The Changing Face of Outdoor Recreation and Environmental Protection

After 15 years as a nature and wildlife photographer, Dudley Edmondson had photographed mountains and valleys, fuzzy baby bears clinging to tree trunks, and brightly colored orioles perched in branches. He’d visited prairies, woods and canyons in state and national parks around the United States. What he hadn’t seen much of in his explorations, were people who looked like him.  “In my travels around the country over the last two and a half decades, I became concerned by how often I found myself to be the only African American or person of color in many of the outdoor wilderness areas in which I worked or vacationed.” The question of why led him to embark on a four year journey around the country to meet people of color who thrive in the outdoors. Eventually, he compiled photographs and stories of the people he met in a book titled Black and Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places. “What I realized toward the end of this book project,” Edmondson writes in his preface, “is that you really cannot discuss the subjects of nature and people of color without visiting a number of topics that at first glance may appear to have nothing to do with the environment.”

“The book’s purpose is to create a set of “Outdoor Role Models” for the African American community,” says Edmondson.

On the heels of Martin Luther King Day, I thought that it might be a good time to revisit some of the stories Edmondson collected in his book and consider what, if anything, has changed over the past ten years since it was published.

For many of the people profiled in Edmondson’s book, childhood experiences in the outdoors led them to an environmentally-focused career. Lynnea Atlas-Ingebretson grew up in the Homewood neighborhood of Minneapolis, taking family vacations in the Black Hills; camping, hiking and cross-country skiing; and enjoying trips to Adventurous Christians Camp and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota. At the time the book was written (2006), she was working as the Outdoor Adventure Center Coordinator at the Auraria Campus of University of Colorado. Today, she is the Director of Family and Partnerships for Minneapolis Public Schools.

Others developed connections to nature later in life. Shelton Johnson, then working as an Interpretive Ranger at Yosemite National Park, explained that the journey from city kid in Detroit, to National Park ranger in Yosemite, was both physically and psychologically long. “I had to find a way to span that psychological distance between the urban culture and wilderness setting to get here.” Along the way, he learned forgotten stories about people of color living and working in wilderness areas, long before the civil rights movement. As Shelton explains, black soldiers protected Yosemite National Park in 1899, 1903, and 1904 – before the National Park Service was even in existence. Known as Buffalo Soldiers, they were part of the first peacetime all-black regiments in the U.S. Army, which were formed in 1866. Johnson goes on to say, “Being in the mountains and being in wilderness serves as a means for me to connect with something that is greater than myself. I think that everyone needs that, and when they don’t have that, there is a spiritual vacuum that is created inside them.”

Craig Manson, then working as the Assistant Secretary of the Department of the Interior in Washington D.C. offered some thoughts on why so many African Americans today are growing up without a connection to the outdoors. “One of the things I am concerned about is the increasing rate of urbanization and the growing concentration of African Americans and other minorities in these areas. That, I think, tends to shut off access, and that is where some of the myths about what people do and don’t do build.” In contrast, Alex Johnson talks about how a move from Denver to Portland later in his childhood allowed him to be in much closer contact with the outdoors and develop a curiosity and interest in nature. “I spent most of my time growing up in an inner city environment. Once I moved to Portland, I spent a lot of time growing up in the natural areas around our neighborhood.” Robert Foxx, a former U.S. Forest Service Wild Lands Firefighter, sees a change in where people are living as well. “I think there is a shift in people of color moving from the inner city to suburbia anyway. As more blacks from the city move to the suburbs and wooded areas, they are introduced to a lot of environmental things.”

According to a 2015 demographic report by the Center for American Progress, people of color will constitute more than 50% of the population in the United States by 2044.  In Minnesota, people of color now make up 20% of the population, up from 12% in 2000 ( Edmondson writes in his book, “People of color will no doubt be the new stewards of the land, the sentinels on watch for environmental protection as the nation’s population demographics change, shifting away from the once white majority.”

Though black and brown faces are still relatively rare in environmental professions, new programs in Minnesota have emerged in the past ten years to help connect urban youth with the outdoors, address issues of environmental justice, and improve access to regional parks for people of color. One example is Canoemobile, a partnership that emerged from the Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventures program started in Minnesota in 2008. Canoemobile organizes youth engagement days, community paddling events, and overnight trips to engage urban youth in outdoor activities. Another is the Environmental Justice Framework, developed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in 2015, which aims to ensure fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all Minnesotans in the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental policies and regulations.

Through programs such as these, Edmondson and others hope that future generations will be inspired to explore, enjoy and protect the parks, trails, water and woods of our nation. “Nature without question is for everyone. It knows no race, creed or gender and is cheaper than any therapist you could ever hire.”