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 [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • WRITING PLACE: THE ANIMAS RIVER REGION WRITING WORKSHOP
    REGISTER ONLINE BY: Friday, June 15 WHERE: Durango, CO (location TBD) WHEN: Monday, July 16 Youth workshop: 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. (18 and under,...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: