Last week’s post dealt with some of the issues that under-served and underrepresented communities deal with in getting to our national parks, as well as some of what the problem will be for those parks in engaging those communities moving forward. This week’s post moves beyond the “problem” and provides some possible solutions, a plan for keeping our parks relevant, thriving and safe in the following decades where the U.S. will see a shift from a white majority to a white minority. The first and most important steps are already happening. People and corporations are coming together to make meaningful change. Here’s more of what we need to pave a path into the future.
Most visitors to our national parks almost certainly know very little about the varied, diverse, and sometimes violent history associated with those spaces. One of the items that needs to be on this list is telling the full history of America’s National Parks. For example, many Americans believe that Yosemite was “discovered” by explorers, frontiersmen and expeditions during our nation’s great westward expansion in the middle of the 19th century. But that’s a myth. The Ahwahneechee inhabited this valley for roughly 3,000 years before the government took the land from them and forced them out. Of course, anyone familiar with even the least little bit of the history of first nations peoples knows this is the model. Too, Yellowstone was used for resources and trade by at least a dozen different tribes before it was a National Park, including the Crow, Blackfeet, Nez Perce and Shoshone (NPS.gov). The Buffalo Soldiers, all Black cavalry regiments raised during America’s Civil War, would eventually go on to become some of America’s first park rangers in the Sierra Nevada’s and the American West. Although, they have a complicated and sometimes controversial history, including the fact that they were used to keep indigenous peoples from “trespassing” in Yellowstone. Our parks are not merely spaces of scenic beauty, or Edenic gardens untouched, and therefor unblemished, by humans; they were the homes, violently taken, of peoples who lived on, off of, and respected the land long before European descendants “discovered” these locales. Parks are doing a pretty good job of beginning to include this history in their stories.
Parks need to hire more people of color, trans folx, and speakers of languages other than English. Last week I cited the fact that roughly 83% of NPS employees are white. That essay also made the case that not seeing one’s self in the parks, through representation, may contribute to feelings of discomfort, unease, and a general sense of not being welcome–whether conscious or not.
Closely connected with the issue of hiring, parks need to be flexible with their rules. For instance, many parks have a limit on how many people can travel in a group. When I was planning my Smoky Mountains backpacking trip, the limit on the back-country reservation was eight people. But in other places it may be four, or six. Perry Cohen, executive director of the Venture Out Project wrestles with this very issue: “If you want to do backcountry camping, and we’re told that our group size may not exceed four or six, then what if we have six? Do we have four people in one place, and then the other two on their own? They’re not going to sleep all night” (Five Ways). Part of this change may happen through creating policy that allows for this kind of flexibility under special circumstances. It wouldn’t be difficult, even if it amounts to filing a little bit of extra paperwork to prevent people from abusing the policy.
To address the economic burdens and hardships that prevent many from getting to a national park, The Atlantic, in an essay titled, “Five Ways to Make the Outdoors More Inclusive”, and on which I’ve based much of this essay, has some interesting and creative suggestions. They argue that parks could create outreach programs with ride-share companies such as Uber or Lyft, or car rental agencies, for low-income families that allow under-served populations easier access to the parks. They may also provide that transportation themselves. Additionally, they may create or build more affordable housing solutions as well as a “First-timers Free” program. Any of these options and solutions is not outside of the realm of possibility.
One of the most fascinating, plausible, and relevant suggestions from The Atlantic’s article is that of expanding the definition of what “The Outdoors” means. (Shameless plug, I’ve written about this in at least two previous pieces: “Humble-Hiking” and “Adventure Time”. Part of the goal of this blog is to do just that: change the definition of adventure and recognize virtually any outdoor space as “the outdoors”.) The outdoors does not have to mean grandiose adventures that risk life and limb or involve deeds of derring-do. Those are fun, certainly, and I’ve had my share; but there is also adventure right in your backyard, or at a local campground or park; and both the national parks and the wider outdoors industry need to be pushing this iteration of the what it means to be outside. You will still need a tent to camp locally; you will still need boots to hike on rocky, muddy, uneven terrain in your backyard; you can use snowshoes and heavy parkas on local trails and in local parks—you don’t necessarily have to find an exotic locale or trek through forbidding terrain to do any of this or find this gear useful. There will always be people who want to climb Everest, and thru-hike the PCT, AT, or other trails for weeks or months at a time. We who are asking to expand these definitions to create a more inclusive atmosphere are not also demanding that the industry eliminate the grandiose; rather, we ask that the humble also be part of what it means to adventure.
If, as I began this piece back in part one, we want to prove Wallace Stegner right that, “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst”, then we need to expand beyond just our national parks to the outdoors more generally. Recent studies, which I’ve cited in other pieces, show that simply taking in the scent of a forest has beneficial effects on blood pressure and heart rate; you don’t need to be in a national park, and you don’t need to be climbing Everest. Walking might be the best complete exercise there is; and while it’s true that green space matters, it is not true that you have to hike the 100 Mile Wilderness to get outside or benefit from doing so.
Remember to get out there.