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“Nature doesn’t care if you’re gay,” I’ll often hear in reaction to articles by myself or my outdoorsy LGBTQ peers. And it’s true: Nature doesn’t care if I’m gay.

But people do.

A few ago, I finished a world-record journey to all 419 National Park Service sites. For three years nonstop, I lived in a van, hiked trails everywhere from American Samoa to the Arctic Circle, and accomplished an outdoors journey no human had ever done before. But comments about the trip have included things like, “Well now I need to be careful in the bathroom at national parks,” and, “Why do you have to shove your lifestyle down our throats!” A sponsor terminated our partnership halfway through the project, saying over the phone and in writing that I was doing too much LGBTQ outreach.

A camping website called The Dyrt posted an interview with me on Facebook featuring a thumbnail photo in which I’m holding a rainbow flag in front of Yosemite’s Tunnel View. The comments were so inflammatory that the publishers decided just hours later it was inappropriate to leave it up. They later denounced the hateful comments and reposted the story with a call for civility—which was unheeded. A rainbow flag incited such anger from a community of nature-lovers that they ignored what so many outdoor enthusiasts have told me is their “dream trip.”

This happened in June, of all months, the one month when my social media feels like an explosion of rainbows due to worldwide Pride festivals. When historic anniversaries like the Stonewall uprising and marriage-equality decisions are remembered. And when seemingly every corporation, from Listerine to Disney, is releasing products that celebrate these culture-changing moments.

Yet, as the rest of America chases this “Pink Dollar,” the outdoor recreation industry seems less interested in the near $1 trillion in purchasing power of the U.S. LGBTQ community. Or the shift in culture evidenced by the fact that the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 2019 “Pride Night” was the team’s highest attended game in seven years. Or—as I can attest after seeing Tinder photos from every corner of the United States during my parks journey—the vast market of gay men hoping to look cute in athletic clothes on top of a mountain.

Some in the LGBTQ community argue that corporate Pride promotions are simply “rainbow washing” to increase profits. But as someone who didn’t meet an openly gay adult until I left my home state of Nebraska at age 19, while 14 years later can get married in any state across the U.S., I’ve seen the progress our culture has made. And I believe companies had a large part in it.

In an age when corporations are afforded some of the same rights as individuals, financial power plays a significant role in our society, from politics to cultural acceptance. When Marriott, a company started and owned by Mormons, is willing to sponsor Pride festivals and has an entire annual #LoveTravels campaign aimed at making LGBTQ travelers feel welcome, even people in so-called “flyover states” are influenced by ideas more progressive than they might see at home.

In the same way, the outdoor recreation industry has the power to help build a future where LGBTQ outdoors fans are seen the same as everyone else. In that world, other nature enthusiasts’ reactions to a photo of a flag-bearing hiker would be the same whether it was an American flag or a rainbow one. If outdoor companies follow the example of the rest of corporate America, they could use their influence in a way that both helps their bottom line and improves the lives of outdoor lovers.

As civil rights leader Marian Wright Edelman said, “It’s hard to be what you can’t see.” The backing of inclusive values by outdoor brands will help nature enthusiasts like the Eagle Scout who wrote me via Instagram to share that he’d never had an outdoorsy gay role model until learning about my national parks record. Better representation will invite more people to experience our great outdoors. While LGBTQ discrimination still causes vastly higher rates of suicide attempts among LGBTQ youth than their straight peers, this moment in time gives me hope.

When I started my national parks journey in 2016, the outdoor recreation industry had never had a Pride Month ad. Now, several companies and nonprofits sponsor an annual LGBTQ Outdoor Summit; an outdoors-themed drag queen is commanding attention from brands, and REI (which I work with to help promote LGBTQ inclusion in the outdoors) received the Kenji Award at 2019’s Outdoor Retailer tradeshow in part for their “Outside With Pride” apparel.

This promotions and inclusion work of the past three years has expanded the tent of who sees themselves in outdoors culture, meaning we’ve come one step closer to a goal: A hope that one day, the readers of an article about a gay man visiting all of America’s national parks won’t care about the sexual orientation of the adventurer. After all, if nature doesn’t care that I’m gay, why do people?

Adventurer Mikah Meyer was recently named one of NBC’s “Pride 50” for groundbreaking work with LGBTQ communities. He is a regular speaker on topics ranging from epic outdoors experiences to the benefits of inclusion for businesses and individuals. He is based in Minneapolis. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Community Voices

What if I told you that a multibillion-dollar company had decided to trademark the name of one of America’s most prized national parks? And that the company then sued the United States to defend its purported trademark? And that to top it all off, that company has been invited into the inner circle of government by a now-indicted member of Congress, meeting in private with a Cabinet secretary and also sitting on a government advisory panel?

