America’s Best Idea: Diversity and our national parks

 In Conservation, Public Lands

Wallace Stegner called our national parks “America’s Best Idea.” Based on that premise, award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns spent six years creating a documentary series that portrays our national parks as uniquely American, a symbol of democracy and the “most special places in the nation” that should be preserved for everyone. A diversity of Americans including Asian Americans, Latinos and African Americans have all played important roles in the protection and stewardship of our national parks, yet people of color have been visibly absent from scenic vistas and the backcountry trails. According to a recent visitor study by Yosemite National Park, 88% of park visitors were White; 10% were Asian; 3% were American Indian or Alaska Native and only 1% were Black or African American. By ethnicity, 16% of visitors were Hispanic/Latino.

Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite

Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite

More and more, parks and partnering nonprofits are hosting field seminars that explore the lesser-known history of people of color in the national parks. In addition to being a social equity issue, park leaders are realizing that our national parks need an informed, diverse and supportive constituency to ensure the long-term stewardship of these treasures.

In Burns’ “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” scheduled to air on PBS this September, one of the leading storytellers is African American Yosemite Park Ranger Shelton Johnson, who shares these ideals: “There is nothing more democratic than a national park. You are going into a wonderland. You are going into a different world… So why should only one part of the population have that sense of wonder and that experience of discovery? Why can’t African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and everybody have that experience? Because that is part of the experience of being an American, it belongs to everyone.”

In the documentary, Burns reveals “untold stories” of our national parks and the contributions by people of color in their conservation and preservation. Recently called “a rising star” by one reporter, Johnson is profiled in today’s San Francisco Chronicle. Johnson grew up in Detroit, where the national parks seemed like unreachable places. Four years ago, co-producers of the new documentary, WETA and Florentine Films, received support from the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund to launch the “Untold Stories project,” in which Johnson brings to light the story of the Buffalo Soldiers and the role of African Americans early in the history of the national parks. The purpose of the project is to engage new and traditionally underserved audiences in the “educational richness of the national parks.”

The film series weaves together stories of people transformed and inspired by the parks today, like Johnson, as well as historical accounts. Chiura Obata, a Japanese artist who moved from Tokyo to San Francisco in 1903, also gained inspiration from Yosemite and the High Sierra. Obata’s studio in Berkeley was recently named a historic landmark. Through his art he also promoted cross-cultural understanding and offered new perspectives on nature, including many Yosemite landmarks. His 1930 color wood block prints titled, “Evening Glow of Yosemite Waterfall;” “Lake Basin in High Sierra” and “Evening Glow of Mono Lake and Before Thunderstorm, Tuolumne Meadows;” are among my favorite works of Yosemite landscapes.

The National Parks: America’s Best Idea is a six-episode series directed by Ken Burns and written and co-produced by Dayton Duncan. You can view film clips on the PBS Web site and also share a story of your own experiences in the national parks. The film series will air on PBS beginning September 27, 2009.

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