America's Great Outdoors Diversity Initiative

 

Protecting the environment for future generations is great idea. In fact it’s a notion so simple that you might wonder why it took a White House committee ten months, 52 public listening sessions and a 116-page document to express what any lover of nature knows by heart. Unveiled in February by President Obama, America’s Great Outdoors report offers a comprehensive list of recommendations to preserve wilderness and recreation areas throughout the United States for decades if not centuries to come. It’s a thorough series of  proposals that provide logical solutions that aim to engage more citizens in

outdoor activities. But this plan, devised by the most racially diverse administration in our nation’s history, ironically seems to neglect an excellent opportunity to make the great outdoors more relevant to the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population: people of color.

To be fair, AGO is a bold and ambitious initiative. Launched in April of 2010 it identifies ten eco-boosting opportunities that include the creation of jobs, improved access to wilderness, support of stewardship programs, engaging youth and the establishment of urban parks. Each aspect of the report implies direct community involvement and recommends specific tactics that aim to raise awareness for the importance of environmental protection. But nowhere in the initiative's summary is there an explicit strategy to reach out to segments of the population traditionally underrepresented in outdoor recreation, such as African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and American Indians.The AGO report fails to acknowledge and aim to rectify the disproportionate lack of involvement of non-white people in outdoor recreation and environmental conservation. For decades, studies have shown that the number of minorities who visit national, state and local parks are conspicuously low, relative to their percentage of the population. The same is true for membership in wilderness protection organizations. If this trend continues, as demographics in the U.S. shift to favor a non-white majority, it stands to reason that within two generations a constituency of citizens who support environmental preservation will be too small to participate in the political activities and fundraising that will maintain wilderness areas into the future.

“The AGO concept is a great opportunity to get more people outdoors,” said Bill Gwaltney Assistant Regional Director for Workforce Enhancement at the National Park Service in Denver. “But in order for it to be truly successful we have to make those opportunities real for previously underrepresented communities.” Without changing any of the goals or principles laid out in the AGO report an added recommendation could include the creation of outreach initiatives that specifically target communities of color. “The face of America is changing,” Gwaltney said. “Every policy will have to keep this in mind, not for political reasons but for practical reasons. We still live in a hyphenated America.”

Diversity initiatives to bring more minorities into outdoor recreation will have to utilize non-traditional methods of communication to reach a new audience.  Gwaltney and others suggest that communities must be engaged directly, using language and images they can relate to.

“If we’re not going to ethnic specific media to get this message out,” Gwaltney said, "we’re not in the game.”

Nina Roberts, an associate professor in the depart of recreation at San Francisco State University, said that while casting a broad net to appeal to all Americans the AGO could be missing a very important opportunity. “My question to the powers that be is: are they being intentional with messaging?” Roberts asks. “I think the ultimate communication channels and any outgrowth of programs and/or initiatives must include racial/ethnic minority communities.”

The concern among many who follow diversity issues in the conservation movement is that very little could change. Despite the AGO’s goals, the message of wilderness preservation could continue to circulate exclusively through its well established audience: college-educated, socially-mobile, economically-secure white people over the age of 30. But activists like Juan Martinez, coordinator of the Children & Nature Network in Los Angeles believe that the plan’s focus on young people could provide all the diversity it needs.

“This is the most diverse, most community oriented, the most service oriented generation ever,” Martinez said. “That’s the key, that’s the difference. In the past when there has been a focus on the environment there hasn’t been a focus on the youth.” The new generation of youth who will lead the emerging demographic of a non-white majority may simply make race and ethnicity irrelevant.

“Young people today are self-identifying less and less as a particular ethnicity,” Martinez said. “They’re not checking the box, African-America, Latino, or what have you. They’re more embracing intergenerational communication connecting with their peers across racial lines.”

And as environmental protection rises in the estimation of our youth, this growing, ethnically diverse cohort will undoubtedly lead the way forward. But we cannot take that for granted. Just as we are taking proactive steps to preserve the integrity of our land, air and water, we should be equally diligent to ensure that those who enjoy these natural resources include all segments of the U.S. population. As America’s Great Outdoors initiative gets underway it stands to reason that a conservation movement that reflects the diversity of our nation is a critical aspect of this program that cannot be denied.

Essays in the Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

James Edward Mills is a freelance journalist and independent media producer. His latest work can be found on his blog The Joy Trip Project.

Image from American Great Outdoors Initiative report.


High Country News Classifieds
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening in its Salt Lake City office for a staff attorney. SUWA's...
  • DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST
    Idaho Walk Bike Alliance seeks a lover of bicycling, walking, and all modes of active transportation who willingly puts the car in the garage and...
  • COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Friends of Inyo - the Communications Director is a full-time permanent position that reports to the Executive Director and utilizes communication strategies and production skills...
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR
    High Country News seeks an editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk. This individual will lead a team of passionate journalists...
  • HIKING TO THE EDGE:
    Confronting Cancer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Poetry and photos on survival thinking. E-book and paperback available at Amazon.com.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • IPLC RIGHTS AND EQUITY PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FUTURE WEST
    Future West seeks an executive director to lead this dynamic organization into the future. Based in Bozeman, MT this well-respected nonprofit provides communities in the...
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • COMMUNICATIONS LEAD
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR
    Since 1989, The Nature Conservancy in Alaska has been doing work you can believe in protecting the lands and waters that all life depends on....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.