You’d probably reply that it all sounds outrageous, and that, if it’s true, it’s a genuinely shocking example of a corrupt presidential administration. Unfortunately, it’s true.

This story begins in 2015, when Delaware North, a New York-based hospitality and concessions business, lost the contract to run Yosemite National Park’s hotels, restaurants and gift shops. The company had held the contract for more than two decades, during which time it quietly trademarked names and images associated with iconic landmarks inside Yosemite, including the Ahwahnee Hotel, a national historic landmark; the likeness of Half Dome; and even the phrase “Yosemite National Park.”

Scott Gediman, the spokesman for Yosemite National Park, wasn’t happy with the name grab, telling The New York Times, “We feel strongly that the names belong to the American people.”

Rather than refocusing its expansive concessions business after losing the Yosemite contract, the company decided to take the U.S. government—and, by extension, the American public—to federal claims court, demanding $50 million for its surreptitiously acquired trademarks. The National Park Service, of course, maintains the trademarks aren’t valid. Even if they were, they would be worth no more than $3.5 million. A review of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database indicates that Delaware North is unique among concessionaires in holding trademarks to America’s parks.

The litigation between the National Park Service and Delaware North remains far from resolved, but, in the meantime, the National Park Service was forced to rename historic landmarks inside the national park. Now the Calvin Coolidge-era Ahwahnee Hotel is the Majestic Yosemite Hotel; the Wawona Hotel is Big Trees Lodge; and Curry Village is Half Dome Village.

Despite Delaware North’s questionable business practices and the company’s ongoing legal fight with the U.S. government, it is no pariah in President Donald Trump’s Washington. The Trump administration has welcomed Delaware North with open arms, granting the company’s executives an audience at the highest levels of government. When Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke announced his “Made in America” Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee, included in the list of 15 members was Jerry Jacobs Jr., the billionaire co-CEO of Delaware North.

Jacobs joins a group of business executives and industry lobbyists tasked with expanding so-called public-private partnerships in national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges and other American publicly owned lands. Setting aside the important question of whether we should be privatizing park functions, it’s hard to defend an individual who has so blatantly abused the public’s trust.

Delaware North’s presence on the “Made in America” Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee is not an isolated incident. Last month, CNN reported that Secretary Zinke held a private meeting with three executives from Delaware North, including Jacobs Jr., along with New York Republican Rep. Chris Collins. Collins, who federal prosecutors have charged with insider trading, counts Delaware North as his largest campaign contributor during his congressional career.

Likely realizing the unfortunate optics of the Zinke-Delaware North meeting, the Interior Department went to great lengths to conceal the names of the participants on the secretary’s official schedules. But when briefing materials of the meeting were released through a Freedom of Information Act request, the true purpose of the meeting was there in black and white. It was “for company executives to provide an overview from Delaware North regarding how the Park Service works with concessionaires.”

A company this greedy, whose founders are cashing in by fleecing American taxpayers and our prized public lands, should not be welcomed in the halls of power. But we have come to expect this kind of behavior from members of President Trump’s cabinet, Secretary Zinke included.

In less than two years on the job, Zinke has thrown open the doors to campaign donors, family business friends and the executives of the very corporations he is supposed to be regulating. All the while, he has consistently ignored input from the American public, as well as from pretty much anyone who isn’t a potential donor. Now under the cloud of more than a dozen investigations, Secretary Zinke might have become so besmirched that even President Trump finds him too much to stomach.

Greg Zimmerman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is the deputy director at the Center for Western Priorities, a public-lands policy organization based in Denver.

Published in Community Voices

Dear Mexican: I’ve seen black homeless people and white people homeless. How come I’ve never seen a Mexican or a Chinese person being homeless?

Get a Pinche Job, Bum

Dear Pocho: I can’t answer for chinitos, because the most Chinese thing about me is my love for an orange chicken/chow mein/brown rice lunch combo. But you’re falling into the same trap that many Mexicans fall into on Facebook: Namely, saying that Mexicans never go homeless, because they’d rather sell oranges and flowers on street corners than hold up a sign begging for food like a lazy gabacho.

The answer is more complex than a pinche meme. Percentage-wise, Latinos are over-represented on a national level: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report found about 20 percent of homeless people are Latino, just a tick above the 17 percent of Latinos who make up the American population. But the survey doesn’t break down the Latino homeless—whether the population is more immigrant or assimilated, Salvadoran or Mexican.

