AFTER SERVING IN THE U.S. Army during the Korean War, Henry X. Finney came home to Virginia to sort out his future. He didn’t know what he would do, or how he would support his young family—until one day he saw a uniformed park ranger. Instantly, the next chapter of his life unfurled before him. He would be a ranger, and spend his career in the outdoors. “He said, ‘Great, a government job, let me go apply,’” recalled Carolyn Finney, his daughter and the author of Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors. “This was in the 1950s in Virginia, and they told him, ‘Sorry, we don’t hire Negroes.’” Finney recently shared this anecdote in a room full of prominent outdoors experts and advocates, who had gathered for a brainstorm session in New York City to discuss the lack of diversity in the outdoors. “I can’t imagine how he felt hearing that after fighting for his country,” she added. But her father’s tale only partly explains the issue, which is a thorny and multifaceted one. According to the most recent National Parks Service survey, about 78 percent of those who visit federal parks are white. Meanwhile, African Americans, Latinos, women, and members of the LGBTQ community often report feeling unwelcome or unsafe in outdoor spaces. Moreover, the outdoors industry workforce—which includes everyone from park rangers to retail sales associates—has minimal representation from these groups.
The consequences of this separation from nature are many: A generation of adults and young people don’t enjoy the tens of thousands of parks, hiking trails, and camping sites around the country that cost billions of taxpayer dollars to maintain and administer. This separation also contributes to what Richard Louv, author of The Last Child in the Woods, has termed “nature-deficit disorder,” as society becomes increasingly absorbed by technology. Why does this matter? Louv and other experts believe that contact with nature leads to improved mental health, lower stress levels, and enhanced cognitive skills, for one. Plus, if more of an effort isn’t made to engage current and future generations (and this may be an especially relevant concern, as the country continues to diversify, with the U.S. Census Bureau forecasting that the U.S. will become a minority white nation by 2045), potential support for the parks “might go away” altogether, according to Michael Woo, dean of the College of Environmental Design at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. In November, at the New York brainstorm session, Finney, Woo, and five other panelists worked through these problem areas and discussed possible solutions. Here are the main ideas and action steps that emerged from the meeting, and from subsequent conversations with outdoors experts from around the U.S.