The Outdoors Needs Us

The Outdoors Needs Us

Above: Florangela Davila in Olympic National Park (photo by Glenn Nelson)

by Glenn Nelson

Although I was a Boy Scout and had parents who took me fishing and camping since I was old enough to remember, I still understand why a person of color might regard national parks with a good bit of trepidation. While many outdoorspeople worry in certain areas about bear attacks, a minority might fret about getting jumped in the woods by bigots. It may seem an irrational fear, but imagine, on approach to many parks, passing the kind of isolated homes, gun-rack-carrying pickup trucks parked on front lawns, “No Trespassing” signs hung on razor-wired fences, in which you have imagined in your worst nightmares that skinheads, survivalists and Grand Wizards all wait in ambush.

That is the conundrum of attracting people of color to what many of them believe is the not-so-great outdoors. And I know of conundrums because I live and grew up in Seattle, one of the five whitest major cities in the U.S. My zip code, 98118, at least carries the myth of being the most diverse in the country; even though it actually is not, it can feel that way.

This is the great white Northwest, yet if you were in my specific place, you wouldn’t know it, day to day. Our local farmer’s market is a bouillabaisse of languages, skin colors and cultures. Driving one of my neighborhood’s main thoroughfares, either Rainier Avenue South or Martin Luther King Jr. Way, is to snake through a maze of businesses for which every other sign seems to herald a different origin, from Southeast Asia to East Africa, the Southern U.S., and beyond.


National Park Visitors

by Race/Ethnicity

Whites, non-Hispanic: 78 percent
Hispanic, any race: 9 percent
Black: 7 percent
Asian: 3 percent
American Indian/Alaskan: 1 percent

Source: NPS Survey, 2008-09


On the other hand, I’ve spent a lot of the past couple years in national parks. Much of that time has been with my wife, Florangela, who like me is the child of an immigrant mother. A lot of it also has been with her mother, Ligia, and her aunts, Hila and Dora – immigrants from Colombia. And much of it with my oldest daughter, Sassia, who is a mix of my Japanese genes and her mother’s Chinese. The outdoors also has been a critical source of exercise, stimulation and connection for my other daughter, Mika, a special needs kid with whom I share a love of birding. Our overwhelming experience has been racial solitude.

The parks, of course, are so sweeping, we frequently keep thinking that we’d bump into someone else like us. But I can’t remember the last time we did.

And, yes, we notice. You grow up noticing. Anytime we rolled into a new place, through junior-high, high-school and college, my friends and I instinctually scanned it for others like us. I guess the inference was that any place that doesn’t have other people of color is a place that doesn’t welcome people of color.

Wanderlust and an outdoors-oriented upbringing helped me overcome that, but it also led me to discover that few places emphasize the whiteness of America more than the outdoors.

Changing Landscape of America

And few concepts emphasize the whiteness of America more than the conservation/environmental movement. It’s a space whose leaders and shovel bearers even acknowledge as the purview of “aging white men.” So another conundrum: This country is in rapid transformation, projected to have a non-white majority by 2042, and the outdoors hardly is a priority for the emerging population. If unchecked and unchanged, this trends a murky, even disastrous, future for the National Park Service, the bulwark and face of America’s wild, wild best idea, on the precipice of its centennial in 2016.

A recent NPS survey reports troubling attendance figures for people of color (see box), who have myriad reasons to tread hesitantly away from urban centers, where they and their descendants chose to cluster, as much for the company of others like themselves as for opportunity.

My closest friendship through high school and college, with Gordon, an accomplished black leader and still hiking, began in the Boy Scouts. So we naturally turned to the outdoors as a setting for outings and retreats by minority student groups that we led. There always was nervous banter as we cruised through small towns. Someone always hummed the theme to “Deliverance.” Someone would quip about finding a “Whites Only” sign at the park entrance because, after all, whites established protected wilderness to escape the cities – in other words, to escape and protect themselves from “us.” Others later would fight over collecting firewood in the dark, joking about the perils of being lynched, beaten or taken prisoner. Their cultural history taught them what to expect.

So it’s no surprise that the prevailing reason minorities gave the NPS for not visiting was, “I don’t know much about (them).” Part of that is fear of the unknown. Part is the concept of national parks orbiting so far outside the sphere of everyday relevancy, it is assigned a value falling even below apathy. And part is the absence of outreach fueling the other two.

I’m lucky to have viewed the outdoors through the lens of my Japanese mother and Colombian mother-in-law and her sisters. They see purple mountains majesty as one of the spoils of a U.S. citizenship they worked so hard to obtain. I also have a white father who was my Scoutmaster and usher to a gamut of outdoor experiences. Our family didn’t go to Disneyland for vacation; we camped and explored. Those factors spared me the experience of many marginalized Americans, whose place in this country has been called into question so many times and in so many ways, their citizenship hardly can be considered to yield any perks, let alone a magic key to a sacred sanctuary.

This pervasive truth does not bode well for the National Parks, let alone the outdoors in general and the web of businesses surrounding it.

PART TWO: Click Here.

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