A better indicator of whether Mexican immigrants are less averse to homelessness is in a 2015 study by the Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty at the Weingart Center, examining the homeless community in Los Angeles County. It found that Latinos (who make up 47 percent of L.A. County’s population) accounted for only 33 percent of homeless. More tellingly, “about 14 to 18 percent of homeless adults in Los Angeles County are not U.S. citizens, compared with 29 percent of adults overall,” suggesting undocumented Mexicans would rather hustle than live outside.

But there’s nothing to brag about here—don’t be a heartless pendejo, and help out the homeless, regardless of raza.

Dear Mexican: Why aren’t there more Mexicans in outdoor-type jobs? I’m referring to camp guides, naturalists, river rafting guides, etc. My theory is that the outdoors haven’t always been a safe space for us, and most times, that is where we were working, not relaxing.

Tomás but Not a Tío

Dear Tom but Not an Uncle: A 2009 survey by the University of Wyoming and the National Park Service (NPS) found that Latinos (read: Mexicans) actually made up the largest percentage of minorities who visited national parks—a whole 9 percent! And pochos like you are even rarer: only 5 percent of NPS workers were Latinos (read: Mexicans).

This aversion to the gran outdoors is logical, actually. Gabachos have the luxury of enjoying backpacking for weeks at a time and rafting down the Withlacoochee. (Quick aside: Since this Florida river sounds like huitlacoche, it is this further proof for armchair Aztecs that the Nahuatl empire went all the way to the Sunshine State the way it extended to Michigan, aka Michoacán.) Mexicans, meanwhile, view nature much the way Manifest Destiny did: something to tame, not to revel in.

The Mexican has many fond memories of spending days with his Papa Je in the beautiful cerros of Zacatecas—but that’s to find logs to chop down for his campesino life. Once he came to el Norte, there’s no way my grandpa—or I, or most non-assimilated Mexicans who knows rural life—would want to camp on purpose.

Ask the Mexican at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; be his fan on Facebook; follow him on Twitter @gustavoarellano; or follow him on Instagram @gustavo_arellano!

Published in Ask a Mexican

For most of us, birthdays are happy occasions, when friends and family pay fond attention, lavishing us with gifts to prove that we are loved and valued. For one day, our foibles are accepted with a smile—or at least diplomatically ignored.

The National Park Service’s 100th birthday this August has been less joyful. In fact, anyone paying attention to the news might think that the proud agency, which oversees 412 units across more than 80 million acres, has had its centennial celebration ruined by a series of uncomfortable revelations.

In January, the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General released a report detailing two decades of sexual harassment by boatmen in the Grand Canyon’s river district and the failure of senior officials to adequately respond. In March, the agency abolished the river district and announced that it would increase sexual-harassment training and conduct an agency-wide survey to ascertain how widespread the problem is.

Then, in February, Chief Jon Jarvis was reprimanded by his bosses at Interior for publishing a book on the parks through a private company without federal approval.

Meanwhile, the Park Service remains hobbled by byzantine bureaucratic policies that have contributed to its struggle to hire a workforce that reflects the nation’s racial diversity, despite decades of “we’re-on-it” rhetoric. Today, 83 percent of its 23,000 employees are white—no more racially diverse than it was a decade ago.

The agency also lacks an adequate funding base, not only to maintain current operations, but to address the crumbling, neglected infrastructure at parks around the country. Annual appropriations from Congress, which make up about 88 percent of the Park Service’s roughly $3 billion budget, declined 8 percent between 2005 and 2014 after adjusting for inflation, according to a December report from the Government Accountability Office. The funding crisis is so bad that the agency is considering corporate sponsorships, a move that has some worried that “America’s Best Idea” will end up auctioned off to the highest bidder: Arches National Park brought to you by McDonald’s.

It's enough bad news that some park officials probably wish that they’d planned a low-key event at some remote park in, say, South Dakota, rather than the yearlong media-saturated, Subaru-sponsored celebration that is keeping the agency in the public eye.

But I’m glad the Park Service went big on its centennial—and I’m even glad that its dirty laundry is getting an airing. After all, birthdays are more than just celebrations; they’re also a time for reflection and redirection. The fact that we are having such deep, passionate discussions about our national parks and their problems is proof that they are loved and that they matter.

Besides, there are some bright spots: The agency continues to lead the way in helping us understand how climate change effects ecological systems; over the past five years, its new climate response program has studied climate change impacts on national parks from Acadia in Maine to American Samoa in the Pacific. Director Jarvis has also convened a panel of independent scientists, who, in a report called Revisiting Leopold, urge the agency to stop trying to preserve each park as a “vignette of primitive America” and “act immediately, boldly and decisively” to prepare for volatile conditions, including severe wet seasons and deep droughts. That is forward-thinking all land agencies need to embrace.

