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Celebrating Diversity in the Outdoors

Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI). You may have heard these words, especially in the past few years amid political and social tensions. At CFPA, we are particularly interested in the diversity, or lack thereof, of leisure activities, especially of those who interact with the great outdoors. 

Connecting to the outdoors includes many diverse faces, but not everyone has been historically portrayed in a positive light in relation to the outdoors. In early colonial days, when the settlers first arrived, they encountered Native Americans whom they thought were “savages” and “barbaric” due to their close relationship with nature. The outdoors wasn’t seen as the beautiful place that it is thought to be today, rather it was more closely associated with fear and savagery. With the rise of the American conservation and preservation movements, headed by notable figures such as Gifford Pinchot, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold, the fear associated with the outdoors was transformed into curiosity, and more individuals began spending their time outdoors. When the National Parks came into fruition, this trend increased, and outdoor recreation became a mainstream way to vacation. 

However, as the notion of the outdoors evolved, so too did the types of people who participated in outdoor recreation. Those settlers who once were fearful of the wilderness and those associated with it, now became the dominant individuals spending time outdoors. Outdoor recreation, especially at the National Parks became a privilege that only the wealthy could afford, since after all, travel was required, and then subsequent fees were charged at the park gates, thus creating obstacles for individuals with limited incomes. During this same period, local municipal outdoor amenities like swimming pools were also often places where people of color were restricted, barred, or discriminated against.

The effects of these past efforts to exclude people of color from outdoor recreation are still evident today, though progress has been made. Many obstacles still exist for people of color, low-income individuals, disabled people, different genders, and those who identify on the LGBTQ+ spectrum to safely enjoy the outdoors. Some obstacles are correlated with historical traumas tied to the Jim Crow era and Native American relocation, but other challenges stem from fear because people of color can feel and be isolated in outdoor recreation spaces. Outdoor recreation often excludes disabled individuals because many trails are inaccessible. 

It doesn’t help that there is a lack of diversity in groups who have power to help shift the paradigm, including those in charge of environmental organizations. For example, the National Park Service lacks diversity both in employment and visitation. Visitors overwhelmingly identify as non-hispanic white, with approximately 78% of visitors identifying as such.1 NPS employment sees similar statistics, and employees are mostly male as well (~62%).2 

The forestry sector isn’t immune to these statistics either, with national employment of non-hispanic whites at a whopping 92% in 2020 (this statistic includes forestry support roles and logging).3 However, when we take a closer look at the historical beginnings of the environmental movement and subsequent stems of the movement, we see that the majority of individuals we credit with their start were white, such as the historic individuals noted previously. It is no wonder that environmental institutions and the outdoors lack diversity and representation because after all, their current leadership largely reflects these historical trends. CFPA isn’t immune to this trend either, but we are taking measures to foster diversity within the organization, through partnerships, and in the outdoors which we believe should be enjoyed by everyone.

CFPA is committed to support the individuals and organizations already working toward inclusivity in the outdoors. We have started by educating ourselves so we can effectively share and uplift the narratives of those advocating for social justice in the outdoors and the environmental movement. Using social media can be an excellent tool for spreading awareness, yet as we do this, we must also recognize the contribution the media has played in posing barriers to diversity in the outdoors through marketing and advertising strategies. We must recognize the past harms we’ve done, and look toward a future where diversity is the commonplace, not a marketing ploy, because when it comes down to it, social justice must be intertwined into everything we do.

Claire Nichols (she/her) studies Environmental Resource Management and Geographic Information Science at Arizona State University. She is a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar at Yale University and is passionate about policy, transit oriented development, and environmental justice.


[1] Root, T. (2017). Meet the People Behind the Movement to Diversity Our National Parks. National Geographic. 

[2] Sonken, L. (2020). National Park Service Continues to Grapple with Diversity in the Workforce. National Parks Traveler. 

[3] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020). Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey. 


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