On eve of MLK Day, Obama calls for diversity in Acadia, other parks

On the eve of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, in one of his last official acts, President Barack Obama directed the Department of the Interior and other top agencies to hire a more diverse workforce, and attract broader segments of the US population to federal public lands.

President Barack Obama hikes Acadia National Park

President Barack Obama, the first sitting president to visit Acadia National Park, hiked Cadillac with his family in July 2010 (White House photo)

Obama issued the edict in the form of a Presidential Memorandum, which is as binding as an Executive Order, according to legal specialists. The memo aims for greater diversity in Acadia and other national parks, national forests and other public lands and waters.

“That’s a big deal,” said Audrey Peterman, a member of the Next 100 Coalition of environmental and civil rights groups that petitioned Obama in 2016, the year of the National Park Service Centennial, to call for a more inclusive vision of stewardship of America’s public lands for the next 100 years. “We’re not going to be turned back.”

The memo by Obama, the first sitting president to visit Acadia, also comes after years of reports showing the National Park Service lagging in efforts to diversify its workforce, and less interest among some minority populations in visiting federal public lands, compared with white Americans or even foreign visitors.

audrey peterman

Audrey Peterman was so moved by the beauty of Cadillac when she first visited with her husband Frank in 1995, she became an advocate of connecting public lands to all Americans, no matter their race, creed or religion. (Photo courtesy of Audrey Peterman)

A 2011 report, “The National Park Service Comprehensive Survey of the American Public,” found African Americans the most “under-represented” visitor group, with Hispanic Americans not too far behind. The “2016 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government®”, released last month, ranks the National Park Service 284 out of 304 agencies when it comes to support for diversity, a slight improvement over the previous annual survey sponsored by the non-profit, non-partisan Partnership for Public Service.

For Peterman, an American of African and Jamaican descent, her life’s work of pushing for diversity in Acadia and other public lands came to her on the top of Cadillac Mountain, on her first visit more than 20 years ago.

Cadillac inspires advocate to push for diversity in Acadia, other public lands

“Acadia is the place where I had my epiphany, my moment of transformation,” said Peterman, who blogs about the issue of diversity in Acadia and other public lands for Huffington Post, co-wrote a book, “Legacy on the Land,” with her husband Frank, and advocates nationally for connecting public lands to all the people.

diversity in acadia

Audrey and Frank Peterman tell their story of being so moved by their visit to Acadia and other national parks, that they have become advocates of connecting public lands to all Americans, in “Legacy on the Land,” available from their consulting Web site. (Image courtesy of Audrey Peterman)

“That feeling of being so infinitesimal yet connected to something so big and huge has never left me,” said Peterman, who has since visited Acadia more than half a dozen times, and has come to know members of the Friends of Acadia through her public lands advocacy work.  “It has not dimmed, and only burned more brightly.”

And she has wanted to spread the gospel ever since, of how grand and magnificent places like Acadia are, and how they belong to all Americans, no matter what their race, creed or religion.

Since that visit to the top of Cadillac in 1995, Peterman and her husband have visited nearly 200 national park units and other federal lands, consulted with public land managers on how to reach diverse communities, launched a speakers’ bureau featuring diverse environmental leaders, and joined forces with more than 30 other environmental justice, civil rights, conservation and community groups in the Next 100 Coalition, to call upon President Obama to issue a memo promoting diversity in Acadia and other public lands.

While Donald J. Trump or any future president can undo Obama’s Jan. 12 Presidential Memorandum – or any of his orders creating such national monuments as Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine – it would not be easy. Peterman remains optimistic, saying Obama’s words will live on, giving future generations of environmental justice and civil rights advocates leverage to push for public lands and public land agencies for all.

“The purpose of this memorandum is to ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to experience and enjoy our public lands and waters, that all segments of the population have the chance to engage in decisions about how our lands and waters are managed, and that our Federal workforce – not just the sites it manages – is drawn from the rich range of the diversity in our Nation.”

– President Barack Obama, Presidential Memorandum, Promoting Diversity and Inclusion in Our National Parks, National Forests, and Other Public Lands and Waters

Peterman said while she has always felt welcome at Acadia and other public lands, she feels park and other public lands officials aren’t doing enough to attract more diverse segments of the US population to visit, and to work for public lands agencies.

“There’s been a failure of the park service to communicate with the totality of the population,” said Peterman. “We’re not from outer space. Do the same thing for us that you do for other people.”

president obama

President Obama and family visit Yosemite on Father’s Day 2016. (White House photo)

National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, who retired earlier this month, had included in a 2011 “Call to Action” several initiatives to promote diversity, including highlighting sites important to the civil rights movement, connecting urban populations to nearby national park sites, and conducting cultural competencies training for supervisors, some of which have been acted upon.

With America’s population becoming increasingly diverse, the park service and other federal public lands agencies still need to do more – not just because it’s part of their mission, but because they’ll need all the public support they can get, Peterman said.

