Diversity in America’s Public Lands - Breaking Down Barriers


There is something so special to me about that first drive into a national park. For me, these sanctuaries offer a place to escape, a place to let my guard down, and a place to get lost in for hours, even days. Without the outdoors, I would not have the same outlook on life that I do today. I am privileged to have such great access to the outdoors and the resources to get me to these places. For millions of Americans, they get this same exact feeling entering these public lands around the US. In 2019 alone, there were 327.5 million recreational visits to US national parks. It is no doubt that these public parks have become a refuge and escape to a very urbanized world. These parks provide activities for all sorts of adventurers, whether you are trying to rock climb, take a hike, or just sit in some nature, the activities are endless. Yet, there is something major missing when you look at who actually makes it to the park entrances: diversity. Historically, visitors to public lands have been majority white Americans. It wasn’t until recently, after reading an article about it, that I truly noticed the disparity and paid attention to it. From all the happiness, the benefit, and the appreciation I have got for America’s public lands, I didn’t even think about those who are missing out. I am hoping, therefore, by discussing these barriers to participation I will make more people aware of these disparities and work to break down the barriers and let all people benefit from America’s natural beauty.

So what does this disparity actually look like?

When actually looking at the numbers collected by the US Forest Service, National Park Service, and Fish & Wildlife Service, these disparities come to fruition.



Data collected by these groups in 2018 shows that about 88-95% of visitors to public lands are in fact White, 3.8-6.7% are Latinx, and a minuscule 1-1.2% are Black Americans. This clearly shows a gap in serving America’s diverse communities. Obviously these numbers show massive disparities, but it really doesn’t start to make sense until you compare it to America’s recreational habits in general. It is not that these communities don’t value the outdoors and outdoor recreation, rather, it is harder for them to gain access to these public lands. An annual national survey by the outdoor recreation industry in 2018, which studied the participation of different racial groups in recreational activities, found that participation rates for Latinx, Whites, and Asian Americans was around 50%, and African Americans was around 34%. This statistic means that people of all races value recreational activities and outdoor recreation, so why don’t these numbers carry over to America’s public lands. Certain barriers, manifested by society consciously and subconsciously, create these disparities. We at nice as heck, therefore, want to address these issues and let people know that these problems exist in society in hopes of increased awareness and making public lands accessible to all. We value the great outdoors and want everyone to share in its benefits, not just certain groups of people.



The outdoors has historically been portrayed through white racial frames. Before the Civil Rights Act, Black Americans were banned from and or segregated at public recreation lands such as national parks and state parks. Inadvertently, this legacy lives on as national park exhibits and historical information only feature White Americans. This also carries over to employee staffing and industry practices as a whole, which are usually dominated by white males. 83% of National Park Service employees are white, and 62% are male. But what else drives them away from participating? In addition to this white racial framing, national parks and state parks are inherently farther away from cities. This means traveling to these locations is expensive. And, even worse, once they arrive they are hit with expensive entrance fees, and additional payments for camping. Even to get the equipment to camp is expensive. All of these costs create significant obstacles for low-income Americans to overcome. Not only do they need money, but they need plenty of time to achieve these trips. Because of these factors, it’s no wonder that these disparities exist. Even subconsciously, this affects outdoor groups and communities as these groups reinforce the exclusion of BIPOC members.

Although some of these problems may seem out of our reach in terms of the impact we can have in shaping a better future in America’s public lands, there are many steps we can take to initiate this change around us. Here are some steps we can take to begin undoing the harmful barriers that exclude communities from enjoying America’s beauty. This list only begins to scratch the surface of the systematic change that needs to be done in America, but it will work to address problems in the outdoor community at a local level and provide a step in the right direction.

  1. Educate yourself on the outdoors and learn about the historical exclusion and ethnic cleansing in our history.

America historically has excluded BIPOC communities from the outdoors and America’s public lands. In addition, much of America’s natural lands have been stolen from indigenous populations.

  1. Lobby for free admission and greater access to national parks and state parks in the US.

The best way to let people hear your voice is by using it. It’s time we let politicians know about the barriers that inhibit certain groups from the benefits of nature and accessibility to these places.

  1. Make the outdoors more inviting by joining local hiking groups, inviting friends, and creating a friendly environment.

The outdoors is about escaping and letting go. It should be open to all so that they can enjoy these benefits as well. Focus on making the environment around you inviting and friendly, and don’t forget to bring friends with you. Experiencing is the best way to bring people together.



Work Cited

“Annual Visitation Highlights.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 27 Feb. 2020, www.nps.gov/subjects/socialscience/annual-visitation-highlights.htm.

Askew, Reyna, and Margaret Walls. “Diversity in the Great Outdoors: Is Everyone Welcome in America's Parks and Public Lands?” Pg. 1-6. Resources for the Future, 24 May 2019, www.resourcesmag.org/common-resources/diversity-in-the-great-outdoors-is-everyone-welcome-in-americas-parks-and-public-lands/. 

Bell, Brooklyn, et al. “Five Ways to Make the Outdoors More Inclusive.” Pg. 6-25. The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 2018, www.theatlantic.com/sponsored/rei-2018/five-ways-to-make-the-outdoors-more-inclusive/3019/.

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