This Land is Our Land: Seeking Diversity in the Great Outdoors
By Guest Columnist AUDREY PETERMAN, president and co-founder of Earthwise Productions Inc., a consulting and publishing company. For 13 years, Audrey and her husband, Frank, have published the travel and environmental periodical: “Pickup & Go.”
“There is so much that can, and must be accomplished when we know what is happening to our environment and its direct impact on each of our lives. No one person, group or organization can bring about complete awareness and comprehensive change alone. . .”
That statement was made in 2006 in a letter sent to me, and my husband Frank by the Rev. Gerald Durley, a prominent Atlanta pastor.
Rev. Durley was explaining what inspired him to become “a missionary for the environment” after seeing the movie, The Great Warming, a widely acclaimed documentary about global climate change.
In his letter, Durley went on to say that he had already devoted his life to addressing difficult social and spiritual crises such as poverty, homelessness, health care reform, unemployment, teenage pregnancy, crime and racism.
But the movie, he said, profoundly changed his perspective. He wrote:
“ It became crystal clear to me that environmental concerns must become an integrated, active part of the life-sustaining messages in the African-American community, These essential messages must be mandatory teachings throughout all faith traditions, if we are to survive.”
The letter is especially memorable because Frank and I experienced a similar epiphany when we drove 12,000 miles around the country in 1995, and “accidentally” discovered the National Park System.
We witnessed sublime beauty from the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park in Maine that overlooks limitless vistas of watery green. We marveled at the golden, natural sandstone formations in Badlands National Park in South Dakota.
During our sojourn, we also saw the boiling geysers of Yellowstone and the lush Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park on the Pacific Coast. Our souls were nourished by the wonder and diversity of the landscape.
The one glaring observation, however, was the almost complete lack of racial diversity among the visitors and employees in the parks.
While we saw thousands of white Americans, Europeans, Japanese and Indians among the visitors, we encountered less than a handful of black and brown Americans.
Because we were so enamored with the beauty, tranquility and inspiration that we had visited, it became our mission to share our experiences with others who might not know these places exist.
In a short time, I learned that these amazing places managed by the National Park Service are only a small fraction of the vast inventory of public land that the American people own.
Our ownership not only includes the expansive woodlands that are part of the National Forest System, but also protected animal sanctuaries administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as sprawling recreational and commercial sites controlled by the federal Bureau of Land Management.
All told, our land holdings total more than 630 million acres.
These natural assets represent a multi-billion dollar revenue stream for our economy. Thousands of workers are employed to manage and maintain the lands as well as to provide amenities for the public.
Moreover, these large, undeveloped areas hold the key to staving off climate change by absorbing heat-trapping gases.
This land – our land – is also a boundless source of career opportunities, business contracts, education, inspiration and recreation. At the moment, however, they are mostly being enjoyed by only one segment of the American population.
Imagine our chagrin during the Bush years as our public lands were increasingly threatened by ditching, drilling, damming and environmentally damaging activities that reduced the ability of these places to do their life-sustaining work.
We were convinced that this was happening only because the vast majority of Americans do not know what we own and are not involved with the lands that are part of our mutual birthright.
The Obama administration’s recent emphasis on preserving the land and connecting Americans to the Great Outdoors is certainly a welcome change.
But in order for the administration’s efforts to be successful, grassroots groups around the country that have been doing the work by providing environmental education and outdoor experiences need assistance to build capacity and expand their reach.
The government can’t play that role effectively and, due to years of exclusionary practices, many of the major environmental organizations have no credibility in communities of color. (The environmental field, in both the non-profit segment and public land management agencies, remains among the least diverse in the country.)
To address that disparity here in metro Atlanta, a plethora of groups have developed a strong network connected through the “Keeping It Wild” program.
The non-profit organization was co-founded in 2004 by my husband Frank and environmental activist/arts photographer Kathryn Kolb under the auspices of the Wilderness Society.
Keeping it Wild offers year-round activities including hikes and guided walks in neighborhood preserves, state and national parks and forests, snorkeling, bird watching and nature seminars.
The highlight is the organization’s annual gala that will be held this year in the atrium of the Fulton County government building in downtown Atlanta on Sept. 26.
In addition, Frank and I are launching the “First Biannual Conference & Expo: Breaking the Color Barrier in the Great American Outdoors” at the Atlanta Airport Hilton Hotel, between Sept. 23-26.
The goal of the conference is to bring together racially diverse leaders in conservation, outdoor recreation, historic preservation and academia.
Among those we’ve invited to participate are Captain Bill Pinkney, the first African-American to sail solo around the world; Jasmine Armstrong, who climbed her first 14,000-foot mountain by the time she was 8-years-old and Audri Scott-Williams, who led a three-and-a-half year pilgrimage across six continents to promote world peace.
The other featured conference guests include Majora Carter, the pioneering environmental justice advocate; Hermes Castro, who lost the use of his legs in a traffic accident yet navigated the Antarctic wilderness to draw attention to climate threats and Park Ranger Jerry Bransford, whose enslaved ancestors were the principal explorers and guides at Mammoth Cave in Kentucky for more than a century.
We’re looking forward to the energy that will be generated when all these accomplished people get together to inspire others and expand our worldview.
We also anticipate a change in the perception of leaders from the Obama administration who are expected to attend.
The event will culminate with participants helping to restore historic houses near Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth home on Auburn Avenue as part of a volunteer public service project to celebrate National Public Lands Day, which is Sept. 26.
As Rev. Durley said in his letter, no one person can do it alone. But together, we can all make a measurable difference in uplifting our consciousness and increasing the quality of our lives through an active relationship with our natural environment.