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Recreational advocates seek to address access (or lack thereof) to the outdoors

Westminster College students hike in Millcreek together. Unfortunately outdoor access is limited for some groups.
Alex Olivé, fourth-year music studies major at Westminster College, and Emmaline Russell, fourth-year communication major and current staff reporter for The Forum, hike in Millcreek Canyon Aug. 4, 2020. The two shared their drive up the canyon together to enjoy a sunny day. (Sage Stewart)

Throughout the Salt Lake Valley, the love for the great outdoors is made obvious by plentiful Subarus decorated with National Park bumper stickers and equipped with roof racks suited for skis, kayaks and bicycles. The outdoor community is a space for exploration and adventure — but is only accessible for some.

“Growing up in Utah and being a person of color, and then going to Westminster, I feel like the outdoors is something that has never really been accessible to women, the LGBTQ+ community or people of color,” said Lasana Trawally, Westminster College public health alum.

The feeling Trawally described is one that can be attributed to the entry barriers that make accessing the outdoors, and recreating in them, difficult. Underpowered and marginalized communities can be — and often are — made to feel excluded from the outdoors. 

Economic Access

It’s expensive to be outdoors. Those costs can span from government infrastructure (like public parks, public transportation and park maintenance) to individual costs.

“Outdoor recreation includes obvious expenses like buying gear or the costs of travel, but also expenses that we commonly overlook, like having transportation to remote outdoor spaces, having healthcare in case of an injury and being able to afford to take time off of work,” said Dr. Nicole Bedera, professor of sociology at Westminster, in an email.

These issues are exacerbated depending on one’s race and class, Bedera added. 

“Issues like environmental racism can make these [economic] barriers steeper for communities of color and low-income communities whose immediate surroundings are polluted or otherwise unsafe for outdoor recreation,” she said.

Previous Experience

Participation in outdoor recreation is heavily impacted by previous exposure to outdoor activities. Because a lot of outdoor activities require knowledge of how to recreate in order to participate, it can be difficult to break into the outdoor community.

Pitt Grewe, director of the Utah Office for Outdoor Recreation, recounted his experience growing up in Utah with a family that often recreated outdoors. Grewe credits his current career position to his passion for the outdoors learned growing up.

But, he recognized that some don’t grow up surrounded by outdoor knowledge and experience.

“It’s really hard to get into the outdoors if you’re just trying to do it by yourself without any help,” Grewe said. “It’s hard to learn how to rock climb if no one’s there to teach you how to rock climb.”

Social Belonging

Enjoying the outdoors can be connected to the feeling of community — or lack thereof — in outdoor spaces.

“For me, finding the outdoor program was a good thing for me because I felt like I was a part of a community where I felt I belonged,” said Trawally, who did his senior thesis on access to outdoor recreation as public health major at Westminster.

While he was growing up in Utah, Trawally recalled, “every advertisement wasn’t really diverse. So I had this knowledge of it’s a white person sport. Growing up, when I told my family I was going camping, they’re like ‘Why do you wanna go camping? You have a proper house.’ It was seen as something only white people do and I feel like that’s not true.”

At a place like Westminster, where many connections are formed from shared interests in outdoor recreation, it’s critical to create outdoor spaces that are accessible, equitable, diverse and inclusive, according to outdoor advocates.

“I feel like there’s not a lot of representation for people of color or LGBTQ+ communities or just anyone who doesn’t really fit that stereotypical white male face we see in the outdoors,” said Trawally.

Bedera, a sociology professor at Westminster agreed, noting this exclusion can occur unintentionally.

“When professors make small talk at the beginning of class by asking if students went skiing after a big snowstorm, or students make friends based on who else wants to do white water rafting trips, we’re leaving people out,” Bedera said in an email. “And the more we do that, the more intimidating it becomes for marginalized people who want to participate in outdoor recreation to feel like they can start.”

Creating Diversity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Outdoors

Some organizations are making an effort to create access to the outdoors that is available to everyone.

In Utah, the state Office for Outdoor Recreation works to secure grants to provide greater outdoor infrastructure, build community through networking and educational events and, through the Every Kid Outdoors initiative, get kids outside in nature spaces learning outdoor recreation skills.

At Westminster, the Outdoor Program hosts a weekly climbing intro hour for students at the climbing wall in the Health, Wellness, and Activity Center. Every week, organizers rent outdoor gear to accommodate those without supplies. 

Additionally, the Ski and Snowboard Collective provides free services, supplies and snow-sport education to students. 

While initiatives like these aim to intervene in the issue of access to the outdoors, advocates say there is still more work to do — work that can start on an individual level.

Pitt Grewe suggests tangible steps experienced outdoor recreators can take, like sharing their outdoor knowledge, teaching best practices to those new to the outdoors and inviting people of different backgrounds outdoors with them.

“For new users and people coming to it, they don’t even know where to look or find those resources,” Grewe said. “It’s the responsibility of those of us that are experienced […] to educate as kindly as possible.”

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Sage Stewart
Sage Stewart is a junior communication major at Westminster College. As a lifelong multimedia artist, Sage feels that art, no matter the medium, is one of the best things our world has to offer. When they aren’t obsessing about the arts, you can either find Sage peacefully lost in the outdoors or reading about theology and human interaction. In the future, they hope to work helping people gain access to arts organizations and communities.

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