Diversity and Inclusion on Our Public Lands

I camped in the Mojave National Preserve early this summer at the southern base of the Providence Mountains.  A couple of hours before sunset I watched thunderstorms slowly build to the east and cross over the Colorado River and Dead Mountains, over 50 miles away.  To the southeast the Clipper Mountains stood prominently, with the graceful Old Woman Mountains further in the distance.

I have to admit that I like having open space to myself.  Looking out for miles and soaking my mind in a landscape dominated by nature. Not by cars, billboards, suburbs, or strip malls.  Although I find solitude in the desert, I know that I am gazing upon a landscape crowded with a diverse human experience.  Native American tribes would meet at the Old Woman Mountains, and miners and homesteaders of various backgrounds claimed different corners of the desert.
The human experience in the desert was not always positive, and the reasons that brought others to the desert are starkly different than my own - escape and rejuvenation. But all of these experiences rest on the same fabric - a landscape that is still largely intact in many parts of the desert southwest. Whether they were looking for gold, harvesting seeds, or passing through to Los Angeles, people in this land likely knew the same scent of creosote bush that I enjoy.  The riot of wildflower color in spring. They knew the relief of sunset, as cooler temperatures and the shadows of the mountains fall upon graceful valleys. Bats flutter overhead and owls call from a rocky perch.

The human experience in the desert spans a relatively short period of time, much younger than the rocks that we scramble across in Joshua Tree or Death Valley National Parks.  But this experience is made up of so many individual stories and emotions.  It is the diversity of those experiences that makes our natural heritage so much richer and meaningful.  And the desert - as intact as it is - provides an opportunity to step partly into those experiences, and to ponder our past and future.
But the future of this landscape - and our natural heritage - is under threat as we prioritize extractive industry over conservation, and the concept of outdoor enjoyment becomes distorted by companies that seem to suggest that you need hundreds of dollars of gear to properly enjoy a night under the stars.  Is the idea of conservation an anomaly that will ultimately give way to a tide of extractive industry and for-profit uses?  Are National Parks a fad that will eventually give in to the weight of human desire for material consumption?
Although there is no question that visitation and use of our public lands continues to climb,  this enjoyment has not been experienced equally across our communities and we must ensure that access to wildlands does not become some luxury good available only to a select few.  We are all responsible for these lands, and we are all responsible for ensuring that every corner of our society has access to the enrichment that we gain from open space.
Whenever I see the environmental community discuss issues of diversity and inclusion, I notice a knee-jerk reaction among some that refuse to acknowledge that we have work to do on this issue.  In response to articles and blog posts on how to ensure that communities of color are welcomed in our wildlands, I have seen comments that are dismissive that any barriers exist.  Some commenters suggest that it's simply a matter of choice that has resulted in some communities of color being underrepresented in visitation to our national parks.
We all have our own individual preferences for how we like to spend our free time, but to suggest that some communities simply don't have the desire to see the gushing falls of the Yosemite Valley, or to see a carpet of wildflowers erupt across a desert grassland in the spring is absurd. In the 2011 survey conducted by the National Park Service regarding visitation, those that had not visited a national park in the previous two years did not express some overall disinterest in nature.  Instead, the survey indicated that a myriad of factors ultimately discourage or prevent more people of color from visiting wildlands. High on the list  of factors was a lack of information and lack of familiarity with national parks, as well as perceived costs.

When I flipped through my latest issue of High Country News - the "Special Outdoor Recreation Issue" - I realized that there is not a single person of color that I could identify in any of the dozens of photos of people enjoying the outdoors.  I know that this was not some intentional effort by the magazine to exclude people, but probably an the result of a lack of diversity among those that write about and market the outdoors.  Consider the fact that the National Park Service staff is nearly 80% white.  This staff is working tirelessly under severe budget constraints to manage, protect and share some of our most treasured landscapes.  But it is all the more difficult to reach out to communities of color, and for communities of color to view our parks as accessible, with this gap in diversity. 

For those that are eager to give me the knee-jerk reaction, I will stress that this discussion is not about divisiveness or disunity.  Quite the opposite. Our wildlands ultimately forge a shared experience and constitute a shared treasure.  If we're going to protect them for eternity - if we want conservation to not just survive, but thrive - then we have to recognize how and when we are failing to be nature's advocate in our own communities. And to accomplish this, we need to look critically at how we communicate the value of our wildlands.

I hope that one hundred years from now someone else will find that same camping spot in the Mojave National Preserve and be able to look out across unspoiled desert valleys and mountains.  And just as I was able to reflect on the historical human experience in the desert before me, I hope that future visitors will be reflecting on how absurd it was that my generation continued to exploit and destroy wildlands and wildlife.   But if we're going to succeed in changing that paradigm, we need to make sure that everyone else in our community knows about the treasure that what we stand to lose.


  1. Thought-provoking post. I do see what you're saying to a point, as it relates to a need for much better outreach to all people, which seems to be the domain of middle class and wealthier Anglos.

    In my landscape architecture field especially where I live, it's sad to see few to no Native American and Hispanic practitioners. Same with any Native Plant Society of New Mexico meeting. That's over 1/2 the population.

    But isn't it possible that some aren't interested, as not all Hispanic people are poor and unable to access things the middle class may never get - in fact, some of the wealthiest people in El Paso are Mexican, and it's not just a few.

    Are not Asians "of color"?

    The term "people of color" rubs me...most look at me and say I fit that term (my ancestry mostly Mediterranean), let alone the majority of people in New Mexico and here in El Paso fit. Others will say I'm not, and I've not forgotten one nasty person (Anglo) who took offense I questioned such thought. I think Nordic, Celtic and Anglo people are "of color", exotic and so different than me, but I tend to look at skin as only skin.

    The larger issue here is less people in our country get outdoors to natural areas. Most I meet, even in my field, are geographically illiterate, have a dubious land ethic, but they talk a good line. The stories I could tell you about officials in local government are often too sad to relate, even worse than what I see in popular media. And they talk a good line, too...many making 6 figures I'll never see, ignorant of much beyond their position...yet they and the money they hang out with make decisions impacting our wild lands, even built places.

    It's time all ages are exposed to our wild deserts, mountains, etc., and learn how to travel to / enjoy them. All western towns and cities ought to have school buses at the countless state and national parks, even hiking trails, every school day.

    But don't expect the masses to get out there, even after a decade, if the well-salaried government officials ("decisionmakers") and media aren't right there the entire time, with the kiddos, learning and not barking to underlings on their cell phones.

  2. Hi David,
    I agree that the issue of access to the outdoors goes beyond the racial construct (How do we get kids into nature as local open space diminshes and electronic entertainment dominates? How do we ensure that those with disabilities have access to the wildlands that we all recognize as a natural treasure?). But we cannot ignore that outdoor recreation is largely governed, administered, and advertiseed by and to a largely white audience. You make a good point that we should have school buses full of kids visiting our wildlands to learn about and appreciate them. We have a lot of work to do to ensure that our civilization accepts the intrinsic value of nature outside of the human world, and it starts with ensuring that everyone is welcome and encouraged to experience and respect the outdoors. We cannot accomplish this if we don't recognize when and where our society fails.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

How Many Plants Species in the Desert?

Mowing Vegetation as Mitigation: Trump Administration Practice Goes Unchallenged

Ivanpah Wildlife, Visual Resources and Botany Hearings Completed