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Know the West

In search of diversity in our national parks


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.

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.