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
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.