The Park Service has expanded its vision beyond protecting gorgeous landscapes to embracing parks and monuments, some brand new, that spotlight America’s unique cultural heritage in all its remarkable, complex and occasionally ugly glory—places like Cesar Chavez National Monument in California’s Central Valley and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park in Maryland.

The centennial may not go down as the Park Service’s happiest birthday celebration ever, but hopefully it will be the most memorable and transformative one. We can all raise a glass to that.

Paul Larmer is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News, where this piece first appeared.

Published in Community Voices

On June 21, a new petition surfaced on the White House’s website. In large bold letters, it reads: “Fire National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis. We deserve a director who will uphold the agency's integrity.”

During its centennial year, the agency has fallen under increased scrutiny for not taking swifter action to address a culture of sexual harassment and employee misconduct. The petition was started by a group of recreation and environmental activists in the San Francisco Bay Area and launched a week after members of Congress on the House Committee on Oversight and Congressional Reform grilled Jarvis for failing to take enough steps to stop sexual harassment and hostile working conditions that female employees faced in the Grand Canyon, Florida’s Canaveral National Seashore and other parks.

Last month, the Department of Interior’s Office of Inspector General released a report documenting a pattern of harassment at Canaveral, such as unwanted sexual advances and inappropriate comments by a supervisor. As the Park Service’s second sexual harassment investigation in six months, it prompted the House Oversight and Congressional Reform Committee hearing on June 14. The committee condemned Jarvis for not firing perpetrators and for not following through with disciplinary actions the agency outlined in response to the year’s first investigation of sexual harassment, which was released in January and focused on the Grand Canyon.

“Discipline and punishment is one thing; hand-slapping is another,” Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., said during the hearing. “I would hardly call what’s taking place discipline.”

Jarvis said he had formed a committee of high-level executives to handle the issue. He dismissed the idea that the agency wasn’t taking women’s reports seriously. He also said that firing a federal worker is nearly impossible, which is part of the problem.

“I don’t believe it’s fear; I believe (victims) don’t think action will be taken,” Jarvis said in the hearing. “I appreciate the reports from the Office of Inspector General, and (with) the actions we are going to take and are taking, we are going to see more reporting.”

After the January Grand Canyon report, the Park Service vowed to run a survey to determine how widespread the sexual-harassment problem is. According to Jeff Olson, the agency’s public affairs officer, they are in the process of finding companies to run the survey, and it should be out to employees by the end of September.

Matt Elliott, assistant inspector general for investigations for the Office of Inspector General, says that after these two high-profile investigations, the office will continue to keep a close eye on these issue in all of its agencies, and will be more mindful of looking out for patterns.

Responsibility for disciplinary actions following the Grand Canyon investigation falls to the intermountain regional director Sue Masica, who reports, like all other regional directors, to Deputy Director Peggy O’Dell. But O’Dell,who was also on a task force in 1999 to improve conditions for women in law enforcement, recently announced she will retire at the end of July after 37 years in the agency, Olson confirmed. (O’Dell could not be reached for comment.)

After the hearing, Hice and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, called for Jarvis’ ousting.

“My role in the committee is to alleviate some of the frustrations Americans experience by getting to the root of the problem and removing waste, fraud and abuse inside federal agencies,” Hice said in an email. “Oftentimes, it starts with the head of the agency.”

As of July 12, the petition had less than 900 signatures. That means it won’t likely come near the 100,000 needed for President Barack Obama to respond—but that’s not the point, says the petition’s creator, David Emanuel, of Save Our Recreation, a Bay Area advocacy group. “It’s a signal to Congress that there is a grassroots effort. People are aware and angry.”

The uproar regarding Jarvis is the second time this year Congress has stepped in on the issue of sexual harassment in the Park Service this year. In April, Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., and others called for reform in the agency, though not focusing on Jarvis. “What I want to see is institutional and cultural change within the National Park Service,” Gallego said recently. “If we stop seeing forward momentum, we’d have to revisit this.” He also added that he is drafting an amendment to the Department of Interior appropriations bill to direct the secretary not to rehire employees who were disciplined for harassment.

As the Obama administration nears the end of its term, many former and current park employees have voiced concern that the efforts to change the culture of gender bias and sexual harassment in the agency will fade away, as they did in the early 2000s during the transition to the Bush administration. But Gallego said that’s not going to happen.

“I’m 36, and I’m going to be in Congress for 20 years, and Grand Canyon is in my state,” he said. “So the issue is not going to be dropped.”

In the last six months, High Country News has received more than 40 letters from women and men working in federal parks, forests and lands, explaining personal experiences of sexual harassment, gender bias, assault and retaliation in the workplace.If you are a federal public land employee and would like to report your own experience with sexual harassment, please fill out High Country News’ confidential tip form.

