The Outdoors Needs Us (2)

Part I: Click Here.

by Glenn Nelson

In a way, my in-laws are lucky to have been post-Civil-Rights-era immigrants, distanced from the albatross of a dark history in this country. They more easily embrace the notion of national parks as a singularly inspiring hunk of the U.S. that belongs to them.

My protestations about legality notwithstanding, my mother-in-law, Ligia, constantly is trying to take some of her parks home – even a pebble in her pocket is a piece of her American pie. Her sister Dora chatters on about “osos,” betraying a fear of bear attacks, but allows that concern to melt into reverence for “la montaña” (Mount Rainier). The eldest sister, Hila, drinks it all in – gulping breaths of pure, cleansing air and beholding each vista as if seeing beauty itself for the first time. The gift shops never are skipped, no matter how many souvenirs were acquired the time before, or the time before that.

Even if I do say so myself, my in-laws, as well as my daughters, have been fortunate to have me as a tour guide, a role I also hope to fill with this website. I’ve taken their hands and led them to places previously rooted only in imagination. Or they never knew existed. I’ve whetted their appetites with my photographs and stories. They’ve learned to surrender their spirits to the solitude and grandeur – the pristine nature – of a national park. The uplifting, cleansing and enlightening experiences have empowered them to better navigate whatever cacophonous, congested and convoluted trails that life places before them. At least for a spell. Then, for me, it’s time to go back out.

The bond that I have watched blossom in my own family convinces me that the tools for growing non-white attachment to the outdoors must be outreach and demystification, wrapped in education and opportunity. This isn’t about busing folks out to the parks, an approach already tried with public schools. The task is to encourage and allow people of color to become vested in the dream of a persisting wilderness for all. The alternative for the National Park Service, as well as the retail and services ecosystem surrounding it, will be a nosedive into obscurity. After all, a quickly growing population without a relationship with the wide-open spaces certainly will result in fading tax and consumer dollars for the outdoors.

Because of the latter, I hardly need to challenge current stakeholders and powers that be to place more urgency on making NPS units more accessible, convenient and approachable. The NPS has proposed doubling entrance fees in 2015, for example, because it legitimately has been underfunded and needs to address long-standing deficiencies and restore rolled-back services. Yet the NPS already knows fee hikes very likely will have a deleterious impact on attendance by marginalized groups. Its own survey cited high costs as the clear No. 2 reason that people of color said they did not visit. This is the double-edged reality the system faces.

Studies and surveys consistently reveal that people of color simply find the outdoors to be inhospitable. As the country becomes increasingly urban, the outdoors becomes a more critical haven and source of mental-health enhancement. And people of color, being the most urban Americans, need to feel not just welcomed, but entitled to use the outdoors as respite from the rat race of the big cities.

Some of the factors contributing to the lack of diversity in the outdoors are rooted in negative historical experience in this country. People who work the land, as people of color have done for centuries, either forcibly or under economic duress, won’t retreat to the “land” for respite. Though the historical factors fade with each passing generation, the parks ecosystem has failed miserably in helping people of color feel as if they belong. They rarely are shown to be outdoors, not only in mass media, which the parks and retailers don’t control, but more so in the advertising and marketing material that they do command. That should be a relatively simple fix.

Outreach and Education

It’s human nature to go where one feels welcomed, and to feel welcomed where there are others with whom one relates. This makes the issue of outdoors diversity somewhat of a Catch 22. We need people of color in the parks, but many to most will not go until they see other people of color in the parks. The logical solution is to better stock the parks with employees of color, to make the face of the parks friendlier to people of color. But that is daunting. If you’re targeting National Park rangers, the number of candidates of color among the main feeder group, seasonal employees, has dwindled to almost nothing. Plus, of course, the popularity of most of the downstream feeder groups – Outward Bound, Boy and Girl Scouts, for example – are in general decline.

The only real solution is recruitment, which at its core means outreach and education just to create the possibility of future career interest. If people of color don’t see themselves outdoors, they’ll never contemplate working there. That means, in large measure, bringing the outdoors to the inner cities. It means teaching the real physical and mental benefits of being outdoors, not trying shortcut solutions (concerts, more Internet and other human infrastructure) that not only are insulting, but defeat what should be the intrinsic appeal of the wilderness. Those kind of “easy,” uninspiring ideas also serve to Balkanize current stakeholders who have spent lifetimes laying the groundwork to preserve the pristine nature of the outdoors and only now are waking up to the real possibility that their efforts are slipping away.

Education and outreach is costly and effort-intensive. Recruitment will ring of the increasingly out-of-fashion notion of affirmative action. But rather than a make-it-right proposition, diversification of the outdoors is a survival issue, pure and simple. There is not choice but to pursue it.

There are of course two sides to every equation. So I also challenge people of color to accept what is theirs, and take it for a spin. No one gets 40 acres and a mule anymore. We share ownership in protected parcels of the landscape, paid for with our labor and suffering and, maybe most significantly, an ongoing expenditure of our tax dollars.

If you were being offered a car instead, even if it wasn’t in your favorite color or wasn’t your preferred mode of transportation, you’d at least take it for a test drive, wouldn’t you? The worst kind of rejection is passive, through ignorance or inaction, because you never know what you’re overlooking.

This doesn’t sound politically correct, but I can’t help but think of the outdoors as a drug, albeit one with infinitely positive affects. Try it once, and you’ll be hooked.

This is the kind of stuff I ponder out in the wild, which always seems to occasion a retreat further inward. I notice that other people of color are not sharing the experience. Because, yes, I always take note. And, whether it’s the primal bugling of elk, an exhilarating trek up a ridge, or a mind-rattling, seaside sunrise, I feel a certain sadness that they are missing out on something both profound and to which they certainly are entitled. Then I push forward, and this is where I landed.