The outdoor gap endangers our planet

Ava Ahmann

During the second half of my junior year of high school, I spent four months living and learning in the northwoods of Wisconsin at an environmentally-focused semester school called Conserve School. My time was immeasurably powerful, and completely anchored me in both a love of nature and an interest in environmental policy. Attending Conserve School at the time was completely free, aside from personal expenses, which was vital for my family.

But Conserve now charges $25,000 for attendance, placing it solidly amongst its fellow environmentally focused semester schools.

Conserve, when I was a student there, was already struggling to bring in a diverse group of students in regards to both socioeconomic backgrounds and race. The lack of diversity that I observed throughout my semester is a testament to the immense gap in participation in outdoor recreation.

Outdoor recreation is the umbrella term for any form of camping, hiking, or sports that take place in nature. In the U.S., outdoor recreation is a booming industry, contributing 2.2 percent of U.S. GDP in 2016. At the forefront are companies such as REI, whose slogan, “Get Outside,” falls in awkward contrast when one looks at the prohibitive cost of the goods they sell.

Beyond the cost of gear, accessing the outdoors means entering a white space. In 2017, 78 percent of National Parks visitors were white and just about seven percent were Black. This complete dominion of parks by white people leads to a lack of minority representation and advocacy. As our country’s population becomes increasingly diverse, we risk losing a chance to connect future politicians, business people, celebrities, etc. to nature if it continues to be dominated by white people. This spells out an unsure future for the status of national parks, and environmental resources as a whole in the U.S. In order for one to be ready to fight to protect a place, it is almost always necessary for them to feel connected to it.

Seeing something with your own eyes, whether it’s the steamboat geyser in Yellowstone National Park or the trails in Rock Creek Park, makes you a witness to that sights’ intrinsic value. It becomes synonymous with feelings and memories, grounded in the human experience.

People of color have always had a presence in parks, but that history has been neglected. The Buffalo Soldiers, the all-black U.S. Army Cavalry Regiments, served as the first park rangers at Yosemite and Sequoia. Many groups are looking to reclaim the outdoors, groups like Outdoor Afro and Latino Outdoors, fostering a community of people of color looking to get outside. If we uplift this history, and create a more accessible outdoors culture, then our natural lands stand a better chance of survival for generations to come. •