“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” Wallace Stegner said that, in 1983. That viewpoint, however, has come under ever greater scrutiny as we move into a century that will see a white minority by the year 2044 or 2045, according to U.S. Census data projections. The National Park Service has taken note of this and have consequently initiated outreach programs to minority groups in an effort to save their own lives. Why? Because outdoors spaces, national parks specifically, are and have been predominantly white, straight, cisgendered spaces. In recent decades this has become an unconscious trend, where minorities simply don’t see themselves reflected in the park advertisements or in park employment; on the other hand, this stems from a long history of racism that includes a park ranger telling Henry X. Finney, who had returned from the Korean War, “Sorry, we don’t hire Negroes” (As quoted in Carolyn Finney’s Black Faces White Spaces). (As a side note, NPS employment remains about 83% white.) With a rapidly changing demographic underway, the very life of the parks is in question. If these spaces are predominantly white, and there will be fewer white people to visit them in the future, the question of sustainability becomes increasingly more significant. More importantly, and central to this story, is that this particular issue that the National Park Service is trying to tackle extends to the outdoors industry as a whole.
In 2009 NPS conducted 4,103 fifteen-minute phone interviews with a broad range of random subjects that included not only whites, but also African-American, Native American, Hispanic and Asian interviewees. On the whole, African-American and Hispanic subjects reported that they either: 1) knew very little about the National Park System, 2) felt unsafe in those spaces, 3) felt unpleasant, or 4) that they believed those spaces provided poor service (NPS Survey, v). There are various reasons for this. For readers who may be unaware, many national parks were founded on what used to be land “owned” by Native Americans and those first nations peoples were “evacuated” by the U.S. government to make that space available to a (primarily) white population—there were some exceptions, such as the National Parks’ Buffalo Soldiers; however, one of their missions was to keep indigenous populations from returning to those places. The state owned and operated Fall River-Freetown State Forest here in Massachusetts, for instance, use to be Wampanoag land, and a little over 200 acres of it remains a Wampanoag reservation. While the National Park Service undergoes facial reconstruction, it does so against the backdrop of a very long, at times very violent, and very difficult history of prejudice.
This problem not only subsists within the national parks system, but also extends to the much wider industry of outdoors clothing and adventure brands. The outdoors industry, consciously or not, puts forth the view that getting outside has to be done in a certain way: if you’re not visiting national parks, climbing the biggest walls, paddling the most extreme rapids, thru-hiking the AT, PCT or CDT, or riding the most gnarly mtb trails, you’re doing it wrong. (For more on this aspect of the outdoors industry and the elite athletes at its frontier, climbing in particular, check out my piece on dirtbags and their fantasies.) It’s not as if everybody is just sitting in the house all day going back and forth from work and doing nothing else. What is true is that minorities often access outdoors spaces differently than their white counterparts. Visiting a state or local park, rather than a national one, can be a very colorful experience: salsa music blasting on someone’s blue tooth speaker, a pick-up soccer match underway, families grilling, sharing food, laughing. Having a barbeque is getting outside; going to the beach is getting outside; taking a walk in the forest is getting outside; going on a picnic is getting outside. Immediately below are a series of ads from two of the biggest brands in the outdoors industry. Notice anything? Now, to be fair, many of these brands have ads with people of color, but they do not appear at the top of Google search results.
We, as members of the outdoors community, should not brush off lack of participation, or the optics of such, as lack of desire. If someone feels a certain way about a certain space, they may have very good reason for it. In addition to the long history of racism in the parks, it’s easy to empathize with someone who may not feel welcome because they are not represented; or how that lack of representation might mean that that activity is not for them. One participant from REI’s first LGBTQ Outdoors Summit, held Friday the 13th, October of 2017 in Seattle, summed it up nicely: “When you don’t see yourself represented, it’s easy to think you’re not welcome, either subconsciously or consciously” (Quoted in Parris). It’s easy to dismiss such attitudes as being overly sensitive, to argue that the outdoors is there for everyone and all you need do is find a park and go. However, this argument becomes difficult to maintain over larger slices of the pie, when a great number of people from any given demographic feel unwelcome. We need to shift our thinking on this and understand that certain entire groups of people may feel the way they do for very, very good reasons—not the least of which have already been discussed. Trans and other minority groups face much higher risk of assault, violence and crime than do their white counterparts. Those numbers get even higher when communities overlap—if someone is gay, black, and female, for instance. In January of 2019, the University of Washington’s Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center published a report that found that 80% of hate crimes are motivated by race, ethnicity, orientation, religion, etc. The truth is that the path to equal participation in the parks, and the outdoors more generally, is much more complicated than it may first appear.
