PacSci Perspectives

The Next 100: Diversity In National Parks

by | Aug 8, 2016

Last summer, Glenn Nelson’s op-ed in The New York Times, “Why Are Our Parks So White?” started a lively national conversation about diversifying the national parks. Nelson, a former NBA sports columnist and Seattle-based entrepreneurial journalist who founded and developed three online companies, launched The Trail Posse, a media initiative that, in partnership with High Country News, covers race, diversity and inclusion in the outdoors. An avid birder and landscape photographer, Nelson has explored 14 national parks in the past few years, witnessing adorable pika and the wonder of bugling elk, but rarely sighting other people of color. Nelson calls for the National Park Service to diversify its workforce and he encourages more people of color to visit national parks to refresh their spirits in the outdoors and connect with critical environmental issues that impact the future of the planet.

How did you develop a passion for the outdoors?

My parents were outdoors people. We were up at three in the morning going on fishing trips. All our family vacations were camping somewhere. I have vivid memories of going to Banff and Jasper and seeing mountain goats on ledges and dad taking pictures of bears. My brother and I were in the Boy Scouts and my dad was our scoutmaster. In the Boy Scouts, I met Gordon McHenry, who’s now President & CEO of Solid Ground (a nonprofit social services organization). He’s African-American. We had a racially diverse troop and our families did a lot of things together. That seemed normal. I realize now we were outliers. We both went to Seattle University and got involved with student government. We’d try to steer students to outdoor events and activities. Our classmates were scared. They joked about being lynched.

When I covered the Sonics as a sports columnist for The Seattle Times, I traveled a lot and would get up in the mornings to go on hikes and reconnect with nature.

Then my wife and I put a bird feeder on our deck and started tracking northern flickers. We named them and took classes on habitat and native plants. We took trips to parks to see birds. So that’s another path from urban dwelling to the wilderness.

How did you get involved in issues of race, diversity and inclusion in the outdoors?

We celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary in Tofino, and I got hooked on shooting landscapes. My wife, Florangela Davila, and I started going around to different parks. It was going back to my roots. We took her mom and aunt to all the parks. That was revelatory because they are immigrants, naturalized citizens, who look at the parks differently than us domestics. They see the national parks as this great benefit that comes with being in America. We’d always notice that we were usually the only people of color on the trails. Hey, how come we’re the only ones out here? Florangela said, “You ought to write an op-ed about this.”

It’s a huge issue. Conservation groups are aging out, and they’re all white. If there’s a nonwhite majority in a few years and we’re disconnected from the outdoors, we’re not going to have the political will or the spiritual wherewithal to deal the issues that seem to be accelerating so fast—climate change and other challenges. The ones who are going to pay are our children, and I feel a lot of guilt about that.

Why aren’t more people of color exploring the national parks?

The simple answer: It’s been wrung out of us by our own history in this country. We all came here as people of the earth if you think about it. But Native Americans were excised from a lot of places that are now public lands. The first immigrants of African descent had their connection to the land soured by slavery. Japanese Americans were imprisoned on public lands. Latinos did hard migrant labor. Chinese were coolie laborers. So a long history of immigrant connections to the land turned negative.

Fear gets passed on through generations. All of the 59 big national park units are remote. Usually you have to drive through places that look like isolationist territory. Last fall, along the approach to North Cascades National Park, my Latina wife and I spied three Confederate flags within five miles of park boundaries.

No wonder people of color aren’t in the national parks. They think it’s a white thing and it looks like a white thing. The Trail Posse is trying to change the picture.

What needs to change?

Changing the face of the national park service workforce is so important. It’s 83 percent white and it’s gotten whiter for the last 15 to 20 years. But that can change. Florangela and I did a road trip along the Columbia River to the Maya Lin Confluence installations. Do you realize there are two Latino interns at Lewis and Clark National Historical Park in Astoria? There’s a migrant community around the park, a lot of agricultural workers, and the superintendent there decided, “I’m going to make a difference.” He assigned his rangers to do outreach and it didn’t work because they were white and in uniform, which has negative connotations in most communities of color. If he’d had a deputy of color, that mistake might have been flagged before it happened. The next year, he got two Latino interns and three bilingual staff to support them, and now there are Latino kids in their programs. So that’s how change happens.

Why should more people of color experience the wilderness and visit the national parks?

If we had our heads on straight, we’d be clamoring at the gates because the national parks were established partially as a respite from urban stressors. People of color are the most urban of Americans and exposed to many stressors. What white people know as a matter of course is that being in the outdoors is restorative. Your mental health improves; your physical health improves. There are communities of color that are in crisis with physical and mental health issues. Stepping outside is an easy and natural remedy that can help. It’s hard to demonstrate this to a family of color that’s not used to the idea of outdoor recreation. But just try going to Mt Rainier because you’ll start enjoying the benefits of being outside.

On a higher level, environmental justice advocates say the people who feel the effects of environmental disasters first and foremost are people of color. In the bigger picture, if people of color go to national parks, they’ll develop an affinity for the outdoors and become invested in the planet.

Why do the national parks need to diversify?

They will otherwise cease to exist. This is an agency that’ s being sustained by a generation of white people that’s growing old and dying out. The backfill is communities of color and multi-racial kids, a generation of voters.  The parks need them to replenish support.

Three national parks lie within a three-hour drive of Seattle. What’s your advice for those who have never been to a national park but might want to go?

I’ll be like Nike and say, “Just Do It.” The cost isn’t as high as people think. It’s time, a little driving and about $25. If you add that up, it’s the equivalent of taking your family to a movie, only you’re going to have memories that last the rest of your lives and your children’s lives. You will understand when you get there.

When I started going back to the parks, I realized Mt. Rainier is like our backyard. Last fall and spring, I was going there every week. I mean, we’ll drive an hour to go to Whole Foods. You tack on another half hour and you’re at Mt. Rainier.

Despite the earlier talk about the hillbilly nature surrounding the parks, there are gateway cities that are interesting that I incorporate into my journey. I stop in Eatonville at Cottage Bakery and Cafe for the best maple bars I’ve ever eaten. Wapiti Woolies in Greenwater has the best huckleberry ice cream.

I’ve been to 14 national parks in the past few years. Bar Harbor, ME, near Acadia National Park, is a wonderful town to explore as is the town of Estes Park right outside Rocky Mountain National Park. There’s always something to look forward to before or after your hike. Just be open to seeing. You just never know what you’re going to discover.

What inspires you to take on this cause?

Bottom line: My girls. The guilt I feel over the condition of the planet we’re leaving to their generation and their children’s children. I’m going to go down doing what I can do, even if it makes just a teeny dent.

Share an interesting fact about from your past.

I was once hired to write Ted Turner’s biography. He has the largest bison herd in North America.

Share a dream about your future.

I dream about a day when people take responsibility for each other and our environment. We hope for some scientific salve—somebody is going to figure out a way to shoot something in the sky and get rid of our greenhouse gases—when the real solution is we need to stop creating so much [carbon pollution] and take responsibility.

I dream of gender equity. Why don’t we have more women CEOs? Why is there such gender pay disparity?

Because I have two daughters, I think about gender even more than I do about race. I have faith in racial tension resolving itself. I’m multiracial and the country is just becoming that way. It’s not going to be an issue at some point because we’re all human beings.

Tell us a science fact not many people know about.

Pikas have a narrow temperature range. They can’t survive above 77 degrees for more than six hours so they’re vulnerable to climate change. They’re so cute, you don’t want them to die off. They’re my little buddies on the trail.

Excited about visiting a national park? Experience National Parks Adventure 3D to whet your appetite for wilderness before you hit the trails.