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Bringing Color to the Public Lands Landscape


Wayne Hare

Well-familiar is the cry that our parks are in danger of losing mass appeal because visitation is flagging (this year seems to be bucking that trend, but that's fodder for another post). More serious, in my opinion, is that the diversity among park visitors seems to be lagging.

Park Service officials realize this, and are working on ways to boost the racial diversity in the visitorship.

But perhaps the best essay I've seen yet addressing this issue is one that surfaced today via the Writers on the Range syndicate. Written by Wayne Hare, a U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger in western Colorado, the essay raises some thought-provoking issues tying diversity to the future of our public lands.

The most recent U.S. Census indicates that sometime around the year 2050, people of color in this country will outnumber the current white majority. If the emerging future majority doesn't find intrinsic value in our birthright of publicly owned lands, how much tougher will it be to fund and protect these special areas?

You can read Mr. Hare's essay here.


the fact is that not only has this been going on for a long time, it is also that the outdoor industry and the public lands management agencies are freaking out about it. (as much as an unwieldy, entirely unimble government agency can freak out about anything a politician isn't pushing on them) all sorts of sports are declining, as evidenced in a relatively dated usfws study showing fishing hunting and the like having way less people participating. parks visitation is down as noted and discussed on this blog. additionally, the outdoor industry is focusing on diversity and children in some marketing as well as agencies like the forest service pushing their "get kids outside" initiative following the failed joint effort with blm of "get fit with us."

but while i don't disagree with mr. hare's premise, i do believe however that his essay should have focused on urban youth rather than just a lack of diversity, which i feel is just a symptom of a larger problem. i don't think it is an issue of race but rather of age... most kids these days aren't getting outside (read louv's "last child in the woods") at all, let alone onto our nation's parks and forests.

"The real question is what diversity can do for all of us."

No. This isn't a real question. It's not a real question because it doesn't have an answer, and Hare poses the question without even attempting an answer. It's meaningless drivel, mindless mumbo jumbo.

Diversity. Diversity. Diversity. Diversity. Diversity. Diversity. It's a mantra. If repeated enough, it doesn't need to be defined and assertions need no factual backing from scholarly research.

I was "diversified" out of a job at SEKI. My boss, a Hispanic woman, wanted to "diversify" the staff, so she hired a Hispanic woman for my position. On a return visit, I attended the new employee's hike; it was one of the worst interpretive programs I'd ever seen. Her first stop lasted 25 minutes, and she confused the words gravity and mass. I overheard some visitors complaining, and many--myself included--left after the first stop.

A male Hispanic volunteer the same supervisor hired had a record of sexual harassment, and his bad behavior continued. He had to be fired.

Diversity for the sake of diversity is a joke. Hiring people solely based on their race is unconstitutional and a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

More serious, in my opinion, is that the diversity among park visitors seems to be lagging.

You're not speaking of diversity being a variety (which is the definition of diversity) of visitors, because there is a huge variety of visitors in parks. Again, hang out in the Zion VC and you'll hear French, German, Italian, Japanese, Russian, and other languages spoken. You'll hear Americans speaking regional dialects, you'll see old and young people, and People from all over the world visit and bring their unique experiences and cultures.

No. The diversity mantrics focus exclusively on race--skin color--and when percentages don't match up, they cry racism.

Such race consciousness, in my opinion, is a form of racism.

And both of these "problems" pale in comparison to true threats to national parks: climate change, invasive species, environmental degradation, and excessive development.

I think one needs to separate diversity in the workplace and diversity in park visitors. The Park Service, according to the agency's own numbers, is overwhelmingly Caucasian and decidedly male-oriented. So it shouldn't be surprising to see the agency try to alter those figures.

Does "white male disease" exist? To a degree, you bet, just as women in many fields are denied equal pay and advancement opportunities. With that said, I'll leave it to the managers, and the courts if need be, to decide whether the methods used to integrate the agency are justified and sound.

As for diversity in park visitors, I don't believe Mr. Hare was ignoring the foreigners who come to America's parks but rather focusing on Americans who come to the parks. When the international visitors head home, who will remain to become advocates for the parks if progress isn't made in making the park system a favorite retreat for blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and all other races that reside within the United States?

