It's Time to Think Beyond Bears Ears

The real fight to protect America’s public lands isn’t in Utah. It’s right outside our biggest cities.

We must focus on lands that matter most to our growing and racially diverse urban communities. (Sally Deng)
bears ears

The last time I visited Yosemite National Park, I made the jaunt to Glacier Point. Standing at the edge of the drop-off, I tried to imagine myself taking in the magnificent vista while discussing the then revolutionary idea of preserving wild places for the public good with Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir, back in 1903.

It would not have gone very well.

Like many people of color living in American cities, I don’t see the sense in grand efforts to protect far-off landscapes that don’t intersect with my daily life, either culturally or geographically. More my cup of tea, almost literally, is the Japanese American Exclusion Memorial on Bainbridge Island, across Puget Sound from Seattle, my hometown. Though small—it’s about eight acres—the site is rooted in the American past in a way that feels uniquely personal to me. Its centerpiece is a story wall made of old-growth red cedar, 276 feet long, one foot for each person of Japanese descent—people like me—living on the island at the start of World War II. Most were forcibly removed and exiled to prison camps in California and Idaho. The memorial is nestled in a forest of alders and firs, abutted by shoreline. If I stand in front of the wall, close my eyes, and ignore the occasional blast of a ferry horn, I almost feel like I’m in nearby Olympic National Park.

The Trump administration’s highly publicized review of national monuments last spring was a giant catalyst for the conservation movement. Environmentalists, along with suddenly energized—and surprisingly vocal—outdoor-gear brands, launched million-dollar awareness campaigns focused on Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante. That struggle, as well as bids to preserve the sanctity of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, has since shifted to enormously expensive lawsuits.

Japanese American Exclusion Memorial. (George Ostertag/Alamy)
La Ranger Troca. (Base Landscape Architecture)
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. (Lacey Ann Johnson/Aurora/Alamy)
National Park Service outreach in Los Angeles. (National Park Service)

This is laudable work: the beauty of these areas is without question, and Bears Ears holds special significance for a number of Native American tribes. But these efforts also represent a dangerous distraction at a moment when we must focus on lands that matter most to our growing and racially diverse urban communities. Places like the Exclusion Memorial may not offer majestic landscapes, but they serve as bridges between historically marginalized communities and America’s public lands. The great accelerated browning of the American population demands that we prioritize expanding access to open spaces and ensure that newly protected sites speak to people who have been largely left out of conversations about conservation and outdoor recreation.

Nonwhites are moving toward majority status in the U.S. by 2044, if not sooner. And we care about the outdoors. When voters of color were polled by New American Media and the Next 100 Coalition last summer, 70 percent said they participated in outdoor activities. Latinos, the largest ethnic group in the U.S., have consistently polled very strongly in their commitment to recreation and the environment. They also spend more per capita on outdoor gear—$592 annually—than any other racial group, including whites, according to other research by the Outdoor Industry Association.

What people of color don’t do much: go to national parks, where some 80 percent of visitors are white. This is partly due to the economic and logistical hurdles of reaching attractions like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. The underappreciated factor is that the revered notion of solitude in wilderness, sprinkled throughout agency mission statements, legislation, and the literary writings of white men, can feel alien and even exclusionary to immigrant communities that value crowds for safety, socialization, and support. Culture matters. According to 95 percent of the New American Media poll respondents, it is “important for young people to see their culture and histories reflected in public lands.”

That concept was championed in One Hundred Years, a plan for the future that the National Park Service released after its 2016 centennial. It was also reflected in a flurry of monument designations by President Obama near the end of his second term: from Freedom Riders in Alabama, to Stonewall in New York City, to Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality in Washington, D.C.—all pieces of the American pie carved out for traditionally underrepresented groups. Interior secretary Ryan Zinke has even embraced the idea, recommending new monuments at Kentucky’s Camp Nelson, where African American regiments in the Union Army trained, and in Jackson, Mississippi, at the home of civil-rights hero Medgar Evers. Recognizing these places offers a window to view our role in the American story, giving us a sense of ownership in a system that wasn’t hatched with us in mind.

Going forward, we need to work even harder at bringing parks to the people. This means centering our efforts on establishing and defending places like the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, a 153,075-acre patchwork of federal, state, local, and—significantly—private properties bordering Los Angeles. In October a California congressional group introduced a bill that would more than double its size, expanding its boundaries to encompass the so-called Rim of the Valley Corridor (a half-dozen Southern California mountains) and creating a link to the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, which has become a primary escape for Los Angeles’s near majority Latino population. This kind of public-private collaboration, many years in the making, has enabled the growth of numerous urban parks across the country. In an era of slashed budgets, it has also helped fuel innovative outreach efforts in the Santa Monica Mountains such as La Ranger Troca, a food truck turned mobile visitor center that offers guidance on how to enjoy the peaks while also collecting and sharing stories about how people connect with nature in the urban sprawl of the valleys below.

Places like the Santa Monica Mountains and the Japanese American Exclusion Memorial help people of color make the cultural, psychological, and political leap to caring about a distant desert canyon in Utah or caribou in Alaska. At my own outdoor oasis on Bainbridge Island, the words NIDOTO NAI YONI, or “Let it not happen again,” are mounted on a stone wall in metal letters. It’s a reference to the despicable targeting of a people based on their race. But it’s also a sentiment that I take as a warning about what might happen to our public lands if America clings to a narrow interpretation of the places worth saving.

Glenn Nelson founded the website Trail Posse to cover diversity in the outdoors.

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