creating future ambassadors -- young people who will return to their neighborhoods with positive park experiences that encourage others to follow in their footsteps.

And who knows? With our perceptions open to a broad spectrum of options maybe we’ll recognize that access to wilderness is like Bigfoot. It’s an idea that first takes shape in our minds, illusive to some and hard to imagine or even see. But it becomes real when we finally believe that it’s possible

James Mills is a freelance journalist and the creator of the blog/podcast series The Joy Trip Project

Travel for this essay was supported in part by Patagonia.