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Glenn Nelson On Race And Inclusion In The Outdoors: 'We Need More Stories Like This'

Bellamy Pailthorp
Glenn Nelson beside one of the story panels at the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial.

Encouraging more inclusiveness so that people of color can better enjoy public lands is a topic that’s been in the news a lot in recent years.

One person behind that message is local journalist and photographer Glenn Nelson. He’s a former writer for The Seattle Times and the founder of a nonprofit advocacy web site called The Trail Posse.

The site aims to present the outdoors as a necessity for physical and mental wellbeing in an increasingly urbanized world and to ensure access to national parks as a right of citizenship for all.

'Nidoto Nai Yoni'Let It Not Happen Again 

Nelson was born in Japan and has been exploring his own heritage lately. He wanted to mark Friday’s anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1988, which granted reparations to Japanese-Americans who were interned by the U.S. government during World War II.

So, he invited me to meet him at a National Parks Historic Site: the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial.

It’s on the southern shore of Eagle Harbor in Pritchard Park, looking across at the Wislow ferry dock. It was here that the first 227 of some 120,000 Japanese Americans were rounded up, marched off a pier and sent to internment camps in 1942.

“They took a ferry and then bused or railroaded to what is now the state fairgrounds in Puyallup. And they were housed in animal stalls,” Nelson says.

Eventually, most of the people from Bainbridge were taken to Manzanar, in central California. Nelson recognizes that this is a dark period in history, a hard thing to think about. But he's visited several of these sites this year. Because it’s important to remember.

“To remind ourselves not to do it again,” he says, pointing to the slogan that’s etched on the wall in Japanese. “‘Nidoto Nai Yoni’,” he says.  “‘Let it not happen again.’”   

Nelson points out the resonance of this message for him right now, in the face of current events such as the intense debate about immigration or the ways in which certain people are excluded because of the color of their skin or their religion.

“And so memorials like this are important to remind us of what happened in the past and not to repeat those mistakes,” he says.

A Personal Mission

Nelson’s website, the Trail Posse, is dedicated to a mission of changing the image of the outdoors and public lands as they’re portrayed in mainstream media, to make them more inclusive and welcoming to people of color. He founded it after traveling with his wife in several national parks, in the run-up to the 100th anniversary of the parks system. They noticed how few non-white people were there with them.

He started researching. He read an article in the New York Times that noted 80 percent of visitors to the national parks are white, as is 83 percent of the workforce. Nelson says this startled him.

“Because I grew up as a Boy Scout in a highly diverse troop. And that was my experience.

He began delving deeper, and eventually wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, entitiled Why Are Our Parks So White?

“I saw that this was a much larger problem that encompasses all of the green sector: conservation/ environmental organizations, outdoor brands – all were white and aging out,” he says.

“And it’s all contrary to the way the demographics of our country is going, which is – the census bureau projects that we’re going to be majority non-white in 2043. And we’re already seeing signs that that’s going to happen sooner.”

Nelson says this is a problem because if the majority of the population doesn’t use the parks and the future workforce continues to be predominantly white, it’s hard to imagine effective management and stewardship into the future. He says these issues extend to all kinds of organizations in the environmental movement, which makes the problem even more daunting. It raises concerns about how society will tackle the big environmental challenges of our time, such as climate change.

Nelson insists that a big part of the issue is not really that people of color are not outside. It’s public perception, by them and others, of what constitutes activities such as hiking.

Nelson says we’re mistaken if we think a walk around the loop at a park in an urban setting doesn’t count. So finding ways to highlight all kinds of activities and making sure census data or other research data includes them is important.

He says accessibility is important too – how can people get to Mount Rainer from Seattle if they don’t have a car? Or for that matter, the Grand Canyon?

But the issue that the parks system itself can tackle most directly, Nelson says, is finding ways to be more inclusive through the stories it tells in public places.

Changing The Narrative In Public Places

“Dealing with the whole – what a guy I interviewed once calls ‘the don’t loop,’’ Nelson says. “You know, you don’t do something because you don’t see yourself in something.”

He says creating more places like the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial can make a big difference. Places that are culturally relevant to people of color, rather than just monuments to white people.

“We don’t see ourselves in anything,” he says.

“And here, I can walk down and see these panels. And these are people that look like me. These are people who have names like my mother’s name and spoke a language like my mother did.”

Another example, he says, is Howard Lake, near Stehekin, which takes quite an effort to get to, including a boat ride and shuttle to a remote trailhead. But it’s named after an African-American miner, who staked a claim in the area.

Nelson headed there recently with his intern, who is African-American.

“Neither one of us would have gone there if we hadn’t had that story to draw us there,” he says.

“We need more stories like this. To remind us: We’re all embedded in the landscape – an American landscape,” Nelson says. “We need more ways of seeing how and where we are embedded here.”

Glenn Nelson is a Seattle photojournalist and the founder of the non-profit outdoor advocacy website The Trail Posse. He’s also a founding member of the Next-100 Coalition, which works nationally to make public lands more inclusive.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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