Brennan Linsley/AP

At its milestone centennial, the National Park Service wrestles with how to diversify its visitors and workforce.

Looking over the National Park Service’s first 100 years, we find a federal agency that, like many U.S. institutions, got off to a severely rocky start in terms of racial inclusion. These national parks were carved out, in large part, as sanctuaries for people to retreat to from what they considered the growing scourge of urbanization. Native Americans were fought off of their sacred tribal lands so that white men could recreate, hike, hunt, and fish in these places at their own leisure. This probably isn’t the most glowing piece of trivia to share on the park service’s 100th birthday, but you really can’t discuss the system’s birth without this context.  

More recently, the NPS has been reaching for some semblance of racial reconciliation. As an agency, it acknowledges it has problems with diversity and inclusion to solve, but it seems uncertain about how to do that. For example, it doesn’t quite know what to do with a guy like Madison Grant, a white man who quite literally wrote the book on 20th-century white supremacy—and who helped launch the national parks movement.

As Jedediah Purdy wrote in an article a year ago for The New Yorker, Grant “spent his career at the center of the same energetic conservationist circle” as his buddy President Theodore Roosevelt. With Roosevelt, he helped found the New York Zoological Society, now known as the Wildlife Conservation Society. He also helped create the Boone and Crockett Club, which is responsible for developing Yellowstone National Park.

However, Grant’s 1916 book The Passing of the Great Race, which Adolph Hitler claimed as his bible, provides a detailed accounting of Grant’s virulently xenophobic views on immigrants, Native Americans, and black people. Racism was not a mere side hustle for Grant, or some hobby he indulged when not building parks. Rather, white supremacy was part and parcel of his worldview on nature conservation and parks creation.

One of his devoted followers, the noted white nationalist, anthropologist Roger Pearson, wrote in 1995:

With Madison Grant serving as secretary and later as president, the Boone and Crockett Club was largely comprised of eugenicists and eugenics sympathizers. Renowned as one of the more active members of the eugenics movement, and especially for his efforts to preserve the ‘Old American’ component of the American population, Grant worked just as ardently to preserve the natural heritage for future generations of Americans and should be remembered always with honor as one of the nation’s greatest benefactors.

Grant’s beliefs on how immigration causes crime and disease would align neatly with Donald Trump’s current platform: They became the underpinning for the highly restrictive Immigration Act of 1924. Grant got into nature conservation and park creation as a way of escaping the white man’s burden of dealing with an increasingly browning U.S. The National Park Service doesn’t completely omit Grant from its history: Its website brings up mentions of his name in historical documents. However, it definitely doesn’t list Grant as one of the parks’ early visionaries, though he undoubtedly was.

As Richard Conniff recently wrote for Mother Jones about Grant:

Conservationists would understandably rather forget all this. But it's worth remembering because the movement has always struggled with elitist and exclusionary elements in its ranks. Among other things, this country invented and exported worldwide the model of uninhabited national parks—together with its ugly corollary, forced removals of indigenous populations. It's also worth remembering Grant's history because minority groups remain vastly under-­represented—just 22 percent of all visitors at last count—in our national parks, and even more so in the leadership of environmental agencies and nonprofits. To change that, the conservation movement needs to acknowledge that the ghost of Madison Grant still haunts the natural wonders he helped protect.

The National Park Service isn’t shy about admitting its poor showing in visitor diversity—it knows it has its work cut out. To address this, the Obama administration has opened a number of national parks and monuments over the past few years in the names of those the U.S. has historically trampled upon. The Fort Monroe National Monument in Virginia, the Cesar Chavez National Monument in California, and the Stonewall National Monument in New York are just a few examples. Still, just 112 of the country’s 480 national monuments and parks are dedicated to historically oppressed groups like African Americans, Latinos, and the LGBTQ community, according to a Center for American Progress report.

(Center for American Progress)

It’s often thought that the reason more people of color don’t visit these parks is because they don’t want to, or they’re just not all that into the outdoors. Neither data nor history bear out any evidence of these things being true. A recent survey conducted by New America Media on the feelings of voters of color on National Parks produced these findings:  

  • 70 percent of minority voters participate in the types of outdoor activities commonly offered within national public lands.
  • 57 percent of minority voters have visited national public lands in the past, of which more than 2/3 have visited within the past 3 years.
  • 4 in 5 minority voters support a range of proposals to increase visitor access to public lands, such as increasing the number of urban parks and the creation of new parks, monuments, and historic and cultural sites that focus on the contributions of minorities to the United States.
  • 93 percent of minority voters believe it is important for the next president to continue to show a commitment to protecting national public lands and the histories they represent.

The survey also reveals that 95 percent of minority voters believe it is important for young people to see their cultures and histories reflected in the national park system. But right now, they can barely find national park staff that reflects them: Diversity within the National Park Service has never been great, and it hasn’t improved much over the past few years. Less than 10 percent of park workers over the past five years have been African Americans. Compare that with white workers, who’ve made up close to 80 percent of the total National Park Service’s workforce over the same period. In the Partnership for Public Service’s yearly rankings of best places to work in the federal government, the NPS has regularly registered near the bottom in numerous categories, including support for diversity.

(Department of the Interior)

The National Park Service simply doesn’t have a strong record on attracting people of color. Additionally, the history of discrimination and racial violence within the park system is real enough to keep some African Americans away altogether. But how exactly should the NPS settle that history in a way that would make more people of color feel invited and accommodated?

These are the questions and actions being explored by environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, an environmental organization whose origins dovetail somewhat with that of the national parks. They both were founded by people who made it their mission to preserve public land and wildlife. Sierra’s founder, John Muir, swirled among the same “energetic conservationist circle” as Madison Grant—though Muir didn’t share Grant’s white supremacist agenda.

“The way we navigate that history is by not flinching,” says Michael Brune, Sierra Club’s executive director. “It is true that there were a lot of individuals who were white supremacists or eugenicists or who were making racist comments who were part of the beginning of the conservation movement, or who fought successfully to create national parks. So it’s important to understand our history as a movement, and, as a country, learn from it.”

What does that look like, though?  At least part of it should look like what the Equal Justice Initiative’s Bryan Stevenson is planning to build in Montgomery, Alabama. Called the Memorial to Peace and Justice, it is actually a reminder of the history of lynching in the U.S. The blueprint calls for a six-acre lot that will hold roughly 800 dangling columns, each representing counties where lynchings of African Americans took place, with the names of the lynched inscribed on each of them. Representatives of those lynching locations are expected to take duplicates of the columns back to their home counties for public display, to remind residents of the racial terrorism that occurred on their soil.

“I continue to believe that we’re not free in this country, that we’re not free at birth by a history of racial injustice,” Stevenson told an audience about the memorial, according to a profile of the project recently published in The New Yorker. “And there are spaces that are occupied by the legacy of that history that weigh on us.”

The National Park Service will need to weigh in on this as well as it embarks upon its next 100 years.

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