BREVARD, N.C. — With a grunt and a heave, Silas Elwood York, leader of the U.S. Forest Service’s wilderness programs, unfurled his tent onto the dense, dewy ground of North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest. Brow furrowed, York, who goes by Elwood (“Only my mother ever called me Silas”), snapped together the black rods that made up the frame and threaded them through the fabric’s numerous loops until the tent puffed out and stood upright. With a small hammer, he bent and whacked a stake through each of the four corners deep into the forest floor. Looking at the heavy clouds gathering, he opened the rain cover and secured it over the oval entrance.
“There,” he said, wiping his hands on his pants. “Those tents are so easy, anyone can do it. Even me.”
He crawled inside and in minutes was sleeping, his snores joining the cacophony created by birds and crickets. It was the end of an exhausting day.
That morning, York had joined volunteers from across the country who were attending a two-week wilderness skills program focused on maintaining trails, which is a massive ongoing project that costs the Forest Service $75 million annually but is necessary to keep visitors on the paths and away from animal habitats.
Getting to the training location would require a steep hike straight up the mountain. York had looked up at the blue sky, its puffs of white clouds held in place by the stagnant heat of the day, and removed his baseball cap to wipe the sweat dripping down his bearded face. Although the title “leader of wilderness programs” might conjure a rugged image, York, dressed in a brown and green plaid shirt and tan pants, looked more paper-pusher than outdoorsman.
Rather than working his way up through the Forest Service, the 59-year-old came to the position after a controversial tenure as a corrections official, including a stint as interim head of the D.C. jails. The first African-American leader of wilderness programs, he had never been to a wilderness in the United States before his hiring.
He peppers his speech with sayings like, “To walk the yard is to own the yard,” and says he has “no clue” why the Forest Service chose him. But following decades in law enforcement and corrections, York believes nature can be a positive force in the lives of at-risk kids, and he has made it part of his job to encourage young people from troubled and low-income neighborhoods to find purpose in the wilderness.
York put the cap back on. “OK, let’s do it,” he said in his deep Southern drawl and started following the trail, slick from the previous night’s heavy rains, past thick branches of mountain laurel with pink-tinged white blossoms.
After a few teetering stops and starts, York slowly reached a dip in the trail, where volunteers were building and repairing retaining walls under the guidance of the Jolly Rovers, an Upstate New York-based band of experts that travels the country teaching others the art of constructing stone walls and staircases.
York sat on a large flat rock, surveying the workers. Once again, despite the fact that the training program was advertised widely, he was the only black person in the crowd of white. Part of the Forest Service’s mandate is to improve diversity within both the workforce and the visiting public — and here was just one more example of the challenge facing him.
By 2050, U.S. Census figures predict, the United States will be mostly a brown and black country. Yet hundreds of millions of acres of public land are rarely used by this portion of the citizenry. According to the Forest Service, which manages 193 million acres in 44 states and territories, only about 1 percent of visitors from 2010 through 2014 were black, and less than 6 percent were Hispanic. The other federal agencies that manage public lands report similar numbers.
Addressing such disparity is “critical,” said Mary Ellen Sprenkel, chief executive of the Corps Network, which supports national service programs. “We need to make sure people from other backgrounds and cultures understand the importance of natural space, or we won’t have the ability to preserve these places for future generations.”
The low number of minority visitors to the outdoors is a long-term issue that has moved toward the forefront of the nation’s consciousness only in the past decade or so, as demographic change has accelerated.
“People of color for many years were deterred from taking advantage of their public lands,” said Reginald “Flip” Hagood, chairman of the diversity committee for the governing council of the Wilderness Society. “There is a long history there.”
According to Hagood, integration of the outdoors has been hampered by discrimination (in certain areas, people of color were denied access through segregation), as well as cultural differences and economic issues.
“Most blacks of my generation are scared to go into the woods because they don’t know if they are going to come out,” York said. “It would be a great shame if we allowed this feeling to continue. People need to know the land is also for them.”
According to Denise Ottaviano, of the public affairs office, “It is part of the Forest Service mission to employ individuals from diverse groups, encourage diverse groups to utilize their public lands, and also partner with organizations from diverse backgrounds to take care of Forest Service land. In some way, all Forest Service employees play a role in diversity.”
In its minority outreach, the Forest Service has especially focused on urban youths, who traditionally have not participated in environmental stewardship. (Rural kids are also a concern; they no longer can be counted on to become the next generation of foresters and firefighters as video games have replaced their interest in the outdoors.)
To that end, it manages Children’s Forests, areas where youths can connect with and learn about the outdoors, and urban field stations, including one in Baltimore, where scientists and researchers work with the community to enhance the natural environment. (Among the issues the Baltimore station is addressing is the health of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.)
