The National Parks Are Inviting to Skiers, Less So to BIPOC

When conservationists advocated for protected public lands, who were the lands for?

Four skiers going downhill on Mount Washburn’s northern slopes in Yellowstone National Park: this image was the first to depict skiing on the cover of a national American magazine. The illustration ran on an 1877 issue of Harper’s Weekly and reflected the excitement around the new national parks—and the potential for skiing that lay within.

The government’s earliest involvement with skiing in the West dates back to Yellowstone, the nation’s first national park. Beginning in 1886, the U.S. Army occupied this land and managed Yellowstone’s development as a park. In winter, cavalry soldiers patrolled on skis to protect the park from poachers and vandals.

Thirty years later, the National Park Service took over the parks’ management. Inheriting the military’s use of skis, the NPS promoted and subsidized winter use of the parks. Lift-served skiing promoted national parks as recreational winter destinations, but this rubbed up against the mandate of wilderness preservation and ecological management.

So, controversy ensued. Throughout the 20th century, skiing’s role in the parks was contested. At present, the U.S. Forest Service is the primary agency associated with skiing in the West, and lift-served skiing in national parks is uncommon. Still, many skiers utilize these parks as access points to premiere backcountry skiing—and most of these skiers are White.

An NPS diversity report in 2003 found that people of color—and especially Black people—visited national parks less frequently than White people. Black people were more than three times as likely as White people to believe that park employees provided poor visitor service and that parks were uncomfortable places for people like them. People of color were also more likely than White people to believe that overall costs, lack of information about parks, and travel distance were significant barriers to visitation.

Five years later, the 2008-2009 NPS Survey acknowledged that “the lands set aside as units of the National Park System do not have the same meaning for everyone.” So in 2013, the NPS created the Office of Relevancy, Diversity, and Inclusion in an effort to address race-based disparities at the parks. BIPOC activists have also addressed the national parks’ diversity problem, by creating outdoor groups of color and subsidizing transport and gear.

But what appears as a present-day diversity problem actually stretches back to the 19th century, to the original idea for federally-protected parks. For the NPS centennial, POWDER produced “Monumental,” a hardbound book, magazine feature, and a film on skiing our national parks. As the introduction notes: “It is very possible that had it not been for a handful of visionary conservationists in the early 20th century, the natural heritage of the United States would have been, if not erased, compromised forever.”

Maybe that’s true—but also true is the fact that the conservationists who architected the national parks idea (and the parks themselves) are inextricable from ideologies of White supremacy, the exclusion of BIPOC, and especially the displacement of Indigenous peoples.

Let’s look at Yosemite. In July 1864, Abraham Lincoln signed into law the California-based protection of Yosemite Valley. Many advocates for the protection imagined the park as exemplifying American republicanism; the parks were to be accessible to everyone, regardless of class status.

However, it’s clear now that “everyone” was a contingent category. In “Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Park,” Mark Spence traces how Native Americans were displaced from land that’s now called Yosemite and also from land that became our other national parks. Park advocates wanted to protect the “uninhabited wilderness.” So they also advocated for the forced removal of Native Americans, in order to construct an uninhabited wilderness that did not previously exist.

Thus began a “public lands” movement heavily rooted in racism and dispossession. Land for parks was obtained using policies like the Indian Removal Act of 1830, and the idea of the parks took off. Yosemite made way for a parks bill. On March 1, 1872, the Yellowstone region was set aside as a “public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” creating the first national park and eventually forcing many Indigenous nations off the land.

All the while, park lobbyists espoused ideals of an egalitarian republicanism: Yellowstone was to be a public park. For the people. Legislation, photographs, and newspaper articles constructed Yellowstone as a national glory.

That glory, however, was exclusive. Compounding the forced dispossession linked to the parks’ creation was the explicit racism of conservationists. An oft-cited example is Madison Grant, who was a eugenicist and a major activist for parks like Yellowstone. He lobbied in Washington D.C. for Yellowstone’s protections from what would have been a railroad project. To Grant, these natural spaces were symbolic of America’s exceptionalism, and he lobbied often to protect them.

Rooted in Grant’s natural history writing was a real concern for conservation. Still, early shadows of prejudice were at the root of his methods. For example, he grew angry with Italian immigrants hunting local songbirds and squirrels for food, and he tried introducing a bill in the state legislature to ban non-U.S. citizens from owning or carrying guns.

These propositions can only be understood in the context of citizenship’s moral weight and the historical context of exclusion. The Naturalization Act of 1790 had functioned for about a century then, limiting naturalization to “free White persons” and excluding Native Americans, indentured servants, enslaved people, free Black people, and Asian people. In this context, Grant’s bill operated under the assumption that non-White persons threatened the environment.

Furthermore, Grant wrote “The Passing of the Great Race,” published in 1916, which became a seminal text on eugenics and decades later became one of Adolf Hitler’s great influences. Grant argued that the survival of societies, like the survival of ecosystems, was contingent upon preserving the best of its “germ plasm.”

The germ plasm was to be communally owned: the people’s park, in the environmental context. For human populations, race was the primary determining factor, and Grant saw race as biological and unchangeable. The superior Nordic races needed to be conserved, just as the bison needed to be protected.

In this way, the parks movement and the eugenics movement were literally ideologically linked, they were about preserving the “best” of nature or human populations. Fears of the environmental degradation that might occur from a profit-motive were paralleled by fears of the moral degeneration that might come from “unfit” populations.

Certainly, this past isn’t acknowledged today in the public narrative around our national parks and especially not by the NPS. That’s a problem, especially since none of this is a revelation (here and especially here). But while acknowledgments of this disturbing history are necessary, they also feel like a kind of trick. The parks’ problem is also the disturbing racist history itself.

To quote Dina Gilio-Whitaker: “The lingering result of the Yellowstone story is that coded within the language of preservation, “wilderness” landscapes—always already in need of protection—are, or should be, free from human presence. But this logic completely evades the fact of ancient Indigenous habitation and cultural use of such places.”

When White American conservationists advocated for protected “public lands,” what did they envision? When the military patrolled Yellowstone on skis, what were they protecting? For whom? And from whom?

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