The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 73: Race in the Backcountry

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Does the diversity of people you see in a city look the same in the wilderness? Or are some ethnic groups under-represented? This week on The WildeBeat, Race in the Backcountry.

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number seventy three.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: A couple of years ago, a friend from an inner-city area joined me on a backcountry trip. Once I got out to the trailhead, after stopping by their home, I became aware of the kinds of people who seemed to be missing. My ethnicity is predominantly northern European. I'm a white guy, and when I got into the wilderness, it seemed like almost everyone else was too. I decided that I wanted to find out if this perception was real, and if so, why. So in November of two thousand five, I interviewed Doctor Nina Roberts. An expert on the demographics of National Park visitation, she's an assistant professor at San Francisco State University in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies. Prior to that, she worked for the National Park Service as an education and outreach specialist.

STEVE: I believe that I see a distinct difference in the ethnic mix of the people I see using these backcountry areas. Is that perception at all real?

NINA ROBERTS: It's definitely real... And I started to become interested in this topic myself, as an ethnic minority female, avid outdoor enthusiast; has been involved with outdoor activities all my life. My interest in the research aspect surfaced by virtue of exactly what you were just saying, my observation was the same, and I began to wonder, ...why aren't there people that look like me out here. Lots of visitors, lots of overcrowding, plenty of backcountry use, but they don't look like me, and so I began to wonder and ask the same questions around why, what's happening, what is it about this environment that prohibits perhaps other ethnic minorities from from visiting.

STEVE: Just for the record, what is your background?

NINA ROBERTS: My background. I'm actually bi-racial. I visibly identify in terms of who I am, dark skin, dark curly hair, my Dad is white, from Great Britain... although you wouldn't know that to look at me. On my mother's side, she's mixed, East Indian and West Indian... So I have an eclectic sort of background which doesn't let me identify with the black community or the Latino community or the Asian community.

STEVE: So you said that my perception seems to be true, and do you have any numbers you can talk about with respect to that?

NINA ROBERTS: That's a good question. What we learn from some of these national level surveys is that 60% of the population ages 16 and over are enjoying outdoor recreation activities in wilderness and backcountry areas. That's a huge disproportion based on the actual percentage of white European Americans in this country based on census. You're talking about 60% of the white population is visiting versus 5% then we're looking at an incredible disparity and then the question becomes "Why is that the case? What's really going on there?"

STEVE: The obvious cause that would come to most people's mind is economic. Is that really the core cause for this difference?

NINA ROBERTS: Back in the 1960s, the Federal Government commissioned a very important study called the outdoor Recreation Resource Review Commission. That report --that governmental report -- showed that economics was pretty much THE overlying factor... 40+ years later, we're learning that is no longer the case. That's not to say that it's not still an issue in ethnic minority communities. I want to make sure that it's really clear that economics is still a factor, but it's no longer the number one reason why ethnic minorities don't participate in outdoor recreation in outdoor wilderness and backcountry areas... So what we're learning is that some of the issues involved with lack of visitation are more culturally based. And so that can be everything from socialization, families didn't bring kids out, so therefore they're not bringing their children out to the outdoors or to the park to do hiking or camping or do some of the backcountry kinds of activities that we enjoy and climbing and the other piece is that lack of awareness is another factor... If we look at the differences between what wilderness means to white people regarding rugged individualism, and capturing and tackling the outdoors and the language used about what does the outdoors mean to general populations, might not mean the same thing to the black community or it might not mean the same thing to the Latino community... One of my colleagues actually uses this phrase that I will share and borrow from him is that there are a lot of trees out there and rope is cheap... And so historically, the meaning of the lands that we embrace as something as beneficial for the quality of our life does not necessarily have the same meaning for different minority communities. And so elders pass on stories to young people about the KKK hanging out in the mountains, those people are not going to go.

STEVE: So, pick up one of these glossy outdoor magazines, and I flip through and I see all these wonderful pictures of these places. I think, "wow, I haven't seen that yet. I'd love to go see that." Does the same thing go through some person's mind that has the mindset that the wilderness is a dangerous place?

NINA ROBERTS: So you look through these beautiful outdoor magazines and you see these great natural resource places, and what a wonderful place to visit, I haven't been there. You find a way, you make a plan and you go, you visit, you go check it out because it's something that you desire and that you want to participate in. In ethnic minority communities, it's the same thing. They may look at these beautiful outdoor magazines and say how great, how wonderful. Some will go. Many will go and enjoy just like you or I. Others will look at those beautiful places and say I think the militia hangs out in there. I'm not going.

