In the last few days, the federal government has taken some laudable steps toward building more equitable and safe spaces outdoors. For one, the U.S. Park Police has its first Black woman chief: Pamela Smith. The U.S. Park Police has been serving our national parks since 1791 and now focuses its efforts protecting national icons in metro areas such as Washington, D.C., New York City, and San Francisco.
One of Smith’s first moves has been to require officers wear body cameras. The new policy will first take hold in San Francisco and go on to affect officers across the country by the end of the year. We know body cameras aren’t a complete solution to police brutality, but they’re a start. Park Police officers have been complicit in the dangerous patterns we see with other law enforcement agencies across the country.
In 2017, two officers outside D.C. killed an unarmed man, Bijan Ghaiser, whose mother testified last year before the Senate on the need to hold Interior officers accountable. Just last year, the Park Police also used chemical gas against peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters at Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. The Interior employs more than 3,500 law enforcement officers, including park rangers, officers with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and special agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Under President Donald Trump, park rangers moonlighted as border agents. Agents with the Interior Department would respond violently to Indigenous peoples protesting the border wall. What does this say about who’s welcome on public lands and national parks where these officials regularly patrol? These examples are but a taste of how the federal government has failed to center communities of color in its efforts to make national treasures—from monuments to trails—inviting to all regardless of skin color or immigration status.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re breaking down five steps President Joe Biden can take to remedy this. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. Reforming (and defunding!) the police is one piece of the puzzle. To create truly equitable and safe outdoor spaces for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, the president will have to do a whole lot more—including making the outdoors accessible to all. With Rep. Deb Haaland potentially entering the Interior, the possibilities feel endless.
Incentivize and Expand Federal Spending in Urban Parks
Biden has already promised that 40 percent of federal investments on climate go toward disadvantaged communities. How will this translate to urban communities that lack sufficient green space? Oftentimes in conversations around public lands and diversity outdoors, we think of gargantuan parks like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, we don’t all live a short drive away from such beauties.
That’s why programs like the Wilderness Society’s Urban to Wild, which aims to connect urban communities to nature, are so important. Already, there are efforts underway in Seattle and Los Angeles to connect urban communities through nearby wilderness areas through public transit. There needs to be partnership between cities and local communities, says Juan Pérez Sáez, a member of the Next 100 Coalition, which advocates for public lands for all. The federal government can accomplish this by working directly with the Department of Transportation to allocate dollars to local governments committed to bridging this gap.
“If we are allowing the fossil fuel industry to lease public lands and take chunks of green spaces and public lands and extract oil and gas and pollute our air, why is it so hard to allow people to access the same public lands that are for everyone?” Pérez Sáez says. “It shouldn’t be that hard.”
Creating high-quality urban parks can also help with access, says Joel Pannell, the associate director of the Sierra Club’s Outdoors for All campaign. The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of nature and public spaces to get outside, move, and connect. Pannell wants to see the federal government build incentives for states and localities so that they can be more intentional when designing urban parks. He also wants to see an expansion of how that money can be used. Some city park directors may not need more park equipment, but they may need to hire more staff or develop cultural events or inclusive programming, such as those that target at-risk youth.
“There’s a big opportunity for this administration to not address disparities—whether we’re talking about access to nature, health outcomes, economic opportunities—all that I think can be addressed by more direct investment in close-to-home parks, local parks, parks in cities,” Pannell says.
For example, could federal grant criteria for housing or transit include requirements around funding or partnering with local parks to improve their quality? The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which covers the cost of park maintenance and upgrades, already features a program specifically for urban populations: the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership Program. How could that fund go even further by establishing equity criteria outside this one program?
Hire, Retain, and Promote BIPOC Federal Employees
Our federal agencies just endured four years of Trump, who ended critical training on white privilege and systemic racism. Biden reversed that immediately, but there’s still room to further strengthen workplace policies to attract new diverse candidates and create an environment where federal employees of color can succeed. If people of color aren’t represented in our federal agencies, we can’t expect them to serve us. The president’s executive order on this front strives to assess the barriers federal employees face, and his nomination of Haaland to head the Interior highlights his commitment.
These employees are the ones who get the work done. We don’t always see them when we visit our parks, but many work behind the scenes advocating for different rules or policies. That’s why it’s important they reflect the people they’re representing. It’s even more important that BIPOC employees have opportunities to move up and build power and influence.
“If you’re somebody of color, and everybody who’s working there doesn’t look like you, you may not feel as welcome,” says Alex Taurel, the conservation program director at the League of Conservation Voters. “Expanding the diversity of the staff can be really important for making our public lands as inclusive and accessible for folks.”
Still, Pannell would like to see the government go even further. How can the U.S. attract community residents to apply for roles within the government so that the agency is for the people by the people? Pannell says this is especially relevant when replacing our current fossil fuel economy. How could the Department of Interior and Bureau of Land Management create opportunities for those individuals? Creating processes to make this happen can invite more community members to join and further improve diversity outdoors.
