Five Ways to Make the Outdoors More Inclusive
An Action Plan for Change
After serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, Henry X. Finney came home to Virginia to sort out his future. He didn’t know what he would do, or how he would support his young family—until one day he saw a uniformed park ranger. Instantly, the next chapter of his life unfurled before him. He would be a ranger, and spend his career in the outdoors.
“He said, ‘Great, a government job, let me go apply,’” recalled Carolyn Finney, his daughter and the author of Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors. “This was in the 1950s in Virginia, and they told him, ‘Sorry, we don’t hire Negroes.’”
Finney recently shared this anecdote in a room full of prominent outdoors experts and advocates, who had gathered for a brainstorm session in New York City to discuss the lack of diversity in the outdoors. “I can’t imagine how he felt hearing that after fighting for his country,” she added. But her father’s tale only partly explains the issue, which is a thorny and multifaceted one. According to the most recent National Parks Service survey, about 78 percent of those who visit federal parks are white. Meanwhile, African Americans, Latinos, women, and members of the LGBTQ community often report feeling unwelcome or unsafe in outdoor spaces. Moreover, the outdoors industry workforce—which includes everyone from park rangers to retail sales associates—has minimal representation from these groups.
The consequences of this separation from nature are many: A generation of adults and young people don’t enjoy the tens of thousands of parks, hiking trails, and camping sites around the country that cost billions of taxpayer dollars to maintain and administer. This separation also contributes to what Richard Louv, author of The Last Child in the Woods, has termed “nature-deficit disorder,” as society becomes increasingly absorbed by technology. Why does this matter? Louv and other experts believe that contact with nature leads to improved mental health, lower stress levels, and enhanced cognitive skills, for one. Plus, if more of an effort isn’t made to engage current and future generations (and this may be an especially relevant concern, as the country continues to diversify, with the U.S. Census Bureau forecasting that the U.S. will become a minority white nation by 2045), potential support for the parks “might go away” altogether, according to Michael Woo, dean of the College of Environmental Design at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
In November, at the New York brainstorm session, Finney, Woo, and five other panelists worked through these problem areas and discussed possible solutions. Here are the main ideas and action steps that emerged from the meeting, and from subsequent conversations with outdoors experts from around the U.S.
Meet the Participants
Graphic design student at Western Washington University
Executive director of The Venture Out Project, which advocates safety for the LGBTQ community in the outdoors
Owner of 229 Parks Restaurant at Alaska’s Denali National Park
Former Top Chef contestant
CEO and founder of Greening Youth Foundation, which connects underrepresented youths to the outdoors
Author of Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors
Former member of the National Parks System Advisory Board
Founder and director of Latino Outdoors, which inspires its members to embrace the outdoors
Former director at Sonoma County Regional Parks
Assistant professor for the American Indian Studies Program and the Udall Center for Public Policy at the University of Arizona
Former U.S. Secretary of the Interior
Law partner at WilmerHale
Dean, College of Environmental Design, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
Former member of the Los Angeles City Council
Former urban planner
Teach the Full History of the American Outdoors
When the national parks system was launched a century ago, founders of the conservation movement wanted to preserve the natural beauty of the parks for future generations. That sounds simplistic, but the parks’ history is far more complicated, rife with legacies of exclusion and even ethnic cleansing.
Make All Visitors Feel Welcome and Secure
Even after parks like Shenandoah were desegregated in the 1960s, people of color have often not felt welcome at national parks. Those feelings of unease persist today. A 2012 study titled “Why Do So Few Minority People Visit National Parks?” found that Asian Americans, African Americans, and Hispanics often feel uncomfortable when going to parks. Meanwhile, some white visitors reported discomfort when around non-white visitors.
Create Underlying Policies on Diversity and Fairness
When it comes to hiring, diversity has long been a problem in the outdoors industry. Six years ago, the National Park Service launched its Office of Relevancy, Diversity, and Inclusion to broaden its employment roster. Still, the NPS workforce is 83 percent white. Outdoors advocates say this imbalance affects how minorities perceive the outdoors just as much as the lack of diversity in imagery, as discussed below.
Increase Economic Accessibility to Create More Access Points for All
As touched on briefly in the last section, there are very real financial barriers to bringing more diversity to the outdoors. For instance, the cost of one week at Yellowstone National Park for a family of four, excluding airfare, is $1,200. For low-income families, such a trip to a distant park—or even a 30-minute excursion to a closer-by outdoors space—can be cost prohibitive.
Make Open Spaces More Representative, Culturally Relevant, and Cool
A graphic arts student at Western Washington University, Brooklyn Bell is a lover of nature and an avid outdoor athlete, but she says the outdoors don’t always feel culturally relevant, which is a barrier that cuts across socioeconomic lines. One of the problems may be an issue of marketing, as the parks (and the outdoors industry, generally) rarely target people of color, even those who can afford technical gear and outdoors vacations. “If I don’t see anybody there that looks like me, or is welcoming me in to the point where I would feel comfortable being in the space, I would just rather not be there,” Bell explained at the November brainstorm session.
The Public Can Help, Too
Ultimately, the parks belong to the public, and anyone can become an advocate of diversity. That doesn’t mean you have to launch your own nonprofit. It means becoming part of the conversation. Here is what you can do as a citizen to advance a more inclusive outdoors: