Parks for All People: Addressing Legacies of Racism, Displacement, and Exclusion in National Parks

National Park Week, observed every April, is a time to celebrate our country's most cherished places. It is important that as we celebrate our national parks each year, we also recognize and address their historical legacies--both good and bad.

National parks fill a critical role at the intersection of conservation and individual, community, and environmental health. Having access to protected wild spaces benefits people, as spending time outdoors and in nature helps improve physical and mental health. Robust parks systems also help maintain thriving ecosystems with clean water and air, and enable conservation of natural resources and biodiversity. They even help boost the economy. It’s widely accepted that preserving natural spaces contributes to a Thriving Natural World—a vital condition for well-being, but it’s important to consider whose well-being is benefited, and who are national parks currently serving? To continue advancing well-being through conservation, we must first address the legacies of racism, displacement, and exclusion that still impact our national parks today.

Remembering Frederick Law Olmstead

The 2022 Earth Month (April) marked the 200th birthday of Frederick Law Olmsted, social reformer and founder of American landscape architecture. During his lifetime, Olmsted used his literary prowess to oppose the westward expansion of slavery and to argue for the abolition of slavery by the South. He designed New York City’s Central Park and laid the foundation for our national park system; his vision was of public parks for all people, which strengthens communities and promotes public well-being.

In our celebrations, it is crucial to understand the nuances of Olmsted and others’ ideology and the legacies of exclusion that exist today. For example, Olmsted’s vision for Central Park was a democratic space where “the cultivated and the self-made could assimilate” and one which would have a “manifestly civilizing effect” on New York’s working class poor. The Central Park Conservancy estimates that approximately 1,600 people were displaced, including residents of Seneca Village, the first and largest free Black community in New York.

The Original Preservationists: Honoring Indigenous History within National Parks

In order to create the National Parks Service (NPS) lauded by many as “America’s best idea”, countless Indigenous populations were robbed of their land. These were not pristine areas of uninhabited wilderness which needed preserving; they were sacred, well-maintained, and Indigenous-occupied landscapes. The U.S. sanctioned killing of over 40 million buffalo between 1830 and 1865 from the North American plains (today known as Glacier National Park), effectively starving the Blackfeet tribe into selling their land to the government. Mesa Verde National Park was once part of the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation in southwest Colorado, and for years the Utes refused to trade or sell the lands where their ancestors laid rest. Meanwhile, a Swedish scientist named Gustaf Nordenskiöld took untold numbers of sacred artifacts and human remains from the area, which until 2019 were proudly on display in the National Museum of Finland. In 1906 congress passed a bill unilaterally taking 1,320 acres to create Mesa Verde National Park without notification to the Ute Mountain Utes. Under the same guise of land protection, Devils Tower National Monument was created in 1906 as the first national monument, but it was previously a site of incredible cultural significance for over 20 tribes until religious ceremonies were banned by the government. The ban was eventually lifted, but tensions remain high as many professional climbers flock to the monument for outdoor escapades, often disrupting Native ceremonies and causing offense. There is a voluntary ban on climbing in June, when many sacred ceremonies take place, but it has been criticized by climbers for violating the First Amendment and their right to spirituality by endorsing one religion over another. The modern language of preservation and pristine, human-free landscapes contributes to the erasure of thousands of years of Indigenous culture.

Access to the Outdoors: Legacies of Exclusion and Efforts for Inclusion

While access to green spaces and nature promotes physical health, mental wellbeing, and is the fodder for much of the current fight against climate change, Olmsted’s vision of parks for all people has not been fully realized. President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the creation of the National Park Service in1916, at which point Jim Crow segregation had its hold on America. Signs at the parks read “For White People Only” and remained in place until the end of World War II. In 1945, the Interior Secretary mandated desegregation in all national parks, but it took years for that to be accomplished. Even then, there was a very real threat of racially-motivated mistreatment, including physical abuse and violence perpetrated against Black Americans in the parks. As a result, experiencing the outdoors meant potentially endangering one’s life for many people of color. This continues to be the case today, as demonstrated by the murder of Ahmaud Arbery while running, and the false accusations of harassment against Christian Cooper, an African American bird watcher in Central Park. The triumphal arch at the entrance to Yellowstone reads “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People,” but the question remains: for which people? 

