Op-Ed: Disconnect Between A Diverse America And Our National Park System

Originally posted in National Parks Traveler.

Last month, the National Park Service celebrated its 100th birthday. In the days leading up to the celebration, NPS director Jonathan Jarvis said that his agency’s goal for the centennial was “to create the next generation of visitors, supporters, and advocates for our national parks and our public lands.”

Achieving this goal is critical. Our public lands face many challenges, including attacks from some members of Congress who want to undermine the Antiquities Act, one of our nation’s most important conservation tools. Under the Antiquities Act, the president has the authority to safeguard and preserve federal lands, cultural, and historical sites for all Americans to enjoy, now and in the future. Since its establishment, the Antiquities Act has been used by almost every U.S. president.

To save these lands, we need to make it clear to the congressional leaders who are leading these political attacks that a broad range of Americans care about our public lands. We must create a more diverse and engaged group of people who are willing to stand up for America’s national parks, monuments, and other public lands. The faces of the advocates for these public lands should reflect the faces of our nation, and it’s going to take a more inclusive approach to public lands management to create this broader group of advocates.

President Obama has shown great leadership in creating parks and public lands that recognize the history of Asian Pacific Islanders, Hispanics, Native Americans, and African Americans in this country. We need to continue to include these populations in our approach to public land and build a larger tent of people willing to stand up for these lands.

Recent examples highlight the powerful impact of a diverse group of advocates on public lands decisions. For years, the Badger-Two Medicine Wilderness, an area with deep cultural significance for the Blackfeet Native Americans, was in danger of being exploited and drilled by oil companies. A broad coalition that included Blackfeet traditionalists voiced their concerns over the need to preserve the historical and cultural integrity of the land, which resulted in a suspension of the oil leases. Another example is the creation of the Stonewall National Monument, the first national monument to tell the story of the struggle for LGBTQ rights. President Obama designated this monument earlier this year after an outpouring of support from wide range of groups, including the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.

The Next 100 coalition, a first-of-its-kind group of diverse leaders from civil rights, environmental justice, conservation, and community organizations has come together to develop a vision and policy recommendations for a more inclusive system of national parks and other public lands for the next 100 years – to better engage all segments of our population so that they become active users, owners and – most importantly – supporters of public lands.

We support the work of the Next 100 coalition and echo their request for a presidential memorandum that directs federal land management agencies to take critical steps to engage, reflect, and honor all Americans in our system of public lands. There remain many untold stories of people and places that have powerfully shaped America’s journey, our journey. To know them more fully is to know ourselves.

Maureen Finnerty is the chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, an organization of nearly 1,200 former National Park Service employees. Contact Finnerty at Maureen_finnerty@protectnps.org.

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