The day after President Obama’s memo, the National Park Service issued a news release welcoming the diversity commitment and outlining steps it is taking to engage all Americans in their national parks.

diversity in acadia

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, President Obama designated the Freedom Riders National Monument in Alabama, one of three civil rights monuments he created last week. US Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who is questioning the legitimacy of Donald J. Trump’s election as president, was one of the Freedom Riders. (NPS image)

Aside from the Presidential Memorandum in the waning days of his administration, Obama added 3 more national monuments commemorating the civil rights movement and Reconstruction last week, in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. That brings the total of national monuments designated or expanded by President Obama under the 1906 Antiquities Act to 34 as of last week, the most of any president in history, according to the Washington Post.

Among other Obama-designated national monuments paying homage to the diversity of the country’s heritage and history: Stonewall National Monument in New York, in recognition of the LGBT equal rights movement; Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument in Washington, DC, in recognition of the women’s equal rights movement; Honouliuli National Monument in Hawaii at the site of a World War II Japanese American internment camp, as a reminder of the need to protect civil liberties at times of conflict; and Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, to preserve lands sacred to Native American tribes.

In Jim Crow era, W.E.B. DuBois found renewal on Mount Desert Island

A century before President Obama ever stepped foot on Cadillac, and before Peterman found her passion of advocating for diversity in Acadia, W.E.B. DuBois, a founder of the NAACP, came to Mount Desert Island, and found spiritual renewal in nature’s magnificence.

diversity in acadia

W.E.B. DuBois, a founder of the NAACP, found spiritual renewal in the natural beauty of Mount Desert Island. (NPS photo)

“Bar Harbor lies beneath a mighty mountain, a great, bare, black mountain that sleeps above the town; but as you leave, it rises suddenly, threateningly, until far away on Frenchman’s Bay it looms above the town in withering vastness, as if to call all that little world petty save itself,” wrote DuBois, in an essay entitled “Of Beauty and Death,” published in 1920 in his book “Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil.”

“God molded his world largely and mightily off this marvelous coast and meant that in the tired days of life men should come and worship here and renew their spirit. This I have done and turning I go to work again.”

Yet DuBois wondered why other African Americans didn’t also go to places like Mount Desert or the Grand Canyon, as he had, to revive their spirit for the civil rights struggles ahead. “Why do not those who are scarred in the world’s battle and hurt by its hardness travel to these places of beauty and drown themselves in the utter joy of life? I asked this once sitting in a Southern home.”

The reply? Traveling in the Jim Crow era, the insults, the segregation, the lack of dignity, even the possibility of lynchings – all reasons for staying home, and not venturing to experience nature.

The historic record about DuBois’s visit to Mount Desert is slim. Aside from his “Of Beauty and Death” essay, there are a few online archival references to his speaking at an education conference in Bar Harbor in 1903, and meeting Jacob Schiff, a financier and Mount Desert summer resident who later had a memorial path named after him, in what was to become Acadia National Park. A search of DuBois’s name on the Acadia Web site and in the “Guide’s Guide to Acadia National Park” turns up nothing.

Even Peterman, the blogger and advocate of diversity in national parks, didn’t learn of DuBois’s visit to Mount Desert until recently.

But one 2010 academic report, “An analysis of nature in three African American autobiographical narratives,” highlighted DuBois’s message as one with relevance now, to help bridge the gap between African American communities of today, and the great outdoors.

w.e.b. dubois

“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” So wrote W.E.B. DuBois, in his 1903 book, “The Souls of Black Folk,” in words that still echo in the 21st century. The W.E.B. DuBois National Historic Site in Great Barrington, Mass., where he was born, is the only US site dedicated to his life and work. (W.E.B. DuBois NHS photo)

“African Americans are oppressed by forces both current and historical. Our wild and beautiful natural areas are still there, waiting to be experienced, waiting to heal, and welcome the oppressed. Due to the taint of destructive oppression and subjugation, however, many Blacks do not realize the power of such places, nor do they have the means to journey to them,” wrote researchers Drew Cavin and David Scott in the Journal of Unconventional Parks, Tourism & Recreation Research, which is published in cooperation with the National Recreation and Park Association.

“DuBois clearly had a connection to the powerful natural places of this country,” wrote the researchers. “Unlocking the connection for today’s generation of African Americans could be tremendously powerful for healing the hurts that still deeply affect so many people.”

May the words of W.E.B. DuBois, as well as those of President Obama, live on, to inspire diversity in Acadia and other national parks, for the next 100 years and beyond.

Dolores Kong & Dan Ring

About Dolores Kong & Dan Ring

Dolores Kong and Dan Ring are co-authors of the Falcon guides Hiking Acadia National Park and Best Easy Day Hikes Acadia National Park, and also blog at acadiaonmymind.com. They’ve backpacked the 270-plus miles of the Appalachian Trail in Maine, and are members of the Northeast 111 Club, having hiked all major peaks of the Northeast. Dolores is a former staff reporter at The Boston Globe. Dan is a journalist and former Statehouse bureau chief in Boston for the old Ottaway News Service and for The Republican, the daily newspaper for Springfield, Mass. They are married and live outside Boston.