Although Black Americans represent 13.4 percent of the U.S. population, a 2018 report found that they make up less than 2 percent of national park visitors. Outdoor recreation often requires disposable income, leisure time, and access to transportation and gear. However, inequity in the outdoors likely has less to do with wealth and vacation days, and more to do with the history of exclusion and resulting hostility many people of color face in the outdoors. It doesn’t help that the NPS workforce is 83 percent white, nearly all signage is in English alone, and most marketing material is sorely lacking in diversity. Perhaps if we told the full history of the American outdoors–the trauma inflicted and the cultural history indigenous peoples and lands on which many parks sit–that truth-telling would translate into more diverse visitors. Take, for example, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park of Maryland or the Cesar Chavez National Monument in Keene, California, both of which memorialize spaces while honoring their salience for communities of color.

In 2017, President Barack Obama published a Presidential Memorandum–“Promoting Diversity and Inclusion in Our National Parks, National Forests, and Other Public Lands and Waters,” which encourages parks stewards to advocate for a more inclusive story of America, include diverse voices in the decision-making process for new public lands and waters, and increase the number of outdoor recreation outreach programs for diverse communities. There are a number of nonprofits and private sector actors already doing this work: 

  • Georgia-based Greening Youth Foundation works with youth to provide environmental and wellness education and pathways to green careers. 

  • GirlTrek is an 850,000-member public health movement that inspires Black women and girls to lead healthier lives together through walking. 

  • Outdoor Afro is a nonprofit network of people of color  with over 90 leaders in 30 states who are leading the way for inclusion in outdoor recreation, nature and conservation. 

Celebrating, honoring, and replicating their work can help increase equity in access to the outdoors.

Considering the benefits of spending time in a Thriving Natural World, one of the seven Vital Conditions for wellbeing, innovation and action are urgently needed. Park administrators should consider using ride-share, charter bus companies, and city transit to provide low-cost transport options for low-income families to get to green spaces. A partnership between California State Parks and the California State Library allows anyone with a library card to secure a temporary free parking pass for over 200 state parks across California. Senator Cory Booker’s Transit to Trail act seeks to address access issues by establishing a grant program under the Department of Transportation to provide transportation systems to and from underserved communities and public lands.

Decolonizing the Environmental Movement

Most conservation has been driven by Eurocentric, Judeo-Christian beliefs that emphasize a distinct separation of “man” and “nature.” This has led to the exclusion of non-white, Non-European values and participants in conservation, along with an infusion of anthropocentricism in many organizations and missions. One example is the mission of the National Park Services:

“The National Park Services preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations … to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resources conservation … throughout this country and the world.”

To only recognize the benefits of wilderness like solitude, peace, and wonder is to ignore many cultures’ environmental values and especially Indigenous knowledge, which views human beings as connected to all other living things on Earth. Conservation has been dominated by white people in the fight against climate change, but culturally, conservation has existed for generations. Indigenous peoples’ traditional uses of land for hunting, herding, gathering, and fishing has maintained fragile wildlife ecosystems for generations, and their reciprocal view of nature translates to a healthy use of resources. A United Nations report confirmed this; Indigenous lands suffered less biodiversity loss than publicly managed land, which is attributed to better management of natural resources and environmental hazards like species decline and pollution.

Indigenous political structures, institutions, and conservation efforts continue to suffer under the paternalism of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which controls Native land by holding it in trust. Despite the goodwill of many park employees, this land is subject to mismanagement and the fluctuating political will of the U.S. government. Under the Trump administration, Bears Ears National Monument was reduced by 85% to accommodate the interests of mining companies and motor vehicles. While Deb Haaland, who became the first Native American Cabinet secretary in 2021, hopes to chart a new future for the Department of the Interior, many advocate that the 85 million acres of national park sites should be returned to the care of Native tribes. On a smaller scale, ownership of 500 acres of Redwood forests was returned to 10 tribes in Mendocino County, California, where they will serve as guardians to “protect and heal” the land from logging.

If we are to truly protect, preserve, and ensure a Thriving Natural World for future generations, it is imperative to acknowledge and repair damage done by centuries of Indigenous exploitation, environmental racism, and exclusion of people of color. At the same time as we break down barriers for communities of color to enjoy the outdoors, we must amplify BIPOC voices in scientific assessments, recognize territorial rights, and create partnerships between scientists and indigenous and local communities. In doing so, the environmental movement will gain invaluable allies in the fight against climate change and environmental degradation.

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