One of America’s most cherished icons, the Teddy bear, was born at the Holt Collier National Wildlife Refuge. The Mississippi refuge is named for the African-American hunter who took President Teddy Roosevelt on his first hunt to kill a black bear. According to the history books, the plan was for Collier, the most fearless hunter in the region, to go into the woods with his hunting dogs and chase the bear back into a clearing where the president and his party waited to make the kill.

But the plan went awry. When Collier came back with the bear, the president was out to lunch. The bear attacked his dogs, prompting Collier to strike the bear over the head with his rifle. He tied the stunned bear to a tree. When the president returned and saw the dejected bear, he didn’t have the heart to shoot it. After a photo ran in the Washington Post, toymaker Morris Mitchum designed a stuffed bear which he called “Teddy’s Bear.” And the rest is history.


This fascinating event took place in 1902 and helped to inspire President Roosevelt to establish more than 50 National Wildlife Refuges, parks and monuments. But it wasn’t until 2004 that the site was established as a refuge in a bi-partisan effort by Sen. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranBottom line Bottom line Alabama zeroes in on Richard Shelby's future MORE (R-Miss.) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.).

That the Teddy bear is such a fundamental part of American life and that this story is relatively unknown highlights the need for more of our stories to be more widely shared and protected in our public lands treasury. We cannot have a full appreciation of who we are as Americans if we have an incomplete understanding of what happened in the continued development of our country.

This subject was addressed on Capitol Hill recently when the Center for American Progress (CAP) convened a forum, “Reflecting Our Country’s Growing Diversity in America’s National Parks.” The event highlighted the need for the National Park System to better interpret and honor the contributions of Americans of color, women and the LGBT community. According to CAP, of more than 400 national parks and monuments, less than 15 percent honor the contributions of Americans in those categories. The percentage becomes almost negligible when you add the vast numbers of national forests, monuments and wildlife refuges.

Thankfully, President Obama has taken a principled lead in addressing this disparity, protecting monuments that safeguard the legacies of Col. Charles Young and the African American “Buffalo Soldiers;” the abolitionist, Civil War spy and Underground Railroad Conductor Harriet Tubman, and the warrior for the rights of agricultural workers, Caesar Chavez, among many others. He also launched the Every Kid in a Park initiative to connect every fourth-grader and their families in urban, suburban and rural communities alike to their parks and public lands. The president launched his Facebook presence on Nov. 9 with a video touring the White House grounds, expressing his appreciation for national parks and all public lands.

At the CAP forum, the president’s environmental adviser Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, affirmed his intent to continue to broaden the diversity and inclusiveness of our system of parks and public lands. That’s good news because communities nationwide are urging the president to protect key sites including Stonewall Inn in New York City, regarded as the single most-important place in the evolution of the LGBT movement; Freedom Riders Park in Anniston, Alabama, where the Civil Rights movement was strengthened after black riders testing the limits of interstate bus segregation were targeted by a mob in 1961, and the diverse heritage of the California Desert.

“We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune,” President Teddy Roosevelt said of our public lands at the turn of the 20th century. This century offers opportunities for our public land system to reach and engage an increasingly diverse citizenry.  It makes sense for Obama not only to add to our natural treasury but to ensure that treasury reflects the full mosaic of contributors in the evolution of our country and our culture. More than a Teddy bear, this is our legacy to the next generation.

Peterman is a 20-year advocate for the National Park System and co-founder of the Diverse Environmental Leaders Speakers Bureau.