Public lands should be challenged with equity of access for all
© Getty Images

Throughout history, our public lands — including national parks, forests, monuments and other areas - have played an important role as part of America’s identity. The word public is meant to stress the idea of accessibility and connection to all the people of this country.

Unfortunately, these lands have not always been reflective of our country’s demographic and ethnic diversity and there are many communities in the U.S. for whom the term public does not resonate in the same vein.

ADVERTISEMENT
This disconnect is becoming more apparent as the face of our country continues to change at a rapid pace and its consequences more urgent because the future of our public lands will depend upon public support from ever more diverse communities.

If we are to hold true to the idea that public lands are truly for all Americans, then we must expand what that idea means for the many different cultures and communities that make up America today. We need to explore what the ideas of wilderness, protected spaces, national parks and open spaces mean to diverse communities?

What do they mean to young people living in Compton who face the daily reality of growing up in an economically disadvantaged community? What do they mean to the Mixtec migrant family working the fields of the California Central Valley, or to the Islamic community in Dearborn, Michigan? What do they mean to the Gwich’in people of Alaska and the Lakota of the Dakotas who have ancestral ties to the land? The Gullah Gullah people of the Carolinas? What about the communities of Japanese ancestry in the Northwest and the Tijuana colonias along the US-Mexico border?

There are those that say our public lands are there for anyone that wants to access them. That misses the point. This is not a simple matter of equality of access — it is a challenge with equity of access.

Our public lands are meant both to provide a diversity of open spaces for recreational activities and to preserve and share the cultural heritage and story of this nation. As such, our public lands need to be a tapestry woven of the many strands that represent the diversity of this country. In them we should not only see natural and historical monuments, the grandeur of the outdoors and the history of our nation — we should also clearly see ourselves.

We must expand the diversity of the people who visit and work in America’s national parks, monuments and other public lands to reflect the faces of our nation. We must continue to increase the diversity of the sites protected and stories told to enable the public to connect to their public lands – be it for health, spiritual, economic or cultural benefits.  

This is the task before us. We have had Manzanar National Historic Site, Timuacan Ecological & Historic Preserve, Bandelier National Monument, and other such sites. To that we have added places like Cesar Chavez National Monument, Stonewall National Monument and many more.

The opportunity is to expand beyond these, so that no matter if it is in the open spaces of Wyoming or the urban environment of Chicago, communities of all backgrounds see themselves as belonging there and see how the system of public lands is connected to tell the stories of all Americans.

These values of inclusion are shared across party lines and President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpPoll: 73 percent want independent Russia probe Trump’s first 100 days anything but presidential Going green — why environmental protection is both a business and legislative concern MORE has expressed his commitment to keeping public lands in public hands and to serving as great stewards of this land. If President-elect Trump and the new members of Congress continue the work of making all people feel welcome in our public lands, the goal of united Americans will be furthered. Together we can make sure that our public lands in the next 100 years enjoy care, protection, and support by an American public that sees itself respected, reflected, and included in them.

Michael J. Bean is Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks at the Department of the Interior. He is the author of The Evolution of National Wildlife Law, generally considered to be the definitive text on the subject of wildlife conservation law in the United States. José González is the Founder/Director of Latino Outdoors, a Latino-led network of leaders committed to engaging Latinos/as in the outdoors, and connecting families and youth with nature.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.