Enact an Executive Order for Restorative Justice on Public Lands
This is a visionary idea, one that encompasses a number of issues our public lands face. As president, Biden is limited in what he can do, but there’s no limit on executive orders. Pannell suggested an executive order that tackles restorative justice on public lands. This means taking a look back at our history as a nation and how we acquired the lands we now exploit.
Our national parks, for example, rest on a history of dispossession and abuse toward Indigenous people. Conservationists literally kicked Native Americans off their ancestral lands and made it illegal for them to hunt and gather on their park designations. Why? So white families could go visit and enjoy so-called nature. Black people were historically relegated to certain areas in national parks where they couldn’t mingle with the white visitors.
This history requires an acknowledgement. It requires a direct assessment so we can determine the impacts of this. Who benefited? What were the long-term effects on Indigenous peoples? On Black people? This opportunity also opens the door to take action on renaming some of our mountains or trails. The president can’t do this on his own, but he can encourage federal agencies and states to via an executive order. There’s a legacy of erasing Indigenous relationships to the land, and we can begin by calling these places by their rightful first names rather than their colonized ones. This is especially relevant as officials removed 160 Confederate monuments and symbols from public spaces in 2020 alone.
How can we modernize public land management with this acknowledgement? In some cases, that may look like returning land ownership to the peoples from which it was stolen, Pannell says. In other cases, this may look like co-management as the Obama administration had attempted with tribal nations when designating the Bears Ears National Monument.
Decolonizing our national parks is key if we want equity outdoors. Education is a big part of that, Pérez Sáez says. The Department of Interior could review how the federal government teaches about public lands as part of this executive order. Just as we celebrate the founders of park lands, we also need to celebrate their original caretakers and the history behind the land possession.
“Until we start recognizing the harm and until we start to reflect the proper history of everyone in these spaces, then people will actually want to spend time there,” he says. “There are many opportunities for us to start reflecting the history of America by identifying more places where the truth—beautiful and ugly—can hopefully teach us something good.”
Make New Federal Designations Honoring BIPOC History
With this new lens on education and history, the Biden administration could establish new parks and monuments that celebrate our forgotten history. After all, the Stonewall National Monument in New York City sits under the National Park Service’s purview. So does the César E. Chávez Monument in Keene, California. Why can’t we establish more designations historically relevant to Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and queer communities?
“Just about every president since Teddy Roosevelt has used the Antiquities Act to create national monuments, and they also have a lot of authority to create and expand national wildlife refuges, so yes there are definitely places that they can get to work on to advance equity in the outdoors,” Taurel says.
The first step here would be to reestablish culturally relevant monuments Trump removed, such as Bears Ears. Then, we gotta expand. There are plenty of options out there. We don’t have a formal memorial within the National Park Service for the killing of Emmett Till. We should. We also have no recognition of the Rosenwald Schools, which educated Black kids during Jim Crow, in the park service system. These places need federal protection—and national honoring. In southern Nevada, tribal communities are pushing for the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument, which would honor the sacred Spirit Mountain.
Communities of color across the U.S. each have their own histories and stories that deserve national attention and protection. We do this for the whitewashed pieces of American history. What about the rest of us?
Reform Law Enforcement on Public Lands
It’s time to bring things full circle. The way policing currently works on our public lands and spaces isn’t working. The Department of Interior can take some clear steps to improve this. First of all, there needs to be better accountability to keep track of incidents between the police and the public. Right now, there’s no database keeping track of how many people are injured or killed by Park Police or park rangers. This type of transparency can help the public better hold officials accountable. The Interior could establish a team to prioritize this issue.
In that same vein, Pérez Sáez says it’s important to recognize when these law enforcement officials get something right. How can the department track positive experiences between the public and officers? It’s important to know what works when policing—and to award the officers who are actually protecting and serving the public. After accountability comes consequences. How do we award the good eggs? How do we punish the bad ones? This is a problem that exists beyond the structure of the Interior Department, but why doesn’t the department aim to create an example of what community-centered policing can look like?
A few simple changes can go a long way. Park ranger uniforms, for example, may feel threatening to undocumented people or communities of color who don’t have healthy relationships with law enforcement, says Pérez Sáez. Why don’t we modernize them to feel more welcoming? Also, why don’t we set targets to ensure law enforcement within the Interior reflects the communities they’re serving?
More urgently, law enforcement agencies need to evolve past training. Training is important to ensure their officers know how to handle tense situations, but it’s not enough. Pannell is a son of a retired Black police officer, and he wants to see departments center community relationships with officers. After all, these officials are on our public lands to ensure everyone is safe and having a good time. Their behavior needs to reflect that role. The public needs assurance that these officers are there not only to keep thieves and bad guys out—but to save them should they lose their way on a trail or if they want advice on a campsite.
These changes can’t happen overnight. But if the Biden administration is serious about environmental justice, it can start here. We need nature to sequester all the carbon that’s warming the world. We also need nature to keep us sane as the climate crisis rears its ugly head. Communities of color deserve a piece of that natural sanctuary, too.