Black to Nature

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

Along Elkhorn Avenue, parents with kids in tow pour out of candy stores and T-shirt shops. They fight their way through the crowded sidewalks, quieting the little ones with caramel apples and saltwater taffy. A shiny new black Toyota Solara emerges from a parking lot and pulls out onto Estes Park's main drag, cutting off a line of drivers eager to get to Rocky Mountain National Park.

At the visitor center, carloads of tourists have stopped to pick up trail maps and postcards. One man tries to figure out how to open a bear-proof trash can but eventually gives up. Four kids pile out of a new cactus-green Ford Explorer and run ahead of their parents. They reunite inside the center, where it's cool but cramped with people waiting in line to buy bird-watching books and guides to the state's fourteeners and noisy with kids begging their parents to buy them mountain lion puppets.

"I don't know which one to get," says a woman, referring to two calendars, one of mountain shots and one of wildflowers.

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.
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.

"Get both," her husband says.

"We only need one," she answers. As she gets closer to the cashier, she nervously shifts her weight from one leg to the other.

"Get both!" the husband insists in a harsh whisper.

After they stock up on mementos, families and retired couples return to the parking lot, which looks like an SUV dealership. Before reaching the alluvial fan or Trail Ridge Road, though, the sightseers must lurch along, bumper-to-bumper, until they see the American flag billowing at the park entrance. There they pay a $10 fee that allows them entry to all of the park's hiking trails, horseback riding paths and picnic areas. The line is reminiscent of Disneyland, but instead of Space Mountain, The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean, the attractions are glistening mountain lakes, unencumbered views of the Continental Divide and deer so tame they prance across crowded campsites in search of leftovers.

On the road to Bear Lake, families stop at the Moraine Park Museum, where they wait their turn at the interactive displays designed to help children understand how glaciers move and mountains form; kids turn a wheel that slides a replica of one piece of the earth's crust beneath another. But the boys and girls are more interested in the taxidermied squirrels, beavers and birds.

"Mommy, I'm hungry," whines a little girl, dragging her feet while her mother pulls her along in the museum.

"Okay, honey, we'll eat now," the mother replies, leading her outside.

Back in the city, it's a sweltering day, but LaGayle Hobbs is keeping cool on a shaded bench in Curtis Park, where she watches her niece and nephew swing. Mothers on the other end smile as their children splash in the pool and run through fountains. Hobbs picks up an empty forty-ounce bottle of Budweiser that someone left on the ground and tosses it aside. Kids run around the crumpled candy wrappers, pop cans and glass shards that are a natural part of the landscape.

On weekends, Hobbs likes to get out of the city, away from the wail of sirens and the thumping of car stereos in her neighborhood east of downtown Denver. She, her husband and their two children go up to Rocky Mountain National Park at least twice a month.

When they get there, everyone notices.

"People stare at me like I have no right to be there. It's like they're thinking, 'What are y'all doing here?'" says Hobbs, whose dark skin stands out in Rocky Mountain National Park like a storm cloud in a blue sky. "We're doing the same thing they're doing; we're looking around and enjoying ourselves."

Hobbs, who moved to Denver from Dallas six months ago, first went to the park when a white co-worker suggested that Hobbs's family join hers on a weekend camping trip. "The first time I went there, I felt out of place," says Hobbs, adding that most black people she knows won't visit national parks because they've heard how white visitors stare. Others don't go because they simply don't know the parks exist. "This side of town needs to be more educated about Rocky Mountain National Park. They need to do more advertising. They've got to let it be known that it's a park where everyone is welcome.

"If a white person comes to our park, we wouldn't look at them weird," Hobbs says of the blacks and Hispanics who live in the neighborhood surrounding the park at 30th and Curtis streets. "It's open to the public, and anyone can come here. It's only fair that we go up to Rocky Mountain National Park. We can all get along."

She understands why her friends aren't among the throng at Estes Park but says a lot of people assume they won't enjoy going there, even though they've never been. "They have got to get over that and just go. People look at me like I have no business being there, but I hold my head up high. I'm going to keep going."

But, she adds, recognizing that she's an exception, "people always want to go where they feel comfortable, and if they don't feel comfortable, they won't go back."

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.

"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.

Gwaltney had long dreamed of staging a Civil War reenactment with only black soldiers, and the success of the mock abolition rally convinced him to pursue it. In July 1988, at a Gettysburg reenactment held in honor of the battle's 125th anniversary, Gwaltney told some actors about his idea. A few days later, when Gwaltney was back at his office in the basement of the Frederick Douglass house, the phone rang. He remembers the voice on the other end saying, "'You don't know us, but we know you. We're calling from Hollywood, and we're doing a movie on the 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. We want you to recruit and train some of the actors and play the first sergeant in the movie.'