Elizabeth Shogren contributed to this article, which originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

Christina Benton loves the road. She loves it so much that she took her three home-schooled kids on a 64-day, 5,704-mile RV journey across the country in the middle of the winter.

Starting in January in their hometown of Charlotte, N.C., they visited dozens of national parks—all the way to Santa Monica, Calif., and back.

Why national parks? To deeply educate Joshua, 13; Averie, 10; and Nathaniel, 6, Benton says, and to raise awareness about a serious problem the parks face—a lack of visitors who look like her family.

Before her trip, Benton, whose alter ego is Nomadic Mama of 3, contacted regional directors in the National Park Service to express her concern about the lack of diversity she saw during her travels. She said the directors shared her concern, and referred her to several people and organizations working on the issue. One was Teresa Baker of African American Explorations, the founder of African American National Parks Event, to be held this weekend, June 4-5. Baker’s campaign focuses on getting African Americans into national parks and having them submit photographs of the outings to the event’s Facebook page.

We asked Baker to interview Benton, who recently launched a travel magazine, GO Places Magazine, and plans to launch a travel magazine for kids, GO Places Jr.

How was the road trip experience?

(It) was truly amazing for me and my children. Our goal was to make it coast to coast, and we wanted to hit as many national parks as we could along the way. We were lucky enough to make it to Carlsbad, White Sands, Sequoia, Lake Mead, Joshua Tree, Grand Canyon, Red Rock Canyon and Four Corners Monument in the Navajo parks. The places we have seen, the people we have met and the cultures we have experienced have been life changing. My kids are getting a hands-on, active and involved education they could not get in the classroom, and I am learning right along with them. Of course, we have our moments. Traveling with a 13-year-old, 10-year-old and 6-year-old in a 200-square-feet RV, there is bound to be some bickering, but overall, the experience has been amazing.

How many national parks had you visited before this trip?

Great Smoky Mountains was my first taste of the national parks, because I was born and raised nearKnoxville. My family enjoyed picnics (in the park), but not much more than that. No hikes or camping. But even the short visits sparked a love of the outdoors. … I can say that my love peaked when I had children. I knew when they were babies that I wanted to show them the world and take them on amazing adventures, and a large part of that included the great outdoors. When I divorced a couple of years ago, I bought an RV, and the kids and I hit the road for some real outdoor adventures. We had been to 43 sites within the National Park system prior to this road trip. All were on the East Coast, so we have been extremely pleased to earn passport stamps from the Southwest and West Coast. Each and every site was a learning experience. We really love the Junior Ranger program, and we make sure to participate wherever it is offered.

What are your favorite parks?

I asked my children this as well, so this answer is from all of us. I have to say that two national parks from this most recent trip tied for my favorite. Sequoia National Park: The drive up the mountain to this park was treacherous, especially in an RV, but it was so worth it. To understand your place in the world while you’re standing so insignificant among those mighty trees—it put things in perspective. Now I know huge, and it is amazing. My other favorite park from this past trip was Lake Mead. There’s something about a lake so pristine in the middle of the desert that will make you stand in awe.

Joshua: My favorite park was the White Sands (in New Mexico), because it was interactive, and the sledding down the dunes was really fun. Also, Carlsbad Caverns were really fun, and required a lot of physical strength to get through.

Averie: I liked the Sequoia National Park because of how big the trees were, how pretty the snow was, and how the mountains looked in the background.

Nathaniel: White Sands was so epic because you could sled all the way down, find a path to run back up and sled down again. It was the most fun in the world.

What message would you like to share with others who may be hesitating to do what you are doing?

The landscape of this country that we live in is absolutely amazing. We often think international travel is the key to being “cultured” and “well-traveled,” but starting at home in your own backyard is actually the key to a well-traveled person. … We have natural wonders of the world right here in our own parks, and people of color do not seem to be taking advantage of this. Not knowing how or where to start is no excuse. I’ve offered many times, and I’ll offer again to be a hiking buddy, camping buddy or park-tourist buddy, as well as offer any advice and guidance (within the scope of my experiences) on where to start when exploring the national parks and the great outdoors.

What kind of reactions did you receive from people you encountered?

We had a unanimously positive response when people learned what we are doing. Many expressed how they wish they could do something similar or are planning to do just that. The percentage is roughly equal between the positive reactions of people of color to non-people of color, yet I notice a huge disparity in the national pParks, the RV parks, and the outdoors in general. I can say I have never had any problems with any group of people while visiting national parks.

Have your kids made any mention of the lack of diversity in your travels? If so, how do you feel it has affected them if at all?

