By: Meredith Westrich
Since I was 14, I have been proudly invested in our country’s National Parks. I have visited countless parks, historical sites, and monuments since I was young, all with the dream of someday working for the park service. Last year, I took a step forward and met with the head of the Pro-Ranger program to inquire about making the dream of working for park law enforcement into a reality.
However, I find myself reflecting quite often these days on the current situation of the American law enforcement system. We live in a stifling society where BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) are murdered by police on a daily basis with few legal consequences or repercussions. Our current system is one based on oppression and injustice, and there is no excuse. Justice must be served for the countless black and indigenous lives so brutally taken by our police service.
I understand that we must change the system. Yet, as someone so invested in a branch of federal law enforcement, I can’t help but think: “Surely, they aren’t all like that, right?” The ability to even consider this question comes from a place of privilege, and while the park service doesn’t have nearly the same toxic, paternalistic environment that state and city police forces do, to be considered truly innocent would be to erase history that some don’t have the privilege of forgetting.
When Sequoia National Park was established in 1903, the government decided to use the military to enforce park boundaries and keep out livestock. The man in charge of the militia in the park was Col. Charles Young, the third black man to graduate from West Point and the first black National Park Superintendent. Young was an incredible leader, with a distinguished history in the military. And yet, Young would not have risen through the ranks without his role as a member of the Buffalo Soldiers, soldiers who were sent to extinguish the bison population in the West and force the Indigenous people of the plains out of their homelands.
Once sacred native lands, they only became “protected” from vandalism and development because white lawmakers in Washington decided to set them aside as parks for recreation. The park service today values diversity, but to forget its past is to pretend these prejudices never existed.
The motto of the National Park Service is “Explore, Learn, Protect.” With hundreds of acres of forests being destroyed each day, and EPA regulations continually rolled back, the protection of these parks is as necessary as ever. However, we cannot forget to explore, learn, and protect the history of the parks: the good, the bad, and even the ugly. We must allow ourselves to be critical of the institutions we rely on and remember that environmental justice cannot exist without social justice.
Meredith Westrich is a current senior at Fairport High School. She hopes to someday work as a ranger in the National Park Service.