Black to Nature

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

The unwritten part of his job, he says, is to make sure visitors feel welcome. Three Spanish-speakers are working at the park, and Gwaltney is trying to convince programmers at 530 AM, a low-frequency radio station in Estes Park that provides information on wildlife viewing and weather conditions in the park, to broadcast in Spanish as well as English. "On Sunday afternoons in the summer, we get a lot of Spanish-speaking visitors who come here after church. We've never gone over to them to say, 'Hello, we're glad you're here,'" Gwaltney says. "They probably feel like they're invisible. It may sound like a small thing, but having our Spanish-speaking employees greet them could be a big thing in the end."

The gift shop at Rocky Mountain National Park is stocked with books about minorities who have a connection to the park's past. There are biographies of female mountaineers, Ute Indians and Dr. Susan Anderson, a nineteenth-century physician who practiced in the Rocky Mountains.

Negotiating the white water: Inner-city kids get out of town through the James P. Beckwourth Outdoor Education Center.
Negotiating the white water: Inner-city kids get out of town through the James P. Beckwourth Outdoor Education Center.
Negotiating the white water: Inner-city kids get out of town through the James P. Beckwourth Outdoor Education Center.
photo courtesy of James P. Beckwourth Outdoor Educ
Negotiating the white water: Inner-city kids get out of town through the James P. Beckwourth Outdoor Education Center.

Rocky Mountain National Park does not keep track of the ethnicity of its visitors, who number more than three million a year. Only ten national parks collect demographic data on visitors, and none are comparable in size to Rocky Mountain National Park. Bent's Old Fort is the closest park at which officials keep track of racial demographics, and even then, the park counts only groups of visitors -- school classes and tour groups -- but not individuals. Of the 41,106 people who visited Bent's Old Fort in 1997, none of the groups included black visitors; only 5 percent included Hispanics, and 7 percent included people of other ethnicities.

The park service has made some progress in diversifying its work force, however. Last year the number of minority summer seasonal employees increased nationwide by 39 percent.

But despite recent efforts to recruit minorities -- Rocky Mountain National Park looks for prospective employees at Northern Ute and Northern Arapahoe reservations, as well as at predominantly black universities such as Tuskegee and Alabama State -- white males still dominate the roster of seasonal workers. Rocky Mountain National Park started keeping track of the ethnicity of its seasonal employees last year. Since then, the park has made little progress in the number of minorities who have been hired: Of the park's 267 seasonal employees this year, 252 are white, two are black, seven are Hispanic, two are Asian, and four are Native American.

Gwaltney is hoping that the James P. Beckwourth Outdoor Education Center, which is headquartered in Five Points, will help change that. Since it was founded in April 1998, the center has been taking Denver-area youths to state and national parks every weekend for day and overnight trips, hoping to encourage them to go on to jobs in park and forest management. Last year, 57 kids went on the excursions.

In April, Cheryl Armstrong, the center's executive director, took twenty kids to the park, where Gwaltney dressed up as James Beckwourth and showed them some of the things a mountain man needs to survive in the wilderness -- a sewing kit, flint for starting fires and lead for making bullets. Gwaltney also trained the kids how to use a map and compass, while other rangers taught them first-aid skills and demonstrated how they transport injured people out of the park.

The majority of kids who go on trips with the center come from low-income, single-parent homes. De'Andre Frierson and Kenny Williams, two fifteen-year-olds, had never been to a state or national park until they joined the center. Both of their moms are single, working parents who never had time to take them -- but when they heard about the program, they encouraged their sons to participate. Now both teens are considering jobs as park rangers who work with inner-city youths. "This program has let me know that there's a lot more to do outside than just playing basketball," Frierson says.

Armstrong helps find outdoor summer jobs for the older kids; this year the Colorado State Park Youth in Natural Resources program hired four teenagers from her group to perform trail maintenance. Next summer teenagers will shadow rangers at the Great Sand Dunes National Monument in southern Colorado. When they're freshmen in college, they will be eligible for summer internships at Rocky Mountain National Park.

Gwaltney also tries to involve inner-city kids in "Old Stories, New Voices," which he co-sponsors with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Colorado Historical Society. Each summer for the past three years, sixty Denver-area kids have attended a week-long camp in Fort Garland, where they go horseback riding and hiking. Speakers come along to teach kids about the role minorities played in the West.

The Beckwourth Mountain Club's Sid Wilson chaperoned a group of Denver kids on the first such trip in the summer of 1996, at Fort Laramie. The kids from Denver met kids from the Lakota tribe in South Dakota. Wilson says the Denver kids were surprised to find the Indians wearing the same brand of basketball shoes -- and the Indian kids were surprised to learn that the black kids were facing the same gang-rivalry issues. "A real high point in my career has been seeing these kids take to the outdoors and meeting kids from other backgrounds," says Gwaltney. "We don't allow them to segregate themselves."

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