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for people who care about the West

Whiteness reigns in a new film celebrating national parks

 

The new film National Parks Adventure aims to inspire its viewers, as producer Shaun MacGillivray puts it, “to get off their couches and get outdoors.” Its destination of choice is our national parks, which are celebrating 100 years of management by the National Park Service in 2016. MacGillivray and his crew used every IMAX 3-D trick at their disposal, from jaw-dropping aerial footage of sun-splattered landscapes to in-your-face encounters with furry, squeaky creatures like prairie dogs.

As if the visual feast weren’t enough, the film also serves up actor-environmentalist Robert Redford as narrator, climber Conrad Anker as narrative focal point, and a soundtrack that features rocker Bruce Springsteen.  But missing from the buffet, as usual, is the story of the parks’ future ––the one filled with those diverse people who will not only enable the parks’ continued existence but, as the impending nonwhite majority in this country, provide the political, economic and spiritual wherewithal to ensure the future of the planet.

The film gets off to a promising start with its mention of Native Americans and their belief that this country’s “natural wonders belong to no one, they belong to us all.” But to go from that utterance to Springsteen’s version of the Woody Guthrie classic “This Land is Your Land” renders most everything in between not only as antithetical, but also as a continuing indictment of the National Park Service’s overwhelming whiteness.

This land doesn’t appear to be made for you and me if a significant number of us are missing from the picture. And National Parks Adventure, which opens globally on Feb. 12, feeds this perception by illustrating the national parks experience as an almost exclusively white one. 

A still from from the film National Parks Adventure.
The trick to solving the diversity issue, of course, is to actually begin diversifying. Otherwise, absent outside agitation, there’s little potential for recognizing that diversity indeed is an issue. The people affected aren’t at the table.

This is the challenge for the production company, MacGillivray Freeman, known for producing IMAX hits including Everest, Dolphins and The Living Sea. When asked about diversity in his film following a Seattle screening, Shaun MacGillivray, the president of the production house, hailed the film’s opening remarks about Native Americans. When asked if he’d considered actually showing Native Americans and other people of color onscreen, MacGillivray said, “If my crack research team had found a character with a more diverse story, we would have considered using one.”

Here’s one his team might have found: Ryan Hudson may be no Conrad Anker, but he is a black professional snowboarder with a compelling backstory. Hudson grew up in and out of homeless shelters until, at 14, his life was changed by an introduction to snowboarding by Outdoor Outreach, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering at-risk youth through outdoor activities. Hudson was part of an expedition, led by Anker, that attempted to climb Denali. Which likely was the reason Hudson was with Anker, his stepson, Max Lowe, and friend Rachel Pohl at one of the film’s more spectacular stops in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Seashore.

We know Hudson is there because Pohl mentions his presence. If you watch carefully, without blinking, you’ll see him on the screen, ever so briefly. What a lost opportunity.

MacGillivray also said that the filmmakers also wanted to portray John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, the architects of the Park Service, “who just happened to be white.” The only semblance of diversity is shown in some of the user-generated content near the end of the 43-minute film. The National Park Service should have known better, yet it allowed a project to be executed with blatant racial ignorance.

The agency hasn’t delivered on pre-centennial promises to ramp up diversity efforts. Its ranks remain 82 percent white, about the same as its visitation, in a country that is 38 percent nonwhite and growing fast. Even the National Park System Advisory Board found that “despite ongoing efforts to address diversity gaps, the Park Service is perceived by stakeholders as neither diverse nor inclusive.” 

National Parks Adventure attempts to herald the national parks road trip as quintessentially American, but instead proves the conceit as quintessentially white American. When Springsteen belts out, “This land is your land,” a much too significant portion of this country is forced to disagree. In essence, MacGillivray’s work reflects too closely the history of the agency it celebrates. And as a film, it joins a cinematic legacy long dominated by sci-fi flicks that rarely consider the presence of people of color in anyone’s future. 

Glenn Nelson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. He is the founder of The Trail Posse, which documents and encourages diversity and inclusion in the outdoors. He tweets @trailposse.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.