By Alan Spears

When I was a boy, my family made annual summer pilgrimages to Gettysburg National Military Park, which ignited my lifelong passion for American history. As a high school student, I participated in my first park cleanup at Fort DuPont, a National Park Service site near my parents’ house in Washington, D.C. For the past 15 years, I’ve worked for the National Parks Conservation Association, helping to fulfill our mission to protect and enhance America’s national parks for future generations.

I think it would be fair to say that America’s national parks mean a great deal to me.

But despite the oft-quoted words of writer Wallace Stegner, parks are not America’s “best idea,” and describing them as such may be preventing us from creating and sustaining the diverse constituency our national parks need to survive and thrive in their second century. As an African-American, I will tell you that national parks don’t crack the top 10 list of best ideas. The Emancipation Proclamation; the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution; the Voting Rights Act of 1964, and Civil Rights Act of 1965, respectively; all occupy a higher place than our national parks in the order of best ideas. Gay men and lesbians probably feel the same way about the recent and long overdue Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality. Asian-Pacific Islander-Americans might add the repeal of racist exclusionary laws. For women, it may be the passage of the 19th Amendment.

The “best idea” language has the potential to alienate more people than it attracts; it assumes that we all regard national parks with the same unfettered and unequaled devotion. This is simply not the case. If asked to choose between the Grand Canyon or a landmark decision on Civil Rights that guarantees me equal protection under the law, Brown v. Board of Education wins with me hands down every time. And this isn’t strictly a racial or ethnic thing, either. Are we really prepared to say that national parks rank higher than the Bill of Rights, the G.I. Bill and the space program?

Park enthusiasts moved to hyperbole by the majestic splendor of our National Park System often fail to see the arrogance at the heart of the “best idea” sentiment. It’s the assumption that those who don’t “get” national parks have failed to embrace a universal concept. And that we need to be converted into believers not for the sake of park protection, but to improve lives not yet blessed by a visit to Old Faithful. We see this expressed most perfectly by people who doubt the importance of ensuring parks are relevant to a diverse audience. These people proclaim that in a democracy there’s no harm if black and brown people are staying away from national parks of their own accord.

There is more to our history.

Two large challenges emerge to this reasoning. First, it takes a completely ahistorical approach to the development of the National Park System and our shared legacy as Americans. In 1916, the year the Organic Act was written and the National Park Service established, 55 African-Americans were lynched. Discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities was the law of the land. If you’ve ever wondered why black and brown people haven’t visited national parks in representative numbers, it’s because from the very start of the parks idea we’ve been preoccupied with other concerns.

Second, it ignores that our national parks need a broader base of political support. We need more wins on park funding, resource management and protection, and a stronger defense against harmful legislation that would undermine the health of our national parks. It is therefore critical to create and sustain the most diverse, informed and well-engaged constituency possible to influence our elected leaders to treat national parks with the respect they deserve. The “best idea” notion complicates that outreach by promoting the argument that people need parks more than parks need people.

Fortunately, champions from diverse and underrepresented communities are stepping forward to take their rightful places at the forefront of the environmental, conservation and preservation movements. Those who marched from Selma to Montgomery, and their descendants, now are preserving that hallowed ground. The people who led the rebellion at the Stonewall Inn, and their descendants, are leading the campaign to have that historic site given its rightful place in the National Park System. This is progress.

But please, let’s not attribute the rise of the underrepresented to a newfound devotion to America’s best idea. Rather, I think that our national parks are like most of the other laudable, lofty ideals created by Americans: an ever-evolving concept filled with great promise and in need of constant stewardship. If our job as citizens is to help create a more perfect Union, then it makes sense that we should all have a role in creating a more perfect National Park System. I think people of color and underrepresented groups are ready to take on a larger share of that responsibility, but only if we can have an honest discussion about how and why we enter the national parks movement, and where those magnificent sites fit into that long list of America’s best ideas.

A version of this story originally appeared in Ranger magazine and, and is reprinted with the permission of the Association of National Park Rangers.

Lead Photo: Alan Spears of the National Parks Conservation Association presenting in Seattle (photo by Glenn Nelson).