Kurt and Jim bring out some excellent points to ranger Hare's essay. It appears, we have a long way's to go, regarding ranger X's comment which borders on a bit of anger if not cynicism. Just knowing that some of us busted are butts off in college to get good grades with hopes to land in a respectable job, but to be squashed out by the goverments affirmative action clause. Believe me, there's alot of bitterness over this, especially considering medical school enterance applicants (remember the famous Bakke vs. University of California at Davis in the 1970's). Well, the bitterness still lingers. Personally, I believe in leveling the playing field for more opportunities for minorities in all aspects of the job market...and I'm white too.

In regards to the National Parks, I sense that the parks have now become an old vanguard for whites to secure jobs as rangers without many challenges from other minority groups...if so, it's few. Ranger Hare quotes, that "we don't do things like that" referring to blacks participating in the great outdoors. Why is that? is it because it's a cultural thing that blacks (or another minorties) have no great interests in the National Parks, is it because of fear, or the lack of education. I'm sure if there were lot more blacks and other minority groups visiting the parks today, the blacklash of words might be "there goes the neighborhood" mentality. Yes, I agree with Jim and Kurt, we have a long, long way's to go. As Rodney King (brutally beaten by the LA Police Dept.) once said, " can't we all get along", right after the famous race riots regarding his sever beating. My point is, the National Parks can be a great melting pot for all of us to get along...and learn...respect one and another. The door must be open wide for diversity and let's start with the National Parks.

None of you have addressed the fundamental issue: Diversity is a code word for skin color. There is no anger or cynicism behind that comment.

Yes, the NPS is overwhelmingly white and male, especially the middle and upper management, and that will continue as long as the NPS remains oligarchial. A possible answer lies in wresting power from managers' grubby hands and transferring power to the lower ranks. Leaving that aside, look at visitation and Hare's statement: "As a black park ranger, I'm often asked why more minorities don't visit national parks..."

First, this seems anecdotal. Does anyone know of a study that shows the percentages of park visitors based on race? Visitation numbers are highly suspect to begin, and I doubt such a study exists, and therefore we proceed without solid empirical evidence to support the claim that minorities don't visit national parks in representative numbers. We rely on unscientific observations based on personal experiences in national parks. Secondly, the question itself is flawed. "Why don’t more minorities visit national parks…" More than what? We have no baseline for comparison. How much more is enough?

Kurt asks, "who will remain to become advocates for the parks if progress isn't made in making the park system a favorite retreat for blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and all other races that reside within the United States?" As a park ranger, I've seen lots of Hispanics camping and using parks, especially in California. Some American Indians use the parks for spiritual purposes and generally aren't seen entering or leaving.

Consider too that African Americans make up about 12% of the population, and their numbers are concentrated in the southeast. In the west, their numbers are much lower. You would expect, then, to see fewer blacks in western parks. Also consider that American Indians make up about 2% of the population, with higher concentrations in the southwest. Therefore, you don't expect to see many Native Americans in parks, with perhaps the exception of those in the southwest.

Hare bases his argument not on reason or scientific analysis, but an unsupported presupposition that minorities don't visit parks in representative numbers.

And should someone point to a study that shows under representation, can we say it's caused by white racism or cultural determinism? Different cultures value different things. Hare states "You also don't see many … Hispanics working for environmental groups or public-land agencies". My best friend David, and my best man one month from now, is Mexican-American. He thinks my tendencies toward preservation and my love for the wild are eccentric. He worked for several car rental companies and is more interested in washing his new car and keeping up with the Joneses than conserving resources or going backpacking. His family and Mexican friends hold similar values.

We need to stop talking about color and start talking about culture. We need to stop making anecdotal observations and passing them off as empirical reality.

Again, there are more important issues that need our attention.

First, for those interested in digesting more on this subject, the audio journal WildeBeat produced an episode about this very subject back in January. Have a listen to 'Race in the Backcountry', and the follow up article as well. It's good food for thought, and covers some of the same issues that have been addressed in the comments today.

I think the issue is bigger than 'color'. Perhaps the larger question is, why isn't any particular group not traveling to the parks?

Some have asked, 'where are the kids'? There are now whole programs being developed to bring kids back to the parks, 'no child left inside' is an example. There are efforts to appeal to this group by creating podcasts and other electronic media to reach out to them. But, kids don't drive cars, kids aren't the ones who decide where to go on vacation. Kids aren't in the parks because their parents are taking them.

