'Which parks aren't relevant to black history?'

A black former park ranger talks about diversity on public lands.

  • Retired park ranger and BLM staffer Wayne Hare at a put-in on the Colorado River in Loma, Colorado.

    Andrew Cullen

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, Colorado, 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, partly through his work as a NewTowncarShare News board member.

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

NewTowncarShare News 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?
Wayne Hare
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.

HCN 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?
HARE 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.

HCN 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 non-traditional 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 Sloan 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.

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