Outdoors For All ~ Where to begin?

When it comes to discussing complex social issues it’s hard to know where to start. This summer I’m scheduled to teach a course on diversity and inclusion in outdoor recreation called Outdoors For All at the University of Wisconsin Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies. As a linear thinker my first inclination was to begin the class with an  in-depth exploration of the cultural circumstances that got us where we are today, a nation tragically divided alone racial and socio-economic lines. For a variety of different reasons there are too many people in our country who have a limited, or even non-existent relationship with the natural world. Divisions between those who spend time in nature for the purposes of recreation and those who don’t, which I call the Adventure Gap, is such a weighty topic for a four-week college course. So I decided that the place to start isn’t in the past, but in the present.

Recently I walked along a 3-mile section of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. Near the town of Cornell, Wisconsin on the banks of the Chippewa River, this part of the path is lined with trees budding new leaves after a long winter. There were more varieties of blooming wildflowers than I could count, let alone identify. And there was a fresh crisp fragrance in the air under a crystal clear blue sky. Maybe it was lavender.  Between April rain showers on this beautiful spring day I experienced one of those perfect moments in life when you realize just how precious and fragile the natural environment can be. I saw a sign, literally.

“This trail is maintained entirely by volunteers!” it read. Without ambiguity this signpost declared simply that the Ice Age Trail is made possible only through the selfless contributions of time and effort, physical labor, donated by ordinary people dedicated to the preservation of nature for the benefit of others. In this simple message I understood that like most of the natural world this beautiful piece of public land is protected by conscientious individuals willing to get their hands dirty so that people they will never meet can have a place to experience the outdoors.

The concept of “Outdoor For All” I believe hinges on the principle that nature works best when it is made available for everyone use and share in its protection. The IAT provides meaningful access to old growth forests, tall grass prairies and oak savannas throughout the state of Wisconsin. More than 1,200 miles of the circuitous route from the Door Peninsula on Lake Michigan to the St. Croix River on the Minnesota boarder are carefully groomed not by paid government employees or private contractors at taxpayers’ expense, but by volunteer men and women who want to preserve a place they love. The IAT links together both rural and urban communities through a shared appreciation for the value of healthy soil, clean water and a thriving ecosystem for plants, animals and human beings that everyone can enjoy.

But when left exclusively to the passionate desires of even the most committed stewards of the land wildlife settings like the IAT are at risk of neglect, abuse or even destruction. State and federal funding funding for environmental protection is being cut at an alarming rate. As our social priorities shift in favor of natural resource extraction rather than conservation we have to do more to build a broader, more diverse constituency of environmental activists that includes even those who for cultural or economic reasons choose not to spend time in the outdoors. If we are going to preserve this and other wild areas for future generations it is critically important to make the natural world culturally and socially relevant to as many people as possible so that they will love them as well. The things in life that we love most are those that we are most likely to protect.

Like many of our natural resources it’s easy to take the Ice Age Trail for granted. A unit of the National Park Service the IAT falls under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of the Interior, but it is maintained by the volunteer members of a non-profit support organization called the Ice Age Trail Alliance. With several hundred members across the state this group of private citizens does the important work necessary to keep the trail open and accessible to all. Similar groups work to support other national scenic trails like the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. But sadly, like most organizations charged with protecting the natural environment, the IATA is populated almost exclusively by socially mobile, upper middle class white people over the age of 50. Though it does not actively discriminate against people of color, the young or those of limited economic means the IATA, like the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the Trust For Public Land, etc…struggles to make its membership reflect the emerging demographic reality of the U.S. population. As communities of color and the number of those who live in cities grow to become the majority of citizens, you have to wonder if they will be inspired and inclined to protect these wild places with the same enthusiasm of past generations.

As a board member of the IATA I am deeply concerned that so few people of color have joined our organization and participate in the maintenance of the Ice Age Trail. The Alliance is certainly open for anyone to participate, but as an organization I believe that we can do more to directly reach out to segments of the population that are under represented among our membership. Our internal staff at the IATA has worked diligently to address the issue of diversity and inclusion, by engaging with local partners who serve the interests of African-American, Hispanic, Native American, Hmong and other non-white communities across the state of Wisconsin. However, with marginal success I believe that we must find more compelling ways to make the natural world more relevant to the lives of those who think, for whatever reason, that they can do without it. The question of course is how?

I’ve come to the conclusion that it is unproductive to delve too deeply into the historical reasons why various social or ethnic groups might feel alienated from the natural world. I think that it is better to first explore the many reasons why the outdoors should have special meaning for anyone. Let’s assume for a moment that the disparity between those who spend time in nature and those who don’t does not exist. Why would anyone want to have a relationship with the outdoors?

Like the IATA itself it’s easy to take for granted the vital resources of fresh air, clear water, nutritious food and open space to roam free. Those of us who live in cities are too often disconnected from these essential elements that come directly from nature. But the air we breath, the water we drink, the food we eat are only possible because of a healthy ecosystem. If we can begin our efforts to protect the natural world with the insistence that everyone is entitled to these basic human rights we can start to consider how we might make the outdoors more easily accessible to everyone.

“A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people. ” ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt

Not unlike this course I believe that our efforts to protect the natural environment must begin with this basic understanding. Though it might seem far removed from our busy urban lives surrounded by concrete, asphalt, steel and glass the natural world is still all around us. If we are indeed going to protect it we must welcome and encourage the participation of every citizen. The recreation resources that we enjoy today are only made possible thanks to the support of common people. And as governmental support, both financially and legislatively continues to shrink  our reliance upon the stewardship of committed volunteers will only grow larger. For the protection of the natural world we must create a cultural environment where the outdoors is for all.

 

The course Outdoors For All will run through the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays for 4 weeks, beginning June 20 through July 13, from 1 p.m.-4:10 p.m. View official class information in the UW-Madison course guide.

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Author:James

I’m a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.