It’s an honor and a privilege for me to be with you today. I commend you for being here at this meeting to take a hard look at the role of African-Americans in the Forest Service. I’d particularly like to commend the line officers for getting together on their own as a group. I think it shows how far we’ve come, and I’ll come back to that point in a moment.
What I’d like to do now is to stand back a bit and give you my own personal take on the role of African-Americans in natural resources, how it’s changed over the years, and what the future might hold. I think my perspective is fairly unique, because I come from a Forest Service family. My father was a forest supervisor, and my son is also in the agency. If the story of the Forest Service were a movie, I would have had a front-row seat for much of it.
I think that long personal history has helped give me some insight into what might be called hidden aspects of Forest Service history. As you know, the story of the Forest Service is part of the story of conservation and forestry in the United States. We often look for our roots in the journals of Lewis and Clark—in the works of early conservationists—in the writings of Gifford Pinchot, Aldo Leopold, and other early Forest Service employees. In fact, the story of conservation is often associated with rural white men—guys more or less like me.
Fortunately, that’s not all there is to the story, or it might not have turned out so well. There are different ways of telling the same story, and some can be truer, in a sense, than others. The truer versions tend to dig deeper and broaden the scope. They tend to uncover aspects of the story that have long been hidden—like the role women have played in the story of conservation, or the role ethnic minorities have played. American Indians are an obvious example; and, as you know, African-Americans have also made tremendous contributions. The longer I have lived in the Forest Service family, the more that hidden history has jumped out at me.
The Role of African-Americans in Natural Resources
The recent documentary film The Greatest Good brought out some of that hidden history, partly with help from Forest Service historians. That hidden history is a good place to start reflecting on the role of African-Americans in the Forest Service, so that’s where I’d like to begin.
Some of the earliest explorations of America included African-Americans. An African named Esteban [ess-TAY-bon] served as translator for Cabeza de Vaca [kuh-bay-suh day vah-kuh] in Texas in the 1520s. An African-American slave named York played a prominent role in the Lewis and Clark expedition from 1804 to 1806. African-Americans were among the voyageurs and Mountain Men who trapped and traded for furs. African-Americans worked on railroads and as cowboys, and African-American ranchers and farmers helped settle the West. African-Americans known as Buffalo Soldiers roamed the West in cavalry units and patrolled the early national parks in California. In 1903, the acting superintendent of Sequoia National Park was Captain Charles Young, an African-American West Point graduate.
All this outdoor activity suggests that African-Americans typically lived close to the land—that they knew the outdoors and were deeply attached to life in the woods. That’s not too surprising when you consider what slavery meant. Slaves had to hunt and fish to supplement their diets. For medicine, they had to find herbs in the woods. Many slaves worked in the woods, clearing them for plantations or tending cattle and manufacturing turpentine. Slaves also found refuge in the woods. They would often escape and join the Indians or form their own backwoods settlements; later, they used the woods on the Underground Railroad to find freedom in the North.
So African-Americans have a rich heritage of knowing the woods and using them. Especially after the Civil War, they often translated that knowledge into personal gain, either by moving out West and using the resources there or by managing the woods back East. When professional forestry took root around 1900, African-Americans were involved; it’s said that the first African-American professional forester was Ralph Brock, who graduated from a forestry academy in Pennsylvania in 1906. In 1910, despite Jim Crow and all the discrimination they faced, African-Americans owned almost 200 timber companies. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps employed about 200,000 African-Americans; during World War II, African-Americans made up the 555 th Parachute Infantry Battalion, which helped pioneer smokejumping. From the late nineteenth century into the 1960s, African-Americans made up a quarter of the entire forest products industry, and they still own and manage a lot of forestland, especially in the South.
The Changing Face of America
So African-Americans have played a critical role in the story of conservation. They were particularly close to the land at the beginning of the 20 th century, just as most Americans were. In 1905, when the Forest Service was born, most Americans lived in rural areas, as did most African-Americans.
That has changed. The demographic changes we saw in the last century and the changes we can expect in this century have tremendous implications for the future of conservation in the United States. Let’s just look at a few major trends:
- In the last hundred years, we have more than tripled our population in the United States. There are now about 300 million Americans, and by the turn of the next century, we will have more than half a billion.
- The overwhelming majority of Americans now live in metropolitan areas. Our population has shifted from less than 30 percent metropolitan in 1910 to about 80 percent today. Where most African-Americans once lived in the countryside, most are now urban.
- African-Americans and other ethnic minorities are expanding. If current trends hold, then minorities will become the national majority by about mid-century. They already are in some states, including California, the state with the highest population in the nation.
Consider what all this means. Increasingly, the national forests have become islands in a sea of urban, suburban, and exurban development, especially on the West Coast and in the Northeast, Midwest, and South, the places where most African-Americans live. Urban pressures are growing on many national forests, and the people we serve are increasingly urban, with needs that tend to be primarily recreational.
Americans today also tend to know less about the woods; increasingly, they have lost touch with their rural roots. In the course of the 20 th century, success for most Americans, including African-Americans, meant getting away from farms and forests. Perhaps more than ever, rural folks came to be looked down on as backwards and ignorant.
