Black to Nature

Bill Gwaltney wants to see more people like him at Rocky Mountain National Park.

Bill Gwaltney, chief of interpretation at Rocky Mountain National Park, is determined to make everyone feel comfortable. At 6'2," wearing neatly pressed, forest-green pants, shiny black boots and a khaki shirt emblazoned with the arrowhead-shaped National Park Service badge, he's a commanding presence at Rocky Mountain National Park.

Gwaltney -- along with the entire National Park Service -- is on a mission to make parks more friendly to blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asians. Park service officials have come to realize that the groups now considered to be minorities will someday make up the majority of Americans. People within the service know they must change an institution that has remained greatly unaltered since it was established in 1916. If they don't start making parks more welcoming to people like Hobbs, the future of the nation's parks will be in jeopardy: Congress won't continue to allocate money to parks if they are not serving people, and the parks won't be able to sustain themselves without the support of the nation's growing Hispanic and black populations.

The park service's plan to diversify the parks is twofold: To make parks more inviting to minorities, they need to hire more people who look like the kind of visitors they want to attract; to keep minorities coming back, they need to educate visitors about the role all Americans played in shaping the history behind the nation's recreation areas, battlefields, forts and monuments.

Integrating the great outdoors: Sid Wilson, past president of Denver's James P. Beckwourth Mountain Club.
Brett Amole
Integrating the great outdoors: Sid Wilson, past president of Denver's James P. Beckwourth Mountain Club.

"We're not talking about revisionist history or about being politically correct. We're talking about presenting the whole story," says Gwaltney. "We want to tell the story, not a story. Good history makes for a better America. Continuing to ignore various histories continues to separate people from their past. If parks are going to be good, they need to be good for all people."

When Robert Stanton became director of the National Park Service two years ago, he told his employees that he wanted to "see the face of America at every park site and office" he visits. Since Stanton took over -- he's the first black man to hold the position -- parks all over the country have been working toward that goal. In January, the park service held a conference in San Francisco, where community, educational and nonprofit groups told parks staff that minorities tended to stay away from parks because of the perception that they are elitist, since they historically have catered to white visitors. Also, parks are not traditionally marketed to minorities because of the stereotype that they don't have the time, money or inclination to visit them. Additionally, park managers are reluctant to try to draw more diverse visitors, since parks are already overcrowded. And most parks are far away from cities -- just seventy miles from Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park is unusual in its proximity to the region's urban center. "This is a lab of sorts," Gwaltney says. "The parks near urban areas are where changes will happen first."

Sid Wilson, past president of Denver's James P. Beckwourth Mountain Club -- named after the famous black mountain man who spent time in the Rockies in the 1820s and 1830s -- says it's not just parks that perpetuate the stereotype that black people don't belong in the outdoors; it's also manufacturers of outdoor equipment. Advertisements for backpacks, tents and hiking boots are geared toward white audiences, he points out. "The outdoors hasn't been commodified in our collective conscience as it has for the white population," he says.

After the January conference, the National Parks and Conservation Association, which lobbies Congress for parks funding, formed six task forces across the country -- in Boston, Washington, D.C., Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Hawaii -- consisting of NPCA staff members who are brainstorming ways the National Park Service can make its sites more inviting; they're supposed to deliver their recommendations to the park service next summer. "People from all over the world come to America, and they visit our parks when they're here. If what they see doesn't tell the whole story, they'll go home not really understanding our nation," says Iantha Gantt-Wright, cultural-diversity program manager for the NPCA.

Gwaltney predicts it will take a change in attitude at each of the agency's 378 properties before the nation's parks and monuments are truly inclusive. As a reminder of that, Gwaltney holds on to an old photo of a sign reading "Colored" at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Before the 1960s, national parks were as segregated as the rest of the country -- blacks couldn't mingle with whites even in open public spaces. "That's not the image most people associate with the parks," Gwaltney says. "We in the park service don't see ourselves as ever having been a part of that legacy, but we were.

"Tradition is hard to change," he continues. "The only way to learn about history is to look at it square in the eye."

The rain was coming down hard one Saturday night in Washington, D.C., but the fervent hymns of the gospel choir brought people outside anyway. Gwaltney, then manager of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site and a self-described history addict, had wanted to honor his hero -- a former slave who taught himself to read -- by reenacting an 1862 abolition rally on the grounds of Douglass's former home. When Gwaltney arrived thirty minutes early and observed the clouds overhead, he told the Civil War band to strike up the music. Even in that downpour, the tent was packed with more than 150 people within ten minutes. "Free music is free music," Gwaltney says of the surprising turnout.

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