America’s first legally protected national park dates back to 1872 when the Yellowstone National Park Act was signed. More than two million acres of the public domain in Montana and Wyoming were "dedicated and set apart as a public park… for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." This set a precedent for placing other natural reserves under federal jurisdiction, and led to the Antiquities Act of 1906, from which almost a quarter of present-day National Park System designations originated. The National Park Service was officially established in 1916, claiming the mission “to preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”
Today, the system includes 423 areas covering more than 85 million acres across the entire U.S., and hosts millions of recreational visitors every year. Designated recreational land provides copious benefits for local communities, individuals, ecosystems, and economies.
The U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis found that outdoor recreation contributed $412 billion (2.2 percent) to GDP in 2016 and supported nearly 4.6 million jobs nationwide. Utah, for which outdoor recreation is the primary driver of the tourism industry, instituted the country’s first Office of Outdoor Recreation in 2013, and as of 2021, 16 states have followed suit.
These natural spaces, which can be used for anything from camping and hiking to birding and fishing, are opportunities for sustainable land management. Forests and grasslands help pull carbon out of the atmosphere and provide cleaner air for surrounding communities. Ecosystem conservation and restoration for recreational land promote biodiversity, improved water quality, and healthier soil. And research has repeatedly shown that access to the great outdoors contributes to physical and mental wellness.
Recreational land is good for all of us, and expanding access to nature is a more than worthy pursuit. In addition to growing the land we reserve for outdoor recreation in this country, its vital to recognize the ways in which true accessibility must be improved. The dark side of the annexation of the national parks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries includes the forcible removal of Indigenous people who had, in many cases, inhabited those lands for thousands of years.
The legacy of white-centered narratives around outdoor recreation lives on, and contributes to the exclusion of marginalized communities in those spaces; from the lack of diversity in American “wilderness” mythology (see: Daniel Boone, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Davy Crockett), to the literal barring of Black people from national and state parks prior to the all-to-recent Civil Rights Act of 1964. Still today, 83 percent of National Park Service employees are white and 62 percent are male. To understand why Black and Brown people may feel unsafe participating outdoor recreation, one needs to look only to the “Central Park birdwatching incident” of 2020, wherein Christian Cooper, a Black birdwatcher had the police called on him by a white woman after he asked her to keep her dog on a leash. The lack of non-white faces, diverse bodies, and varying physcial abilities in outdoors media and advertising contributes to marginalized communities feeling excluded from outdoor recreation as well.
People all over the U.S. are increasingly enthusiastic about outdoor adventuring. As we work to expand areas where nature can be enjoyed, we can also commit to making these opportunities available to anyone who wants to explore them. Resources for the Future, a nonprofit research institution in Washington, D.C., recommends advocating for increased funding for state and local parks: “Providing more public lands closer to where people live will improve access to outdoor recreation for people with more limited financial resources and could go a long way to promoting diversity in parks and public lands.” They also urge outdoor recreation offices to make diversity a focus: “New Mexico… has established an “Outdoor Equity Grant Program,” which partners with private businesses to provide grants to offset some of the costs of outdoor recreation for low-income youth, including equipment costs, entrance fees, and travel costs. Following up on the effectiveness of this new first-of-its-kind state initiative will be important and provide lessons for other states.”
Other avenues to increasing equity in outdoor recreation include more diverse representation in nature-oriented brands and media, making cultural sensitivity and inclusion a priority when hiring for jobs in conservation and nature nonprofits and businesses, creating resources for physically accessibility for people of all abilities and genders, and accruing wider education on Indigenous land acknowledgment.
There are so many organizations and individuals doing incredible work in this area. Supporting and learning from them is a great first step to take in promoting more accessible outdoor recreation!
Outdoor Afro is a national nonprofit network that celebrates and inspires Black connections and leadership in nature.
Latino Outdoors is a Latinx-led organization working to create a national community of leaders in conservation and outdoor education.
Pride Outside is dedicated to connecting the LGBTQ community around the outdoors; hosting hikes, outdoor skills classes, LGBTQ history working tours, discussions, and more.
Next 100 is a coalition of leaders, organizations, and individuals working towards a more just, equitable, diverse and inclusive public lands system and conservation movement.
The Wilderness Society is an organization dedicated to permanently protecting wilderness and public lands across the U.S.
Hike Clerb is an LA based intersectional women’s hike club and nonprofit founded to equip Black, Indigenous, women of color with the tools, resources and experiences they need to collectively heal in nature from Los Angeles and beyond.
Diversify Outdoors is a coalition of bloggers, athletes, activists, and entrepreneurs who share the goal of promoting diversity in outdoor spaces where people of color, LGBTQIA, and other diverse identities have historically been underrepresented.