That’s had an adverse impact on forestry and conservation. Our great traditions of hunting and fishing, whereby we learn about the land and pass on a conservation ethic to our children, are in decline. To provide all the comforts of urban living, Americans now rely on the “cargo god”: Goods mysteriously show up in the stores where we shop, and we have little idea how they got there. Increasingly, that includes imported wood. Trace some of that wood back to its source, and you will find practices that most Americans would abhor here at home ... illegal logging … vast clear-cuts … areas stripped of sensitive habitat. As we lose our connection to the land through urban living, we tend to lose touch with our land ethic.
As we look to the future, we’ll need to build and sustain a voting constituency that supports conservation, and we’ll need to do it specifically among urban voters. If we’re going to conserve and protect our forests, we’ll need for urban voters to understand what trees and forests give them—clean air and water, a higher quality of life in their own well-shaded neighborhoods, and a refuge in the woods from the pressures of urban life.
So how do we do this?
Putting more emphasis on urban forestry and conservation education is critical. We’ve just added this focus to our new strategic plan. But another strategy—the one I want to spend the rest of my time talking about today—includes drawing more people of color into careers in conservation. We need to broaden the circle of conservation.
Forest Service Challenges
We clearly need to bring more African-Americans into government, especially into the Forest Service. When I started with the outfit in the 1960s, most employees were rural white men, and line officers who were not were as rare as hen’s teeth. That’s changed. Today, we have more than a thousand African-American employees, and there are enough African-American line officers now to host their own group meeting here. In fact, their number has grown by 50 percent in just the last two years. That’s progress.
But it hasn’t been easy. Part of the problem has been a disconnect for many people, including African-Americans, between getting an education and pursuing a career in forestry or agriculture. Forestry just isn’t very attractive to many folks, nor is government service. Despite their outdoor heritage, African-Americans have often been reluctant to join the Forest Service.
A good example was Chip Cartwright. His professors at Virginia Tech discouraged him from entering forestry after he graduated in 1970. Fortunately for us, Chip ignored the advice and joined our outfit. He was one of the first African-American foresters in the Forest Service, and he became the first African-American district ranger in 1979, the first African-American forest supervisor in 1988, and the first African-American regional forester in 1994. He was succeeded in 1998 by Ellie Towns, the first African-American woman regional forester.
“Firsts” are important, because once the door is open, it’s hard to shut it again, and the more who come through, the easier it is for those who follow. It took a long time, and it was very hard for the pioneers of the 1980s and 1990s, but in my view the doors are all open now. Today, we’ve got women and African-Americans in positions at all levels throughout the agency, and we’re actively recruiting more.
But we have a long way to go. Four years ago, we had about 1,300 African-Americans in the agency, and today it’s down to about 1,100. It’s hard—sometimes it can be two steps forward and one step back. African-Americans make up more than 10 percent of the civilian labor force in the United States but only about 4 percent of the Forest Service; and about three-quarters of our African-American employees are concentrated in just a few geographic regions—Region 5, Region 8, and the Washington Office. In many areas, we simply do not reflect the populations we serve.
Moreover, not nearly enough of the jobs that African-Americans do hold in the agency are on a line officer track. In the forestry series of jobs, for example, African-Americans on the whole are underrepresented. Interestingly, though, African-American women are fully represented. Again, that’s progress.
I want to turn now to a very serious matter. As you well know, our country has a terrible history of racial discrimination that we have struggled to overcome, not entirely successfully. I mentioned that first African-American forester, Ralph Brock. He had a long and illustrious career in the private sector, but his first job as a forester back in 1906 was as superintendent of a state nursery in Pennsylvania. For five years, the nursery flourished under his direction, but he ultimately lost his job, apparently due to racism.
That’s not us, at least not in public forestry today, and certainly not in today’s Forest Service. I cannot stress this enough: The Forest Service has zero tolerance for discrimination in any form. I expect all of us in the Forest Service to treat each other all of the time, no matter who we are, with absolute fairness and unconditional respect.
Myth versus Reality
In closing, there’s a myth that the people who built our nation were white—that the first pioneers and settlers were white—that the first people who cared for our forested landscapes were white. The truth is more complex. People from all races built this country, and African-Americans played a crucial role. For centuries, African-Americans have helped develop our natural resources—as explorers, as pioneers, as farmers, as foresters, and as conservationists. African-Americans have a rich history of caring for the land and using it to serve people.
That heritage is precious, and we must not let it languish. Urbanization has disconnected too many Americans from the lands they depend on for a high quality of life—for clean air and water, for wildlife habitat, for outdoor recreation, for scenic beauty, and more. It is up to us in the Forest Service and the larger conservation community to help Americans reconnect to the land and to their own outdoor heritage.
To do that, the Forest Service needs to reflect the changing face of America. Conservation belongs to all of our citizens, yet the face of conservation has traditionally been rural, male, and white. We need to give Americans from every background more opportunities to participate in conservation. We’ve got to broaden the circle of conservation.