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.

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