Outdoor industry looks to attract minorities

Posted: Friday, October 07, 2005

Bunyan Bryant has camped by the shores of Lake Huron for decades and usually sees the same thing: green trees, blue skies and white people.

‘‘I seldom see other African-Americans or even other minorities camping,’’ said Bryant, director of the Environmental Justice Initiative at the University of Michigan. ‘‘Sometimes they might be with another church group or something like that, but truly speaking it doesn’t happen.’’

It’s the same story from New York’s Adirondacks to Arizona’s canyons: There’s a lack of ethnic and racial diversity in the outdoor areas where people hike, camp, mountain bike, paddle and picnic. At a time when minority populations are growing, wilderness advocates and administrators are reaching out to blacks, Hispanics and Asians.

‘‘We’re only serving part of the public now and we aspire to represent many, many people who are not using all the public lands,’’ said Neil Woodworth of the Adirondack Mountain Club.

The Outdoor Industry Foundation this summer reported that only 6 percent of people taking part in outdoor activities such as hiking and kayaking last year were black and 4 percent were Hispanic — while blacks and Hispanics combine to make up 27 percent of the U.S. population.

The U.S. Forest Service found similar trends in Arizona, where whites accounted for 88 percent or more of the visitors to the six national forests in that state.

Economic and geographic conditions have something to do with it — think of a city dweller who lacks a car, or even the money to buy a tent. But money has become less a factor as more blacks and Hispanics enter the middle class, said Alan Spears, associate director of cultural diversity programs at the National Parks Conservation Association.

Advocates and academics say cultural factors can play a large part. Marta Maldonado of Iowa State University’s sociology department said the concept of ‘‘wilderness’’ is a western European idea, not one necessarily shared by minority groups. As U.S. Forest Chief Dale Bosworth noted in a speech early this year, ‘‘The face of conservation has traditionally been rural and white. ‘‘

For blacks descended from sharecroppers, camping might have associations of living on a farm and of poverty, Bryant said. Hispanics whose families are new to this country might have the same sort of negative associations with roughing it, Spears said.

Reasons for avoiding the woods vary among different groups. Spears notes, for instance, that national parks sites with a direct cultural relevance to blacks, such as the Frederick Douglass home in Washington, D.C., tend to be in urban areas.

And some minorities view the woods as unwelcome territory.

‘‘It’s all couched under a larger fear that maybe, with some of these public lands, you’re going to run into white supremacists in camouflage clothing running seven-man assault drills or something like that,’’ Spears said.

Whatever the reasons, advocates for public land use are concerned. Aside from wanting to make sure the widest range of people take advantage of natural areas, the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Woodworth noted that minorities represent a growing constituency that will be weighing in on land-use policies.

Woodworth’s group has a number of programs aimed at introducing minority kids to the outdoors. The Breakfree program run by its mid-Hudson Valley chapter takes high school students in Poughkeepsie out to climb mountains, camp overnight or paddle up the Hudson.

‘‘We have to make the effort to say ‘You’re welcome here,’’’ said Breakfree’s Tom Lint.

Similarly, the National Wildlife Federation’s Earth Tomorrow program targets inner-city kids in Houston, Atlanta, Detroit, Seattle and elsewhere. The kids fish, hike or listen to talks on endangered species.

Federal officials also have been trying to make parks more hospitable to a wider array of people.

Improvements to the Applewhite Picnic Area in California’s San Bernardino National Forest include bilingual signs, hosts who speak Spanish and larger picnic tables to accommodate bigger groups. Now, about 80 percent of the people using Applewhite are Hispanic, an increase from years past, said Deborah Chavez of the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station.

Chavez notes it can be difficult to promote park areas to Hispanics, since they tend to respond more to word of mouth than advertisements and brochures. That’s why so many advocates focus on outreach: When people start showing up in wilderness areas, the problem often takes care of itself.

‘‘Once you get people to the Grand Canyon,’’ Spears said, ‘‘you don’t have to do a lot of talking.’’

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