"I said, 'Yeah, right,'" Gwaltney recalls. "But I checked him out, and he was for real."

Some Hollywood agents had attended the Gettysburg reenactment and heard about Gwaltney there; the movie they were planning to produce was Glory. Desperate to find the brigade of black actors Tri Star pictures needed, Gwaltney appeared on Washington, D.C., and Howard University radio and television shows and blanketed the city with posters seeking young black men interested in learning how to be Civil War soldiers. While other recruiters rounded up actors in Maine, Arkansas and South Carolina, Gwaltney enlisted 43 men from Washington and other mid-Atlantic cities. For the next ten weeks, they practiced military drills in public parks.

Most of the volunteers told Gwaltney they'd never felt welcome in national parks; the stories of black men who had fought for the Union Army had long been ignored. "When they went to Civil War battlefields, they said they felt like they were sneaking in. No one asked them what they were doing or told them to leave, but they felt like they didn't belong there. At the battlefields, visitors can walk around and see cannons, markers indicating where the regiments fought and displays of uniforms and weapons," Gwaltney explains. "But there was no discussion at those parks about how the Civil War came to be. These men felt like the Civil War had nothing to do with them, even though they knew their story was a big part of the Civil War.

"I made it my goal then to make sure people of color would feel the parks belonged to them," Gwaltney says.

Even before that, he was driven to tell history's whole story. Gwaltney was raised in D.C. by schoolteacher parents who worked during the summers so Gwaltney and his younger brother could attend parochial school. They took their sons to national parks, monuments and civil-rights marches. When he wasn't studying or visiting historical sites, Gwaltney was riding horses, swimming, playing soccer or taking karate lessons. He admits his upbringing was different from that of most inner-city kids: He had what a lot of black children didn't.

"I call it 'social permission,'" says Gwaltney, 43. "By taking us places, my parents said, if not out loud, 'This is a place where you belong. You can go to parks and exhibits and museums.' But a lot of black kids don't have the social permission to go to those places. If everyone in your neighborhood plays basketball and you want to go backpacking, you've got to go out and buy a backpack and go somewhere you haven't gone before."

Even though his parents enrolled him in sports, it was the time Gwaltney spent in the Boy Scouts that ultimately determined his career. Gwaltney remembers his scoutmaster, Phillip DeWees, a black man in charge of a troop that was half black and half white. During his first summer at Boy Scout camp, when he was eleven years old, Gwaltney's teenage patrol leader did something Gwaltney didn't approve of, and Gwaltney let out a string of epithets.

DeWees chided him for cursing and asked Gwaltney if he thought he could do a better job than his patrol leader. When Gwaltney answered in the affirmative, DeWees turned over the job to him. That moment made a lasting impression -- it was Gwaltney's first taste of leadership. Five years later, Gwaltney returned to the summer camp as a counselor, then came back for the next seven years to teach archery, lead nature studies and develop programs for a history theme camp. When he left the Boy Scouts, he was a camp director overseeing sixty employees.

He credits his grandfather with igniting his passion for history. "My grandfather was born in the nineteenth century, and I was so taken with that that I pumped him for information. He lived from the time of the horse and buggy to the man on the moon," Gwaltney says.

In preparation for being a better outdoorsman, Gwaltney read everything he could on the history of the fur trade and the American Indians' role in it. His obsession was further fed by the John Wayne movies he watched on his grandfather's round-screen black-and-white television. After the films, he ate ice cream in the kitchen while his grandfather told him about Benjamin Davis Sr., an ancestor who was the first black general in the U.S. Army. After the Civil War, Davis served in the West, as did John Anderson, another relative who had been a member of all four black Civil War regiments. Hearing the stories, Gwaltney became fascinated with the role of black people in the American West.

In the winter of 1977, after Gwaltney graduated from the University of Maryland at College Park with a degree in parks and recreation management, he and a friend drove out to Colorado. Gwaltney wanted to see Rocky Mountain National Park and Bent's Old Fort, just east of La Junta. As they were driving out of Denver on Sixth Avenue, Gwaltney saw the emblem on the National Park Service's regional office in Lakewood and told his friend to stop the car. Gwaltney got out, crossed the busy highway and climbed the chain-link fence in front of the office. "Within minutes I was on the phone with the head of Bent's Old Fort," Gwaltney says, chuckling at his youthful spontaneity. "It was the dead of winter, and they weren't hiring until summer, so I went back to Washington and worked at the Lincoln Memorial, then went to Bent's Old Fort in the summer of '78."

In 1980 Gwaltney landed a full-time job there as curator of artifacts. "But I just couldn't help for meddling. I developed a few living-history programs, like an 1846 Christmas, and taught a course at Otero Junior College on the history of the Santa Fe Trail."