The other agencies — including the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — fund or partner with similar programs geared toward kids, such as the Obama administration’s Every Kid in a Park.That initiative debuted in September and provides free passes to encourage fourth-graders and their families to visit public lands during the school year.
York believes his role is bigger than simply introducing young minorities to the outdoors. “We don’t want to bring kids in for a one-time photo op,” he said; he wants them to learn from an experience. The wilderness, he added, is “an equal-opportunity provider. There is no discrimination. If you don’t chop wood for the fire, you are cold; if you don’t boil hard water, you are thirsty.”
Born in 1956 to a mother who was a teacher and a father who owned a construction company, York grew up in Richmond, his life straddling the vestiges of the Jim Crow era. Weekends and summers were spent in Chesterfield, Virginia, with his cousins, swimming in the pond, chasing ducks and picking blackberries. York would sleep outside during the hazy summer nights, staring at the stars above, and although Chesterfield wasn’t far from Richmond, it felt worlds away.
Back in town, York’s mother taught in housing projects, often pillaging clothes from his closet to bring to the poorer students. His grandfather was head maitre’d at Richmond’s famed Jefferson Hotel. He taught York about personal responsibility and taking pride in work, and sometimes sneaked in his beloved grandson to see the alligators swimming in the Palm Court lobby.
“He worked there his whole life,” York said. “But he was never allowed through the front door.”
The local park had a sign that said, “No Coloreds, No Dogs Allowed.” He and friends went there anyway. At movies, they sat in the balcony.
But for York — who says, “I understood oppression but never felt oppressed” — there also was playing in the woods and the all-black Boy Scout troop run by his church. “I didn’t know we were poor until I got to college,” he said.
His mother, who fiercely loved her only child, wanted him to have broad cultural experiences. She made York take ballet and tap dancing and taught him to talk “of cabbages and kings.” But perhaps most important, she scrimped to send him to a summer camp that catered to the children of black professionals. York attended Camp Atwater in East Brookfield, Massachusetts, from age 8 to 15, and memories of those years helped him maintain his affinity with the outdoors.
York’s life changed forever in the early 1970s, when Richmond schools were forced to desegregate. On the first day, as a bus took him and other city kids out to the suburbs, the children lay on the floor while rocks were thrown through the windows. “Going to an integrated school wasn’t as much about fear as it was about anger,” said York. “What I did learn from integration was that white schools had more equipment and privilege.”
Spurred by his mother and his peers at Camp Atwater, he channeled his emotions toward his education. York graduated from Howard University in Washington, then went to Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University. He spent his early career, which included a stint as a municipal judge, in Houston. He has been married twice; his wife, Michelle “Angie” Davis-York, lives in Florida, where she had been caring for her mother, who died recently. He has no children.
In 1993, York moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands to train prosecutors before becoming principal assistant attorney general. He then became acting corrections director for a department that, following a class-action lawsuit, was under court order to fix dangerous and inhumane conditions at its jail.
In 1996, jail inmates complained that the conditions had not been improved. But before a judge could rule, York quit, returning to Richmond to take care of his mother, who had had a stroke. Remaining jail officials were found in contempt.
In 1997, he was hired by the D.C. Corrections Department as an attorney, then in 2005 became interim corrections director. Before assuming the directorship, he had been in charge of inmate transfers during the tumultuous closing of the infamous Lorton Reformatory, a process stemming from lawsuits about overcrowding that led to more lawsuits and abuse investigations.
York contends that he inherited problems in both the Virgin Islands and the District, and should have been credited for taking steps to resolve them. Although he had supporters, he was not confirmed as permanent director. He moved to Key West, Florida, to work as the head of pretrial services for the 16th Judicial Circuit.
By then, York said, he was tired of the violence and lack of rehabilitation in the justice system. He wanted, and needed, something different. He heard about the Forest Service’s wilderness leader position in 2011, and it got him thinking: His undergraduate degree was in zoology, and he remembered his Camp Atwater days fondly, though he hadn’t continued outdoor activities; maybe he could make a change by introducing troubled minority youths to public lands.
“I think they saw something that they liked or thought worked best for the agency, took a chance to invest time and training to bring me up to their expectations,” he said. “So far it is working, as best as I can tell. I like what I do and I like the folks I work with.”
No one at the Forest Service would comment directly on York’s hiring, saying it is a personnel issue covered by the Privacy Act. But “someone with Elwood’s background and network” is able to make different connections than “many of us born and raised and moving through the ranks of the conservation community,” said Leslie Weldon, deputy chief of the National Forest System and York’s boss. The first female African-American in her position, Weldon understands the diversity struggle and has often been the only person of color out in the field.
“Elwood has done a great job of building additional bridges and opportunities,” she said.
When they heard about his new job, his friends thought he had lost his mind. “We did the Boy Scouts, but we are urban people,” said his childhood best friend James McCollum, now a lawyer in Washington. But in a way, York said, the change has saved him: “My only wish is that I got this job when I was 40 years old.” Now, he says, the purpose in his life is clear and hopeful.