The kids have not mentioned the lack of diversity, but have, in fact, noticed. In conversations about our experiences, the kids (my older ones) have made a note about being the only brown people in the park at that particular visit. … Collectively, it is a conversation that we have. I do not believe it has affected them in any kind of way other than helping to (disprove) the idea that brown people don’t participate in the outdoors.

What are your plans once your travels come to an end?

I hope to continue to work with individuals on the same journey, such as you (Teresa Baker), Audrey Peterman, Rue Mapp and others. In addition, I will continue to write about the topic in the travel magazine I publish, as well as my travel blog. In the future, I hope to create opportunities for gatherings and meetups in the national parks and other outdoor spaces with people of color. I am in the initial phases of planning RV camping meetups in several of the national parks for 2017.

Teresa Baker is the founder of African American Explorations, which encourages people of color to connect with nature and the outdoors, particularly national parks. She tweets@LoveOnNature. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

The National Park Service’s 2016 centennial got off to a rocky start.

On Jan. 2, militants occupied Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in a sustained attack on the very legality of public land—the philosophical and political foundation upon which the national parks and other reserves (including wildlife refuges) are built.

Then in mid-January came the galling announcement that one of the system’s flagships, Yosemite, is changing the names of well-loved landmarks in response to a legal dispute with a concessions company that managed to trademark park imagery and institutions for its own marketing purposes.

Neither is the sort of publicity that the agency hoped to receive from this anniversary, which was supposed to re-ignite the enthusiasm of the American public in a yearlong campaign called “Find Your Park.”

More in line with the message, surely, are two well-timed new books.

A Thinking Person’s Guide to America’s National Parks is an almost painfully earnest re-assessment of the national park system at the century mark. Its 23 chapters dissect the parks—why, and for whom, they exist. The book reflects the evolution of the agency’s approach to conservation, recreation, inclusiveness, sustainability and other facets. Between Ulysses S. Grant’s creation of Yellowstone National Park on March 1, 1872, and Barack Obama’s designation in February of three new national monuments comprising 1.8 million acres of California desert, the National Park Service has expanded its horizons generally from the West to the East, from scenic to historic, from wilderness toward urban areas. “The national parks are the American experience expressed in place,” writes former director Denis Galvin in the foreword, and as our understanding of the contours of that experience expands, the agency’s mission grows with it. “Today we contemplate the effects of a changing climate against the benchmarks of these protected places,” Galvin writes. “The story and contributions of enslaved people, once invisible, are now told.”

The book’s academic and in-agency contributors strike a measured balance between celebration and constructive criticism. The critiques mostly revolve around the agency’s slowness to come to terms with America’s history of oppression and diversity. These brief essays show an agency eager to attract young people and what we’ll soon enough need to stop calling minorities—the demographic core of whatever future support the parks may enjoy.

Population is increasing faster than park attendance, even as the system grows to meet its audience. The challenge is significant, and no book, however gorgeously illustrated (this one has 300 glossy color photos), is likely to be the magnet that draws new visitors into the parks.

But for anyone already invested, A Thinking Person’s Guide makes an excellent armchair roadmap to the Park Service’s more than 400 sites and its many priorities and pursuits, which range from community farming partnerships within the Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve on Whidbey Island, Wash., to the Kaibab Paiute Tribe’s leadership in preserving dark skies at Arizona’s Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument. You might think of the book as an illustrated catalog of the nation’s grandest common holdings, and an eloquent (if indirect) defense of the principles and benefits of public land managed for public use.

The Wonder of It All, compiled by the nonprofit Yosemite Conservancy, takes a different approach, collecting 100 short anecdotes and testimonials to the parks’ transformative powers. They’re stories of first jobs, true love, encounters with bears and wolves and stars, and the sudden flare of a light in a child’s eyes.

The Wonder of It All demonstrates both the charms and flaws of anthologized amateur writing, but its stories exude a heartfelt passion that complements and sweetens the administrative efficiency of A Thinking Person’s Guide. Bob McConnell’s recollection of a night enjoying opera with veteran seasonal Yosemite ranger Carl Sharsmith, who died in 1994, offers an intimate portrait of one of the many indispensable volunteers who make the parks tick, while Rebecca Bailey learns that the less-than-flattering “green and gray” uniform is no deterrent to unsolicited male attention in “How to Talk to a ‘Girl Ranger.’” (“Respectfully” will do just fine, thank you.) Anybody who’s ever worn that iconic flat hat, or daydreamed of doing so, will likely enjoy these stories.

Both of these new books serve as invitations to the national parks—a reminder that it’s not enough to support the idea of the parks; we need to visit them in person and get to know them. As timeless and unassailable as they may seem, the parks are the tip of America’s public-lands iceberg, and if recent history shows anything, it’s that they require our constant protection.