He remembers a week-long nineteenth-century military reenactment at Fort Davis, Texas, a National Historic Site where troops protected settlers and mail coaches from Indian aggressors along the San Antonio/El Paso Road. It was one of the first Western outposts where black soldiers were stationed (Lieutenant Henry Flipper, West Point's first black graduate, served there for a year, in 1880). Gwaltney returned to Fort Davis in 1982, this time for three years, as an interpreter and law-enforcement officer. Gwaltney enjoyed his work there, but something was bothering him: He noticed one of the interpreters at Fort Davis never told visitors about the role black soldiers played there. "One night at a party, I asked why he never talked about the black soldiers, and he said he was concerned about what he'd do when confronted with a racist visitor," Gwaltney says. "He feared he would be looked at as being politically correct if he talked about the black soldiers."

The National Park Service is starting to do a better job of offering more comprehensive history lessons at its sites, Gwaltney says, but "they still don't represent the reconstruction era very well, or the life of Indian people after they were placed on reservations."

In fact, none of the park service's 378 sites represents the country's rebuilding after slaves were freed, and none deals with the reservation life of American Indians. "Without sites that address those pieces of history, we're not covering the entire span of American history," Gwaltney says, quick to add that the park service has little control over that: In order to create another national park, Congress must vote to fund it.

Even at the Booker T. Washington National Monument, the contributions of black people were ignored. When Gwaltney accepted a job as superintendent at the childhood home of the African-American statesman in Roanoke, Virginia, he noticed that the interpreters there were helping visitors make soap, candles and baskets. "I told them that wasn't what we were there to do. The visitors weren't getting educated about Washington's life; they were just doing arts and crafts."

Employees were teaching visitors to make soap, Gwaltney says, because "it was safe. No one was ever going to say, 'What's the political meaning behind that soap?' I auctioned off the materials and brought in a historian from the University of Virginia to convince the staff of what they were there to do. We had a bigger responsibility to the American people."

Gwaltney wrote a history of Booker T. Washington and set up an exhibit detailing his life. He also brought in a six-foot-tall copy of the Constitution and hung it on a wall inside the home, then attached magnetic words. One sentence stated "Void where prohibited"; another summarized the amendments; a third detailed the rights that had been taken away from blacks and later restored. "That was kind of in-your-face history," Gwaltney says. "The good news is, I think it worked."

A year after Gwaltney left the Booker T. Washington home, one of the interpreters who had resisted Gwaltney's ideas sent him a note, thanking him for making it into a real national monument. The National Park Service's chief historian, Dwight Pitcaithley, retells that story to illustrate how parks can be made complete. "Bill saw that there were no books in the Booker T. Washington gift store about W.E.B. DuBois, so he ordered some," Pitcaithley says. "He has brought to the parks more voices than just the John Wayne voice of history; he's brought in the voices of women and minorities, and he's redesigned exhibits to tell the whole story."

After he left the Booker T. Washington National Monument, Gwaltney took a job as superintendent at Fort Laramie National Historic Site in Wyoming. In 1997 he became chief of interpretation at Rocky Mountain National Park, where he plans the park's educational programs; puts together information for brochures, road signs and radio and film broadcasts; oversees urban outreach programs; and educates visitors about park safety rules.

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.


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."

Wilson is indebted to Gwaltney for the help he's provided the mountain club, which now has more than 175 members. But most of all, Wilson praises Gwaltney for teaching minority kids that the parks belong to them.


Compared to the camping trips Gwaltney went on with his Boy Scout troop, roughing it at Rocky Mountain National Park is like staying at a five-star hotel. The scouts didn't have portable gas stoves and freeze-dried snacks. Instead of being shielded from the elements by pop-up campers, they pitched tents purchased from Army surplus stores. And they didn't have battery-operated lanterns to see by when they were rubbing sticks together to start campfires.

All of the campsites in Rocky Mountain National Park are full. Trucks stop by to deliver ice and firewood. Instead of an outhouse -- or the woods -- campers use bathrooms with flush toilets and sinks with running water. Recycling bins are a short walk from the campsites.

These modern conveniences are a response to the park's growing number of visitors. Without the many trash cans and bathrooms, things could get a little messy. Parks nationwide are grappling with how to accommodate more people; Yellowstone has so many visitors that most of its annual $30 million budget is going toward hiring more staff and repairing roads and water mains.

"Are we creating a new problem by reaching out to minorities? I don't think so," Gwaltney says. "Participation among minorities in the national parks is so low now that even if it were to double or triple, it would hardly make a ripple in visitation."

Right now, vacation time is limited and the season is fleeting. Families speed past one another on the trails and roads -- all of them in a hurry to see the views while it's still summer. Being at the summit of Trail Ridge Road is like being on top of the world. At more than 12,000 feet, where no office buildings scrape the sky and there are only mountains in every direction, it's easy not to have a serious thought.

Unless Bill Gwaltney's around.

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