York has sent five groups of inner-city youths to the wilderness through the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps, which has partnered with the federal government and local organizations across the country to recruit 100,000 youths and veterans over 10 years to protect and restore the country’s great outdoors.
“Very easily in another life I could be looking at the same kid through a set of bars,” York said. Wilderness experiences, he added, “can be a lifesaver.”
But they aren’t necessarily easy to set up. York has had to battle barriers including lack of proper gear and families’ unfamiliarity with the tradition of camping.He has held a shoe drive to ensure all kids had the correct footwear and personally persuaded parents to let their kids visit the wilderness.
One of the five Corps wilderness trips he organized included boys from Baltimore and Washington who were so frightened by the total darkness in Taos, New Mexico, that they couldn’t sleep. Another involved the first Native American wilderness corps program, outside Phoenix. And York traveled to the San Bernardino Forest with the Urban Conservation Corps of the Inland Empire, which is made up mostly of Latino, Asian and African-American youths from high-crime neighborhoods. Their work “restores broken lives and prevents catastrophic wildfire disasters,” according to its director, Sandy Bonilla.
York coordinates with groups promoting National Public Lands Day, an annual September tradition to encourage people to get outdoors. This year it was Sept. 26; in the run-up he planned to celebrate Sept. 18 on the Anacostia River with the Earth Conservation Corps and Sept. 19 at an Urban Kids Fishing Derby at the Mall’s Constitution Gardens. He spent last year’s Public Lands Day by the San Gorgonio Wilderness area, about an hour from Los Angeles, where he met some older women who fell asleep in their lawn chairs, lulled by the peace.
And he visits youth programs and schools monthly to encourage minority students to consider careers in the Forest Service. At all-black St. Augustine in Northwest Washington, he showed up with a “Buffalo Soldier” dressed in a navy blue uniform, with a yellow bandanna and the original Smoky Bear hat. The soldier got the children to stop squirming by telling them how members of these African-American regiments were among the first park rangers, enduring heat and disease to build some of the first wilderness trails.
“To see a person who looks like you and talks like you goes a long way,” York said.
Next on York’s list is bringing baby boomers into the wilderness and connecting them with younger people: “They have the resources to reach back a generation and bring people along.”
But it’s clear his passion is with urban kids in troubled neighborhoods. “We live in worlds of concrete and steel,” York said. “People must believe in something. They need to have hope. And what can be more hopeful than Mother Nature?”
On the last day of the wilderness skills institute, York drove down winding roads past the roaring waters of Looking Glass Falls to the Schenck Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center. The Forest Service-run center is one of 28 that are part of the larger federal Job Corps program and offer 40,000 low-income youth ages 16 to 24 training for jobs in natural resource management.
Nestled on the banks of the Davidson River, Schenck has a school, an auto shop, a welding building and a carpentry studio. But York was most interested in the advanced forestry and wilderness fire program run by Mickey Beland, a 75-year-old ranger with twinkling blue eyes.
“I’m an old-school forest guy, and I’m obsolete in some areas,” Beland said. “But if we can get students interested now, at this age, they have a bright future.” He said most of his trainees are fleeing something when they arrive at the center. “They don’t want to live in the city anymore. They want to find a connection that is not hostile.”
Two students, Oriente Lowe and Brian Davis Jr., both 21, later took a break from cutting bamboo roots to talk with York about how the forest had inspired a new direction in their lives.
“I was surrounded by negativity all the time. There was drug abuse and violence happening,” said Lowe of his hometown, Byron, Georgia. “But now I see I can have a career, not just a job. And I feel at home when I’m working in the woods. I’m at peace, I feel calm.”
Davis, too, was happy to be out of his home town: East Baltimore. “I couldn’t focus in school,” he said. “Every day, I woke up and thought this couldn’t be my life.”
Though it took him a while to get used to the quiet, the bugs and being unable to walk to a store, Davis, who wants to be a wilderness firefighter, said he feels “a whole lot safer” in the woods. “I don’t worry about my life in danger. I don’t have to deal with police or worry about the consequence of other people’s actions.”
Another new experience: being detailed to Redmond, Oregon, to fight a fire last year. Crowds waved at the firefighters as they drove through town, and a woman gave him a cup of coffee, refusing his money, he recalled. “People I’ve never met in my life thanked me.”
York listened to the young men, nodding. These were the faces he had hoped to see at the skills institute. He gave Davis his card and shook his hand, smiling and joking about getting him a firefighting job in the San Gorgonio Wilderness, his earlier fatigue gone, invigorated by the connection. The sun was poking through the clouds dotting the sky, and off in the background was the distinct but muted rushing sound of the river.
“We are just the seed planters, not the gardeners,” York said afterward. “We just can hope that something in them catches the fire. And grows.”