Plenty of folks are fighting hard to find new ways to exploit our natural and scenic resources. For now, “We the People” have the stronger claim. We’d be remiss, and we’d be lessened, if we failed to exercise it.

The Wonder of It All: 100 Stories From the National Park Service

Edited by the Yosemite Conservancy

Yosemite Conservancy

320 pages, $18.95

A Thinking Person’s Guide to America’s National Parks

Edited by Robert Manning, Rolf Diamant, Nora Mitchell and David Harmon

George Braziller

300 pages, $24.95

Published in Literature

Wayne Hare’s 11 years as a backcountry ranger included stints at Rocky Mountain and Canyonlands national parks and, most recently, at the Grand Junction, Colo., field office of the Bureau of Land Management.

Hare grew up on a dairy farm in New Hampshire, where, he says, “As far as I knew, we were about the only black family in the state.” His father took the kids hiking, camping and biking, giving his son a love of the outdoors that would shape his life. Four years in the Marines were followed by two decades at a big computer corporation; then Hare went to work for Outward Bound in Massachusetts and directed outdoor programs at Dartmouth College. Whenever he led students through the woods, he was struck by what he didn’t see—“other brown people.” So he began writing about non-white Western adventurers and working with the National Park Service to create programs to increase the agency’s diversity. He continues to urge minorities to support—and enjoy—their public lands.

Now 64, Hare retired from the BLM last spring and has been traveling the West. Jodi Peterson caught up with him recently.

Racial and ethnic minorities are fast becoming the majority of the U.S. population, but make up only a small fraction of national park visitors. Why don’t more minorities visit public lands?

As a ranger, I made thousands of public contacts a year. Less than half a dozen were “people of color,” and maybe one was black. That’s just weird! River-rafting or mountain-biking are fun, no matter what color you are. If I blame anyone, it’s people of color who buy into their own stereotypes: “Oh, no, we don’t hike. That’s for white people.”

Also, black Americans’ institutional memory of the outdoors isn’t positive, and we haven’t gotten over that yet. I’ll never forget a black senior at Dartmouth who, in talking with me about the backcountry cabins that Dartmouth owns, and the rock-climbing that is pervasive at the school, said, “I don’t really know what a cabin is, and I don’t know what white people do there. But I do know that I’m not going into the woods with a bunch of white people carrying ropes.” Another student told me, “Our grandparents say, ‘We worked hard so you wouldn’t have to sleep on the ground and use an outhouse.’” That institutional memory and lack of peer permission is something many white folks do not believe or understand. But that shouldn’t be stopping us.

The National Park Service designates specific parks to honor the history of African Americans, like the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. What do you think of that?

Which parks aren’t relevant to black history? In Yosemite, the first armed protectors of the park were a detachment of all-black mounted infantry. Grant-Kohrs, a working ranch in Montana honoring our cowboy heritage, is as relevant to brown-skinned people as the Martin Luther King Jr. site is relevant to white people. A lot of cowboys were black and brown; a lot of freedom riders were white. If we knew our own history, we’d know that we, too, are a part of what national parks represent, and that parks are not just a “white thing.”

Instead of emphasizing differences, I think parks ought to incorporate, in a natural way, the history and stories of everyone, so that we begin to think in terms of “Americans” instead of “hyphenated Americans.” There is no glory, no shame and no history that were not shared by all of us, of all colors.

How can public-lands agencies increase the racial diversity of their visitors and employees?

The agencies have an interest in diversity in public-land management, but I think it’s superficial. It’s such a difficult and uncomfortable thing. Talking about diversity is, after all, talking about race, and at least nodding to the sad history of race in this country. So diversity has morphed into “respect in the workplace.” But diversity isn’t just about getting along. It’s about having a greater cross-section of America—the “Face of America,” as Bob Stanton, former Park Service director, used to say, working on and visiting our public lands.

The Park Service and BLM could do more to promote careers in public lands, such as recruiting in places with more minorities, like big cities. I’ve heard more than one federal hiring manager say something to the effect that they’d advertise a position and simply hire the best-qualified candidate … but they made no attempt to let nontraditional candidates know about those jobs. How about sending some of us to visit schools, in uniform, to simply tell our career stories and flash photos of beautiful places and fun activities?

There are many organizations that take kids of all colors out into the woods. That will pay dividends, and the Park Service is very supportive of those groups.

I often think about the words of William Sloane Coffin Jr.: “Diversity may be the hardest thing for a society to live with, and perhaps the most dangerous thing for a society to be without.” If we Americans, hyphenated or otherwise, want to continue having public lands to enjoy, we better get our diverse asses in gear.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

In To Conserve Unimpaired, University of Utah professor Robert Keiter provides an unvarnished view of “America’s best idea”: the National Park System.

