The Color of Our Parks – Public Lands History Center Host Panel on Race and the National Parks
by Maggie Moss Jones
Americans experience their parks in many different ways, something not formally acknowledged until recently when the National Park Service identified relevancy and diversity as two of its primary initiatives for the 21st century. Scholars such as Lauret Savoy, Carolyn Finney, and Nina Roberts have written about the many ways in which the national park experience has been, and continues to be distinctive for people of color, involving patterns of exclusion and inaccessibility. Scholar Nina Roberts notes “what people [of color] do for leisure, historically, was not spending time in the outdoors, because they worked in the outdoors or they were killed in the outdoors.”
Slowly, the NPS has admitted that it needed to do more to bring diverse populations into national parks as visitors and employees. The 1991 National Park Service Vail Agenda sought to guide the parks into the 21st century and addressed the need to develop a diverse workforce, yet it said little about the needs and interests of people of color as visitors. More recently, the National Park Service signaled its deepening commitment to making the parks relevant and accessible to people of all races, ethnicities, ages, and genders. With park visitation in the 21st century reaching levels never seen before, park professionals must help diverse visitors connect to national parks while they continue to protect and preserve the parks’ natural and cultural resources.
In 2016, the National Park Service’s centennial year, the Public Lands History Center outreach program, the American West Program, seeks both to celebrate the NPS and to examine significant issues in the past, present, and future of our parks. On Thursday, September 29th, the American West Program will present a panel discussion on “The Color of Our Parks: Nature, Race, and Diversity in the National Park Service.” The panel speakers will share historical and contemporary perspectives on race and diversity as they affect experiences of nature, resource stewardship, and interpretation in the national parks.
Our goal for this event is to continue a conversation about diversity and the relevancy of our national parks. Event organizer and panelist, Ruth Alexander of Colorado State University’s History Department will examine patterns of erasure, exclusion, and resistance related to race and gender in the NPS in the early 20th century. Camille Dungy of Colorado State University’s Department of English will discuss her experiences as an African American female writing on and in our national parks. Colorado State University’s Gillian Bowser will share her experience as an African American woman working for the NPS in natural resource stewardship and her efforts to develop programs that will expose young people of color to careers in science in the NPS. Panelist Alexandra Hernandez of the NPS Intermountain Region will focus on NPS efforts to highlight grassroots efforts of diverse communities to tell their own stories in new park units, National Historic Landmarks and National Heritage Areas. While Hernandez looks at NPS accomplishments, Nina Roberts of San Francisco State University will ask if the NPS is willing to evolve to meet the challenges of cultural barriers and shifting cultural landscapes. As the Park Service enters its second century and addresses the challenges of opening national parks to diverse populations and making park units relevant to people of many backgrounds our panel speakers will engage the public in a meaningful discussion of park initiatives and challenges.
This public event will be held on Thursday, September 29th, from 7:30 to 9 pm in the CSU Morgan Library Event Hall. If you’re in the Colorado Front Range, we hope to see you at this essential discussion of our national parks.
Maggie Moss Jones is a graduate student at Colorado State University working with the Public Lands History Center to better understand national park experiences. She is an organizer of this event.