STEVE: Well, I have always taken some issue with the idea that economics was the limiting factor because I spent my summers in college as a backpacking and climbing bum with almost no money, hitch hiking out to the mountains and using borrowed and otherwise inexpensively acquired gear, so I could do it on practically nothing, and I wondered why those people weren't doing it on practically nothing.

NINA ROBERTS: And that's the kind of thing that we're trying to teach young people today as we see many more youth programs springing up across the country. They're learning at a very young age that you can do exactly what you just said you can go into the wilderness very cheap. You don't need a lot of money typically to enjoy yourself in the backcountry. And young people don't necessarily know that because of the ads that they see, or the clothing or the gear that their friends have, or what they typically observe around them. So they're learning that you don't need a lot to enjoy yourself in the backcountry... as I've been able to cross cultural boundaries pretty easily given my mixed-race background, what I find in -- as I've learned from minority communities is that socialization piece, the social permission, if you have individuals who, you know, walk within black communities as their safe haven, if their black friends don't participate, and individual might want to participate in a wilderness activity but they might not because they may, in some cases, be ostracized from their community, or from their friends. So, depending on how well and how comfortable people are crossing those cultural boundaries and wanting to frequent and visit areas with people of other ethnic backgrounds, that's also where some of the visitation will occur. Whereas, the culturally -- is very, very important that people have that degree of comfort participating in these activities with their friends.

STEVE: Can you think of a list of three or four groups or organizations that you think are making the biggest difference?

NINA ROBERTS: Couple that come to mind are the Student Conservation Assoc, the National Outdoor Leadership School is another one. Those are two larger ones, and they're trying different ways... Outward Bound is putting in their effort as well. These are the larger, national-level organizations. But there's also some smaller ones that are community based, such as... the Pacific Leadership Institute that's based here out of SFSU, tapping into local communities and not traditional users, providing the mentoring, providing the leadership, the commitment, the dedication to engage, it's all about community engagement, and involving them in the outdoor world, which is part of their world, and that's the message that's very important to send to these communities.

STEVE: You not only sit around in a university campus and study the issues of recreation usage of wilderness areas, but you do some of that yourself. Tell us what you do; what kind of activities do you get into? What kind of places do you like to go?

NINA ROBERTS: Boy I thrive on outdoor environments. I'm new to California, but in general -- boy, Rocky Mountain National Park, when I lived in Colorado, it became my new back yard. I was up there almost every weekend, you know, between hiking and camping and backpacking, you know, so those are definitely loves regardless of where I am; hiking, camping backpacking. Put that on the list and that's what I definitely enjoy. Biking, kayaking, canoeing, sailing, rock climbing -- I've been sky diving once. I love high adventure. I love the ropes course environment in terms of challenge course opportunities and activities. Those are sort of a few of my favorites, and as a photographer I'll often bring my camera out there because I do appreciate the beauty of the natural environment. I do like to be -- to participate with friends and other other individuals who enjoy the activities as well. I've done few solos mostly because I'm a social animal in terms of wanting to be around others and enjoy it together with somebody... my typical outdoor recreation partners are my white friends. Very rare do I find myself with any of my Latino buddies or the blacks that I know that I enjoy spending time with. If they don't enjoy it it doesn't mean that I'm not going to go. My hope is that I can encourage them to come and join me and play with me in the outdoors; walk the beach, fly a kite, whatever that might be. And so those are some of the things that I enjoy, and I hope that I can be a role model, whether it's to my friends, but in particular, some of the young girls or youth in general that I've worked with. I've worked with -- Some of my research revolves around women and girls in the outdoors, which is why I bring that up, but in general working with youth, so that's the other aspect that I enjoy. So, give you an idea of a few of the activities that are a big part of my life.

STEVE: Dr. Nina Roberts, thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.

NINA ROBERTS: Thank you very much for having me.

STEVE: We'll be talking about this issue more in future programs. We'd like to hear about your thoughts on broadening the ethnic diversity of wilderness users. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You'll find links to additional information about Doctor Roberts' research, and download an extended version of this show, on our web site.

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STEVE: Next time -- Avalanches.

STEVE: Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please click on the support link to make possible future editions of this free service. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a public service of Effable Communications.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number seventy three. Thank you for listening.

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