National Park Week fails to change the game

Last week’s celebration showed how close we are to natural beauty, yet so far from diversifying our national parks.


Sitting in front of the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center last week, the iconic National Park Service ranger Shelton Johnson and I saw something that stopped our conversation in mid-sentence: a brown-skinned couple.  The man wore dreadlocks, but both had their backs turned to us. We couldn’t be certain of what we thought – and, I think, hoped – we saw.

When the couple turned slightly to reach for the door, Johnson exclaimed, “Sighting confirmed.”

It was an African American couple, which was good news for us, and even more so for my friend, Teresa Baker of African American National Parks Experience. She and I were playing a game – I’ll call it People of Color in the Park. It’s competitive, with the score kept according to our racial backgrounds – African American for her, Japanese American for me.

The couple confirmed by Johnson put Teresa ahead, 7-5. However, that evening, I “won” the contest by finding three Japanese Americans on the trail between Vernal Falls and Mirror Lake. I stopped the group and chatted to confirm.

Game, Japanese Americans, 8-7.

Yosemite ranger Shelton Johnson is interviewed by Teresa and Paul Lowe of Chronicle Travelers.
 In pointing this out, I’m being wistful, not self-aggrandizing. Last week was National Park Week, this year is the NPS centennial, and, with all the concomitant ruckus about improving diversity and inclusion in the outdoors, I’d have expected the three-day score to have reached at least football-like numbers (double digits). After all, Yosemite National Park was crammed with visitors, and is within hailing distance of the densely multicultural Bay Area.

“I am hyper-conscious of the fact that, when I look around, I’m constantly asking, ‘Where are my people?’” Johnson said, ruefully. He’s made it his mission to attract more people of color to the parks.

Johnson appears in Ken Burn’s six-part opus, “National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” which is airing on PBS this week. He’s been on the Oprah Winfrey Show, written a book and a play, and appears in media throughout the country. While I was in Yosemite, he was interviewed, with more than a little reverence, by Teresa and Paul Lowe, an African American couple that produces multimedia content about travel.

In other words, Johnson has a megaphone, but his message, even amplified by others around the country, seems to be dissipating, largely unheard, into the wilderness. Much to his dismay, Johnson has come to symbolize the massive disconnect between the park service and communities of color. They not only cannot hear him, most don’t even know who he is. Johnson frequently is stopped in his own park but, during my time there, always by white people and never by nonwhites. He says this is usual.

Jose Gonzalez, founder of Latino Outdoors, at Saguaro National Park.
 I had about as rich an experience as you can imagine during National Park Week. It began with the desert awakening in Saguaro National Park, with Jose Gonzalez, the founder of Latino Outdoors, and Cam Juárez, a longtime Tucson community activist just starting as community engagement coordinator at the park. I moved on to Yosemite, where I was moved to tears by the granite giants and roaring waterfalls and equally as inspired by my time hanging with Johnson. Back home, I twice had discussions with groups of national park superintendents, the second time at the Washington’s National Park Fund spring dinner, for which NPS director Jon Jarvis was the keynote speaker.

My main takeaway from last week is that our lands are fraught with well-meaning people, sincere about their desire to diversify the outdoors, but unable to move the needle much. I heard from young activists of color who lamented about their inability to be heard, and listened to members of what you might call “the establishment” complain about their inability to conceive effective outreach efforts. The two groups are not often enough sitting at the same table, which is the crux of the problem.

Yosemite Falls, reflected in a pool at Cook's Meadow as morning unfolds in Yosemite National Park.
So we keep getting it wrong. We’re at the quarter pole of the National Park Service centennial and those people of color even aware that it’s going on (and there aren’t many of us) are waiting for the big diversity reveal. I happen to think we’re not going to see any ribbons cut or curtains flung back, that the NPS is going to spend its 100th year talking a good talk but squandering a huge opportunity. The agency did not effectively target or reach communities of color with its “massive” centennial marketing efforts, nor does it have a viable strategy for diversifying a workforce that continues to grow more and more white each year. As a result, the Park Service is not engaged enough with the nonwhite communities it needs to understand and court for its own long-term sustainability.

National Park Week may have illuminated many of this country’s public treasures but it also revealed those, like Shelton Johnson, that will gleam in dark isolation until the effort to diversify our natural spaces resembles more than a chess game played only with the white pieces. What was meant to be a yearlong, feel-good party seems headed instead to serve as a bleak baseline from which the park service, and the entire green sector, needs to progress, quickly and forcefully.

For nine bittersweet days, at least we didn’t have to pay a fee to watch it all fail to unfold.

Glenn Nelson is a contributing editor at High Country News and the founder of The Trail Posse, which documents and encourages diversity and inclusion in the outdoors. Follow him at @trailposse.

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