And what of places like Nicodemus National Historic Site? This is a town in Kansas that was settled by former slaves in the 1880s. I wonder what the percentage of white/black/hispanic/indian visitors they get as compared to a site like Rocky Mountain National Park, or Independence Historic Park, or Chaco Culture NHP? The story at each park is so different from the others, but each represents who we are as a country, and the message at each perhaps has more meaning to one culture versus another.

First of all, Hare is simply wrong in his assessment. Yosemite and Sequoia in very Hispanic California get lots of Hispanic visitors. I've seen many Asians in the national parks, foreign visitors and Americans. The Grand Canyon gets people from all over the country. The parks in the Northwest get mostly Caucasians, but then the Pacific Northwest is the whitest part of the country. As are the Rocky Mountain states which have some of the gems of the system. The parks already emphasize and point out the contributions of African Americans (i. e. the buffalo soldiers, the early rangers at Yosemite) and Native Americans (after all what is Mesa Verde all about, for one). And bears, eagles and deer know no race. Since wildlife and scenery are the primary point of most of the parks, aren't they race neutral?

Second of all, Hare is missing the point of the national park system. The National Parks are there to preserve the land, preserve the wildlife and preserve unique ecosystems. The historic parks are there to preserve history. Trying to raise the number of visitors in the parks is in many cases contrary to that mission. They are only secondarily places for people to recreate. People who want to come, who treasure the national parks will come and will take care that there visits don't destroy the parks. Those who choose to spend their weekends or vacations elsewhere will go to theme parks, water parks or cities.

And Ranger X if you were discriminated against in hiring for being a white male, you should have sued. The land doesn't know or care if you're Caucasion, Hispanic or black. The land and the wildlife only care that they are being protected. And the land and the wildlife are the reason for the National Park's existence.

So, empirical studies on these issues would be quite nice, but we have plenty to understand that there is a problem. We don't need to know for sure the general tendencies to see that the specific instances (those anecdotes you deride) are plenty of evidence to work from about the wretched ways racism still touches us and the parks.

Those who work without specifics, without facts, without scientific studies (you say there is plenty of empirical studies on the issue without citing any) are not social scientists. They are more akin to religious zealots who offer pontification and dogma rather than reason and evidence. Anecdote is NOT evidence. Evidence is independently verifiable; anecdote, due to its personal nature, is not.

Park by park, we can point to numerous ways that race matters.

But you've given no examples, no evidence. Saying something doesn't make it so. This is opinion, not fact.

Even if our studies somehow showed that there were as many or more people of color visiting parks on balance as should be expected, we don't therefore have diversity and have not therefore done much about racism in society.

What? Haven't done much about racism in our society? I'd posit that the USA has done more than most countries in combating prejudice. The long history of the civil rights movement and the legislation it spawned is shining proof that we have done a lot about racism in our society.

Even that the demographics are what they are is suggestive of something.

Again: What? I have no idea what you're trying to say here.

Race is a bogus, non-scientific 19th century term, which is why I urge us to jettison "race" in favor of "culture" as a talking point. People aren't automatically unified by their skin color, but certainly people have been treated unfairly in this country because of it. As bad as it's been in America, I urge you to consider that few other countries in the world have the varied ethnic makeup and cultural tolerance as the United States of America.

And when I say there are more important issues that need our attention, I mean we should stop insisting that African American's make up 12% of national parks visitation. We should stop insisting that American Indians make up 2% of NPS visitation. We SHOULD worry that in the near future there may be no national parks (or they may be so heavily impaired as to lose their significance) for anyone of any color to visit. Glaciers are melting, species are going extinct, old-growth redwood groves are being logged, wilderness is going under, global population growth is increasing exponentially, and people focus on whether or not people with a certain melanin content are visiting national parks in representatively proportionate numbers.

I appreciate Jeremy's efforts at looking beyond color, but also cringed when I read:

Perhaps the larger question is, why isn't any particular group not traveling to the parks?

I think we need to be careful about using artificial constructs such as groups. Who places members in these so-called groups? We lump aboriginal Americans into one category not recognizing that those who lived in present-day Florida have very little in common with the Inuit of Alaska. The same can be said for lumping all "whites" into one group or by using the term "European-American" especially when someone from Bulgaria has very little in common with someone from Scotland.

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