raceAhead: A New, Diverse National Park Service for the Next 100 Years
There were few immigrants who have shaped the American landscape as profoundly as the writer and conservationist John Muir. He was a unique spirit, whose tireless advocacy for this country’s wild spaces have kept them wild for generations. He championed a specific view of nature, one that could purify the ills of modern life:
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
While presidents and wealthy benefactors are often credited with saving America’s open spaces, the influence of this one man — a Scottish immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1849, at the age of 11 — can hardly be oversold. Here’s Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard on Muir.
“If you think about all the gains our society has made, from independence to now, it wasn’t government. It was activism. People think, ‘Oh, Teddy Roosevelt established Yosemite National Park, what a great president.’ BS,” Chouinard told the magazine for the Sierra Club, which Muir founded. “It was John Muir who invited Roosevelt out and then convinced him to ditch his security and go camping. It was Muir, an activist, a single person.”
But while the National Park System quickly became an American treasure, it came at terrible cost to the many people who originally called those spaces home. Most indigenous people in the park areas were forced off their lands through deceitful land seizures, while others, like the Yosemite Indians, were allowed to stay for a time, ultimately becoming a tourist attraction.
The National Park Service turns 100 this year, and it’s making diversity — both in its employees and visitors — a priority. And it’s got some work to do. Though the NPS doesn’t track the ethnic makeup of visitors, studies show that about 75% are white according to the travel insights firm Skift; for their part, 83% of NPS employees are white.
And while the NPS has got the Muir reverence of nature nailed, it’s only recently that it’s made the necessary push to preserve other aspects of park history. “With the recent additions of Stonewall National Monument and Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, I am inspired by the clear commitment to ensure that the National Park System represents a more complete version of American history,” says Will Shafroth, president of the National Park foundation.
In the last few years, the NPS has also made an effort to reach out to people of color, hoping to make the parks a bigger part of their lives. One example: Fellowship programs, offered to diverse groups of nature newcomers with social media heft, offer peak experiences in exchange for some love on their social feeds.
“We never went to national parks when I was a kid in Venezuela,” says Ana Serafin-Smith, a communications specialist and travel blogger. “And we have Angel Falls! It was always filled with tourists — but we never went.” Instead, the cultural norm was to vacation with family, either at their farm or at the beach.
But today Serafin’s an immigrant with a different view of national parks — and her own form of influence. (Her Instagram is @travelinglatina.) When she was tapped for a guided trip to Olympia National Park in 2013, the experience was a revelation. “It was overwhelmingly beautiful,” she says, sounding like Muir. “And I felt so connected with my friends, in these remote and peaceful locations.”
Serafin has noticed a dramatic uptick in interest in the outdoors among Latinx millennials who want to forge a different path than their parents, and who are enjoying an audience for their adventures on Instagram and Snapchat.
But African Americans, who are half as likely to visit national parks as their white counterparts, tend to be more worried about racism than cultural habit.
Still, with time and effort, Shafroth believes that everyone will begin to think of the parks as both a destination and career choice.
“It will take a collective effort to protect America’s treasured places, connect all people to them, and inspire our next generation to make parks a part of their lives,” says Shafroth. The goal is to have everyone “add their own chapters to this important American narrative.”
And John Muir’s advice still stands. “Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer,” he said.
Making freedom inclusive has been the defining struggle of this country. For all of you who have been fighting the good fight, go outside if you can. You’ve earned it.
Have a restful holiday weekend! Looking forward to reconnecting on Tuesday. Special thanks to Dan Primack and Ian Mount, who guest-edited this week.
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