Oregonians are known for their love of the outdoors, but not everybody has equal access to nature.
People of color, people with disabilities and other historically marginalized groups have long faced barriers in accessing the outdoors.
More than 250 people from government agencies, nonprofits and businesses gathered at the Oregon Zoo on Feb. 15 to discuss the many barriers facing members of these communities and brainstorm opportunities and strategies to overcome them.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, First Gentleman Dan Little and former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell headlined the day-long event, called the Roadmap to the Outdoors Symposium. They shared ways to create safe and welcoming places and innovative community partnerships so that everyone can participate in outdoor recreation.
The symposium was an outgrowth of the Oregon Outdoor Recreation Initiative, a statewide effort between government agencies, businesses, conservation groups and recreational users to expand access to the outdoors and to boost the economic impact and sustainability of the state’s outdoor recreation industry.
“Those of us who grew up in the outdoors make assumptions,” said Sally Jewell, a former president and CEO of REI who served as Interior Secretary from 2013 to 2017. “How do we help bridge people from where they are – no matter where that is – to where they need to go?”
For instance, an REI study showed that for Latinos, “the outdoor activities were about family groupings, water and activities,” she said. “If Gov. Brown’s campsites are set up in these isolated, individual campsites, that doesn’t work if you have a large family.”
Cost barriers are another hurdle, Brown said. A plan to raise fees for national parks “is absolutely the wrong message we want to be sending to the public right now.” In Oregon, free state parks days and free camping days each year help expose children to the outdoors, she said.
“I don’t think anything about plunking down $25 or $30 for a Sno-Park pass,” Brown said. “For a lot of families, that is a huge financial challenge, just having the pass, the equipment, the transportation.”
It’s also important to ensure people of color see themselves represented throughout state government, including on the more than 300 state boards and commissions, Brown said.
“Diversity and equity can’t be the frosting on the cake. It has to be the flour. It has to be the integral part of what we’re building,” she said. “We need to be asking them, ‘What is it you need? What barriers are out there? What can we do to make this a comfortable, enjoyable experience for you?’”
Many of the event’s panelists are people of color, and they offered plenty of suggestions for improvements.
“The thing that has been very successful is working with and through community leaders who are trusted in the community,” said Tricia Tillman, co-founder of African American Outdoor Association, which organizes group outings for black people. “Definitely a lot of word-of-mouth outreach.”
Safety is a serious concern for black people in the outdoors, she said, so having people trust her organization with their physical safety means a lot.
“In the years we’ve been operating, we’ve had hundreds of people join us to kayak for the first time when they didn’t know how to swim and people who would get out in the snow,” she said. “I think part of the culture shift that’s also happening is rediscovering and finding a way to get to healing through all the trauma that has happened to black people in the woods, in the rivers, in rural parts of Oregon and the rest of the U.S.”
Other panelists throughout the day talked about the need to introduce children to nature at a young age, including through outdoor school or internship programs to prepare them for careers in the outdoor recreation or conservation fields.
“When we talk about the outdoors, it’s not just how do we get people to go out and hike,” said Jorge Guzman, executive director and founder of Vive Northwest, which connects Latinos with the outdoors. “How do we get people to take advantage of job opportunities?”
Facilitators also led symposium participants in small-group discussions to brainstorm strategies, including a to-do list for the new state Office of Outdoor Recreation. The ideas gathered at the symposium and through an online survey will be compiled and discussed by partners to be incorporated into an action plan.
“The challenge is preparing ourselves for a future,” said Chuck Sams, interim executive director of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. “Nature does not know race. Nature only knows diversity.”