Another reason many don’t get out more is based purely on economics. Minorities, across the board, live in much higher rates of poverty. For those struggling to make ends meet, a trip to a national park or an extended outdoor vacation/excursion, never enters the equation. When you’re worried about putting food on the table, or whether you should, in fact, go grocery shopping or buy home heating fuel (“heat or eat”), you tend not to worry about planning your next adventure. The irony of being poor is that it is so damned expensive. Poverty means an inability to buy in bulk at discount clubs; it means the inability to afford new, or very reliable used, vehicles; poverty means financing at higher interest rates due to inherent (or perceived) risk; it means bad or no credit; the poor face higher rates of eviction; it means being unable to leave an undesirable rental because it’s impossible to come up with the capital to move. Recent data making the rounds in the media right now revolves around precisely that: rents in highly desirable areas are not that different from rents in less desirable sectors. Again, due to the risk landlords see in taking on low-income tenants. 15% of trans folx report earning around 10k per year, as compared to just 4% making that amount in the general population. That’s nearly a 300% higher rate of poverty! It is therefore much more likely that someone subsisting in one of the demographics above who does go outside, stays much closer to home. It is also very likely that such a person does not have the capital to purchase the kind of equipment necessary for extended excursions or adventure-type vacations. Cut-rate prices can be found in every sector on virtually every item; but the adage, “what’s cheap is not good, and what’s good is not cheap” may be truer in the outdoors industry than in any other.
Going hand in hand with the economic angle is that of free time. Poorer people who work jobs that pay minimum wage, or earn an income at or near the poverty line, tend to work more jobs and longer hours for lower returns. Those of us lucky enough (through hard work or privilege) to own our own homes, or have a rental that includes or has space for washers and dryers, probably don’t even think about the swarths of people who have to plan their day around going to the laundry mat every week: the travel, the folding, the packing up the kids and the car (if they have one), the making sure you have everything, etc. How nice it is to walk into my basement, throw a load in, forget about it, go do something else, come back later, pop it in the dryer and not have to worry about some asshole stealing my unmentionables. For the less fortunate, even days off may be spent planning, budgeting, multi-tasking, or perhaps even seeking more or better employment. The last thing entering this person’s mind is which mountain they are going to climb when the weekend gets here.
All that being said, it’s not all doom and gloom. Changes are underway. Projects such as Venture Out, Outdoor Afro, Brothers of Climbing, Greening Youth Foundation, Brown Girls Climb, and co-ops/outdoor brands such as REI are teaming up with underserved and underrepresented populations to work on making these spaces more inclusive. REI, for example, has teamed up with Instagrammer Mikah Meyer to “help share inclusion in outdoors culture”. Mikah’s IG account, @mikahmey, regularly features him at amazing locations waving the rainbow flag, and his account bears the bragging rights of being the first person to visit all 419 national parks in a single trip, over three years! There is also Len Necefer, an Assistant Professor at University of Arizona, founder of Natives Outdoors and the website Diversify Outdoors:
a coalition of social media influencers – bloggers, athletes, activists, and entrepreneurs – who share the goal of promoting diversity in outdoor spaces where people of color, LGBTQIA, and other diverse identities have historically been underrepresented.
There is also the Instagram account @fatgirlforthefitsoul. I haven’t said anything about being fat and being outside; that’s a whole other essay. Lots is happening right now. Our National Park Service, as well as the wider outdoors community and its brands, recognizes that if they are going to stay relevant, thrive, they need to market themselves to a broader spectrum of users. (I’m waiting on permission from a couple more IG accounts to post more pics. Please check back later.)
In part two of this essay, coming next week, I will dive a little more into the specific changes that are happening on this front, as well as what more needs to be done to affect these changes. Until then, get out there: no matter who you are.
All photos were used with permission of the owners or are mine. From top to bottom: Mikah Meyer, a family playing soccer, @fatgirlforthefitsoul, Greening Youth Foundation.
“2017 National Population Projections Table.” United States Census Bureau, 09/06/2018, https://www.census.gov/data/tables/2017/demo/popproj/2017-summary-tables.html. Accessed on 06/29/2019.
“Blacks, minorities disproportionately impacted by hate crimes.” Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center, 01/09/2019, https://depts.washington.edu/hiprc/blacks-minorities-disproportionately-impacted-by-hate-crimes/ Accessed on 06/29/2019
Colby, Sandra L. and Jennifer Ortman. “Projections of the Size and Composition of the U.S. Population: 2014-2060.” U.S. Census Bureau, March 2015. https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2015/demo/p25-1143.pdf. Accessed 06/25/2019
Nelson, Glen. “Why are Our Parks so White? NY Times, Opinion. July 10, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/12/opinion/sunday/diversify-our-national-parks.html. Accessed on 06/24/2019
Parris, Aer. “The First LGBTQ Outdoor Summit: Why We Need to Talk About Queer Communities When We Talk About the Outdoors”. REI Coop Journal. https://www.rei.com/blog/stewardship/the-first-lgbtq-outdoor-summit. Accessed on 06/28/2017
Rodriguez, Donald. Et. Al. “Engaging and Connecting Non-traditional Minority Audiences and National Parks: Literature Review and Critical Analysis.” NPS.gov. file:///C:/Users/THEPRO~1/AppData/Local/Temp/Engaging_New_Audiences_final-2.pdf. Accessed on 06/23/2019.
Taylor, Patricia A, Burke D. Grandjean and James H. Gramann. “National Park Service Comprehensive Survey of the American Public, 2008-2009: Racial and Ethnic Diversity of National Park System Visitors and Non-Visitors.” NPS.org. U.S. Department of the Interior, July, 2011. https://mylearning.nps.gov/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Racial-and-Ethnic-Diversity-of-National-Park-System-Visitors-and-Non-Visitors-2008-2009.pdf. Accessed on 06/25/2019