Keiter, the country’s pre-eminent legal expert on the subject, tackles the question: Why does the park idea still evoke so much controversy when its value is so widely acknowledged? For one thing, as he explains, it’s not just about parks. “As highly valued and visible public places, the national parks are inherently political entities … reflecting our larger dialogue about nature conservation and its role in our civic life.”

Keiter traces the evolution of each major idea that has shaped our vision of the national parks. In the early days, the Park Service actively sought to improve visitor experiences by attempting to control nature. Not only did the agency suppress wildfires; it also eradicated wolves to protect more “desirable” wildlife, and fed bears garbage “to create an evening spectacle for park visitors.” If it weren’t for David Brower and the Sierra Club, Colorado’s Dinosaur National Monument would have been inundated by the massive Echo Park dam. But they could not stop the Park Service from punching through a network of new roads to facilitate tourism.

Brower, in fact, captured the dichotomy of all national parks: “part schoolroom and part playground and part—the best part—sanctuary from a world paved with concrete, jet-propelled, smog-blanketed, sterilized, over-insured (and) aseptic … with every natural beautiful thing endangered by the raw engineering power of the 20th century.”

The challenge of conserving those “beautiful things” looms even larger today, as we face the pressures of climate change and ever more people and development. One can’t help but wonder whether the legal mandate governing park management, the Organic Act of 1916, is adaptable enough to endure. In fact, the Park Service’s management ethos did begin to change in the 1960s with the influential Leopold report—by legendary conservationist Aldo Leopold—which recommended that parks be managed to represent a “vignette of primitive America” with minimal human intervention into natural processes.

Keiter shows how the Organic Act can continue to accommodate changing views of the national parks while ensuring that conservation comes first. He points the way toward conserving the parks “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations,” as the law specifies, through science collaboration, and a heightened sense of social justice, connectivity and diversity, both human and ecological. Yet, as Keiter concludes, “The parks will always be confronted with new demands and threats, testing our commitment to the fundamental principles underlying the hallowed notion of conserving nature in an unimpaired condition.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

To Conserve Unimpaired: The Evolution of the National Park Idea

By Robert B. Keiter

Island Press

368 pages, $35

Published in Literature

As I wrote last spring, the pumas of Southern California’s Santa Monica Mountains are dying—slowly, but quite literally—for lack of genetic diversity.

Blocked from migration by freeways, development and the Pacific Ocean, the lions have begun to inbreed; researchers studying the lions have, through DNA tests, found multiple instances of fathers mating with daughters. If it keeps up, the population will go sterile, depriving the tiny ecosystem of its single apex predator.

That’s why it mattered so much that, during the government shutdown, a puma was found dead on Highway 101 at Liberty Canyon, a well-known wildlife migration route between the Santa Monicas and open space to the north. Fewer than a dozen pumas remain in this cloistered range.

When the lion died, the National Park Service researchers who have been studying the animals for the last 11 years had been furloughed. Now that they’re back, we know: This death is just about as tragic as it gets for the lions of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Seth Riley, an urban wildlife expert who works on the NPS puma study, says that his colleague, Jeff Sikich, was able to access the lion’s body shortly after its death and collect samples, which he submitted to genetics labs at the University of California at Davis and UCLA. So far, the UCLA lab has analyzed 15 “loci”—specific positions on chromosomes occupied by “alleles,” or DNA sequences. “And of those 15 loci,” Riley says, “five had alleles that we never see in the Santa Monica Mountains, and have only seen north of the 101.”

Had the lion not been struck and killed by a passing motorist just after midnight on Oct. 7, that genetic material might have soon been circulating among the pumas of the Santa Monicas.

The death underscores the need for some sort of safe passage wildlife could follow out of the Santa Monicas and back again at Liberty Canyon, which is “one of the only places along the 101 freeway where there’s natural habitat on both sides,” which is critical for animals to safely cross, Riley says. The last puma that came from the north, P-12, crossed here in early 2009, and from what Sikich observed at the site where the body was found, this recent lion seems to have made it all the way across the freeway and run up against a 10-foot right-of-way fence.

The California Department of Transportation has twice had grant applications rejected for a $10 million underpass at this site. Round three comes up soon.

Riley says there’s much more work to be done on the lion’s DNA—scientists are hoping to test 54 loci, not just the 15 already analyzed. But it’s already clear that, had he been able to establish himself in the southern mountains and breed successfully as P-12 did, the now-dead lion’s impact would have been huge.

“When you have a small population and not a lot of reproductive males,” Riley says, “individual migration events make a big difference.”

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor to High Country News, the site at which this was originally posted. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Environment

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