National Parks and the movement for racial equality

Noble Horvath

As a Black immigrant woman, I often find that national parks can be lonely places. I grew up in Jamaica and moved to D.C. in 1999 to attend Howard University. On trips to America’s parks, I was curious and concerned about not seeing others who look like me. This summer, […]

As a Black immigrant woman, I often find that national parks can be lonely places. I grew up in Jamaica and moved to D.C. in 1999 to attend Howard University. On trips to America’s parks, I was curious and concerned about not seeing others who look like me.

This summer, after months of quarantine and back-to-back Zoom calls, my wife and I drove to Maine. We loved revisiting Acadia National Park’s highlights — taking in Cadillac Mountain at sunrise, riding bikes around Eagle Lake — and yet, it felt like a consolation prize.


Kerry-Ann Hamilton visits Jordan Pond in Maine’s Acadia National Park in August. (LJ)

Our original, covid-adapted vacation plan was to rent an RV and head south to the Great Smoky Mountains. But we changed our itinerary after we learned of several upsetting, racially charged incidents in Asheville, N.C., and Wilmington, N.C.

Over the years, my jaunts through some of the nation’s most spectacular wonders — Zion, Yellowstone, Denali and others — have rewarded me with breathtaking views of serpentine canyons and sheer cliffs, prismatic pools and epic glaciers. But I rarely encounter other Black people on these trips. It’s a jarring reminder that the nation’s expansive network of natural wonders and wildernesses has primarily been a sanctuary for middle- and upper-class White people.

According to recent National Park Service data, 77 percent of visitors to the 419 national parks are White. People of color make up 42 percent of the U.S. population, but according to the most recent survey, 23 percent of visitors to the parks were people of color. Just six percent identified as Black. The U.S. population is on track to be majority people of color by 2045. Our national parks have to diversify, or they risk becoming irrelevant and indefensibly exclusionary.

In August, the president signed the Great American Outdoors Act, guaranteeing maximum annual funding for a federal program to acquire and preserve land for public use. This moment can be seized to make the land truly “public” — that is, a benefit for every segment of society.

At the surface level, there are issues of access. Some are financial, such as the ability to pay park fees and transportation costs. A flight from D.C. to Jackson Hole, Wyo., which has the closest major airport to Yellowstone, can cost more than $3,000 round trip for a family of four during the summer months. There are also psychological scars from generations of racist mistreatment. Many Black families are still wary of camping and exploring the outdoors because of wrenching incidents that happened to African Americans in the woods, both in folklore and in reality.


Kerry-Ann Hamilton and her wife, LJ, ride bikes around Lake Artemesia in Berwyn Heights, Md., in 2018. (Kathy Ricker)

Curious about the disparity, I spoke with Washingtonian Akiima Price, a community liaison with the National Park Foundation, who is leading a three-year effort to revitalize nearby Anacostia Park to create unique recreational and educational activities.

“Black and brown communities are not ‘hard to reach.’ We need to honor the values of all communities. In my role, I am reimagining meaningful park engagement,” Price said.

She explains that those in high-stress communities may enjoy the outdoors in different ways, and they should be represented.

“For communities of color, enjoying the outdoors could involve a cookout with family, Double Dutch … or skating at the rink in Anacostia Park — it may not be hiking or camping,” she said.

These structural barriers that have piled up over the centuries affect everything from travel to culinary arts to the entertainment industry. But with the current national reckoning on race, that’s beginning to change. The mostly White conservation sector is now having to account for its part in perpetuating discriminatory practices against communities of color.

Take for example the Sierra Club’s recent long-overdue denunciation of its founder John Muir’s racist views and the White supremacist beliefs of its original members. It is a welcome step toward recognizing that America’s parks belong to all of us.

Muir’s work was invaluable, without question. A mentor once gave me a first-edition copy of his seminal 1901 publication, “Our National Parks,” and it remains a cherished keepsake. But today, we must reckon with the visionary leader and his racist past.

The Sierra Club has committed to training its staff and diversifying its ranks, including its board of directors. It’s crucial that the organization build on this momentum and move quickly on bold and measurable actions toward welcoming and celebrating difference, as incrementalism will no longer suffice.

“This issue is systemic; our efforts should not just be about hiking and camping — it also about environmental justice. We can’t continue to homogenize diversity by developing generic solutions,” says Mickey Fearn, who was the National Park Service’s deputy director for communications and community assistance from 2009 to 2013. For nearly 50 years, the veteran environmentalist and conservationist has tackled diversity efforts in local, state and national parks across the country.


Hamilton and her wife cool down on a hot summer day in Yellowstone National Park in 2019. (Family Photo)

The experts I spoke to pointed to access to nature as a social determinant of health. And in Fearn’s Zip code in Raleigh, N.C., the life expectancy is 13 years shorter than that of an adjoining neighborhood that is predominantly White.

“In my experience, in order to add to the recreational inventory of young people in urban environments, we need to expose them to at least four positive experiences in nature,” he explains. “We must take them from surviving the experience of their first trip to ultimately enjoying the outdoors. That requires time and the support of trusted local partners.”

The Sierra Club could use its reach and visibility to further support and scale the work of Black-led organizations and those serving communities of color. Consider Greening Youth Foundation, a Georgia-based nonprofit that works with youth and young adults to provide environmental and wellness education, as well as pathways to green careers. Or GirlTrek, an 850,000-member public health movement that inspires Black women and girls to commit to leading their healthiest lives through walking.

As the Sierra Club and others “pull down their own monuments of white supremacy,” we have an incredible opportunity to make our natural parks welcoming havens for everyone. Let’s make this land truly “our land” — made for you and me.

Read more:

America’s protests are making history. Museums are documenting that in real time.

Your guide to safely and ethically visiting national parks this fall

The head of D.C. tourism group reflects on being one of the few Black men at the top of the industry

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