The Pathways Project: Beyond Affinity

The Pathways Project: Beyond Affinity

The weather on this August day in Atlanta was seasonably warm. That is to say, it was hot! But when confronted by the realities of climate change everyone seemed to think it was a lot hotter than it should have been. The temperature was well above 95º Fahrenheit as we walked along the trails of the East Palisades section of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Sweat poured down my face and completely drenched my clothes. Despite the heat on a sunny Saturday morning the parking lot was full and dozens of people came out to experience the joy of nearby nature.

It’s easy to take for granted the natural beauty that’s all around us. The Chattahoochee River traces a path of more than 100 miles from a tiny spring in the Chattahoochee National Forest all the way to the city of Atlanta. From the moment I first came to visit in 2015 I have been amazed by the accessibility of this vast recreation area nestled among tall skyscrapers and a bustling interstate highway system. Less than 30 minutes from downtown by car is a wonderful network of trails for an easy to moderate hike to an observation deck that offers a scenic overlook of the river below. For the price of $5 for a one-day parking pass anyone with a good reason can visit this incredible site that’s open to the public most days from dawn until dusk.

“That’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you about,” said my friend Michela Williams, an aspiring young employee of the United States Forest Service. “It’s the ‘why?’. What do I tell people when they ask me, why should I come to the outdoors? To a place like this?”

At the core of her question lies one of the great mysteries of the modern conservation movement. Those of us who have spent a lifetime as enthusiastic stewards of the natural world as visitors to our national parks and local recreation areas may find it hard to comprehend the confusion. But it’s important to understand that for many people a love of nature does not come naturally. With biting insects, the prospects of dehydration or physical exhaustion and poor cell phone reception the experience for many leaves a great deal to be desired. In our society built around comfort and convenience it’s difficult to imagine why anyone would willingly subject themselves to a rigorous of hike on a hot, humid Georgia day in midsummer for pleasure.

“That’s something I’ve wondered myself,” I told her as we walked. “I suppose that’s not a question that can be answered for you. Instead I think we can provide people with good examples and opportunities to experience nature so that they can answer that question for themselves.”

Everyone has their own reasons why they spend time in nature… or not. But as true stewards of the land I believe that we have do whatever we can to make the outdoors as welcoming and accessible as possible, while still preserving the integrity of its ecological balance. There may come a time when only those with just the right amount of disposable income and leisure time can afford the luxury of a walk in the woods. But with compassion for a person’s fear, concern, discomfort or apprehension I think we can help anyone with a sincere desire to learn and find a clear pathway into the natural world.

Michela, like many of us with a passion for environmental conservation, is looking to find some practical ways to get people from a variety of different backgrounds into the outdoors. As visitors exceed the capacity of most national parks or forests year after year, the idea isn’t necessarily to bring more people into nature. Rather the future of conservation depends upon our ability to diversify the community of environmental stewards so that it reflects the population as a whole. As I have described in my book The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors, there is currently a disparity among participants in outdoor recreation and environmental conservation that falls squarely along racial, cultural and socio-economic lines. I believe that if we create positive opportunities for everyone to experience nature in meaningful ways we can reduce or even eliminate some of the most common barriers to access.

In recent years one of the most effective vehicles for better diversity and inclusion in the outdoors has been the creation of affinity groups. Organizations such as Outdoor Afro, Brown Girls Climb, Latino Outdoors, Unlikely Hikers and Out There Adventures have established communities where people with shared cultural identities and values can gather to experience nature in a safe and supportive group setting. They organize meet-ups for hikes or paddling trips or scenic bike rides through parks and forests both close to town and far from home. Through these affinity groups there has been a marked increased in visual representation among people of color, adaptive athletes and the LGBTQ community on social media and even in mainstream print and online publications. This growing cross section of outdoor enthusiasts is slowly beginning to better reflect the population as a whole.

I’m personally thrilled to see that there are more black, brown, gay, trans, plus-sized and differently abled folks in the world unapologetically living their best lives in full view for all to see. As the broad community of outdoor enthusiasts expands to be more diverse and inclusive I’m left to wonder, what more can we do to not only make everyone welcome in the outdoors but to encourage them to play an active role its long-term preservation.

When we insist upon full participation among all citizens in the protection of our natural resources then we will begin to see greater equity in the manner in which our public lands are managed. If we can go beyond mere representation through affinity groups and work toward active engagement we can start finding ways to address the environmental interests and needs of all people. In addition to telling the stories the native Americans who first occupied this land for thousands of years before colonization, we can also interpret the contributions of many others whom history so often forgets. People of color have an enduring legacy of environmental stewardship and by telling their stories I believe that we can reverse many of the negative impacts of pollution and waste disposal that for decades now disproportionately impact the urban communities in which we live.

With a fully affirmed appreciation for nature we can also encourage these under represented groups to join and become leaders of nonprofit environmental groups like the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society or the Trust For Public Land. They could become employees or chief executives at outdoor industry companies like Patagonia, Columbia, the North Face or REI. And like Michela we could inspire these outdoor enthusiasts to become staffers a the National Park Service, the United States Forest Service or the Department of Fish & Wildlife 

Here in the city of Atlanta along the banks of the Chattahoochee River we welcome a new generation of environmental stewards into the natural world. Despite the heat of summer the trails offered a bit of cool relief in shade of a mature trees overhead. As we walked along in the company of friends and the fellowship of common purpose I believe we found a simple answer to Michela’s question. People spend time in the outdoors because they love it.


The Pathways Project is made possible thanks to the support of American Rivers and The National Forest Foundation