The White Space of the American Outdoors: Race, Representation, and Public Lands

Marlie E. Heiser

University of North Dakota

Abstract

Statistics from America’s public lands (national parks, monuments, forests, and grasslands) indicate that age, income, education, and race are all factors that play into an outdoor social landscape that is disparately white. While there are no longer express legal barriers for people of color in public lands, they still find themselves navigating external and internal constraints on their right to enjoy public outdoor space. A content analysis of the media of the outdoors shows how the perpetuation of the stereotypical white outdoor identity has a symbiotic relationship with the white space of public lands: representation is potentially both a result of and a cause of visitor demographic disparities. Land management teams should endeavor to build representation into their media through consultation with communities of color in order to craft media that helps navigate constraints for all people of color who have a desire to enjoy public lands.

Keywords: diversity, inclusion, representation, social media, public lands, land management, national parks, environmental justice, Black Lives Matter, COVID-19

 

The White Space of the American Outdoors

Since the founding of the National Parks, Americans have prided themselves on our conception of public lands as the right of every citizen. However, public land is not as accessible as we might believe. The white space of the American outdoors is apparent in the lack of diverse representation in visitor demographics and in outdoor media accounts. This keeps parks from thriving themselves, but it also keeps visitors of color from exercising their right to public lands, nestling this issue directly in the greater conversation of race today. 

The timeliness of this issue is amplified by recent movements in the United States that require us to consider our racialized history. Until the Civils Rights Act, segregation of public lands was legal: from the outset, African Americans were not included in the “public” of these lands (Gaines et al., 2020)(Finney, 2014, pp. 47). Today, instances such as the death of Ahmaud Arbery and a white woman who called the police on a black birdwatcher (Booker) tragically show how quickly racism can transform a person of color from a “recreationist to a suspect” in outdoor spaces (Gaines et al., 2020). Racism can and does alter outdoor experiences for people of color.

We must acknowledge that the territories of systemic racism and outdoor recreation intersect. When public lands do not acknowledge their historical and contemporary relationship to people of color, they contribute to the American landscape of inequality. This results in the lack of representation we see in outdoor media and reinforces the narrative of a white outdoor space. We must ask ourselves: who is it that we see in parks now, why do our parks look like this, and how might we change this in the future?

 

Literature Review

Visitor Demographics

Public land statistics consistently illustrate visitor use disparities along racial and ethnic lines. This imbalance was first identified in the 1960s, even before the Civil Rights Movement (Krymkowski et al., 2014, pp. 2), and it has been persistent. White visitors make up 95% of total National Park Service (NPS) visitors, even though they represent about 72% of our population (Vaske and Lyon, 2014, pp. 20). African American visitors constitute only 1% of NPS visitors, even though they represent 13% of U.S. citizens and only 25% of African Americans indicate that they have visited a national park, compare to 53% of white respondents (Schiavo, 2016, pp. 209). The United States Forest Service (USFS) reports similar patterns in race and ethnicity (United States Department of Agriculture, 2019, pp. 14). Although state park visitor statistics are largely unavailable, the Minnesota State Parks indicate a consistency with the larger national pattern (Research Edge LLC, 2017, pp. 15). 

It is important to mention that white-dominated narratives might describe this pattern as “under-representation,” but this term neglects the fact that there are cultural differences in outdoor activities (Schiavo, 2016, pp. 216). Thus, this paper is not directed at remedying a “deficiency” in racial and ethnic minorities’ usage of parks. Instead, the author’s hope is that public lands confront stated reasons from people of color (POC) that they do not feel the parks are for them. Therefore, while proposals might narrow gaps in visitation, the primary aim is to confront the stated reasons from non-visitors as to their decision not to visit, understanding that cultural differences in use may persist. Further, the author herself does not identify as a member of the POC community or a member of an historically underrepresented population, and as such acknowledges that there are facets of POC experience that are unique and not understandable from a perspective outside of the community. Thus, the goal of this paper is fundamentally to reference voices from this community and to lend additional data to the body of research that is already ongoing, out of hope for collaboration on confronting the exclusivity in America’s public land access. The impacts of the “white outdoors” are far-reaching, and POC voices should be the ones who lead us in challenging them.

Impacts

A white public outdoors is impactful for parks, visitors, and non-visitors. For parks, the impact lies in the link between funding and constituency relevance. National parks retain 80% of their visitor fees for infrastructure (National Park Service, 2020), meaning that the broader their appeal to the public, the better they will be able to operate (Weber and Sultana, 2013, pp. 439). Embedded assumptions have catered park programs for white visitors (Scott and Lee, 2018, pp. 77) and this will not serve the parks well in the future (in fact, it never did).  As we approach a critical demographic shift in 2045, when the United States will become minority white (Vespa et al., 2020, pp. 13), parks will find their constituent appeal fading. Parks could struggle to build a coalition of voters willing to support them, impacting legislative appropriations bills that fund park operations. These coming shifts in constituency may require that the parks examine their core assumptions about visitors and how to serve them in order to thrive.

Underserved audiences will most certainly be impacted by park visitation imbalances through loss of benefits in employment, physical and mental health, and something we might call narrative equity.  Currently, 80 percent of NPS employees are white (CFI Group, 2017, pp. 2019), so increased use of the parks may lead to employment opportunities. Further, 68% of African Americans stated that they believe outdoor recreation is highly important to their physical health (Gaines et al., 2020), as doctors have diagnosed patients with “nature deficit disorder” (Weber and Sultana, 2013, pp. 440) and are increasingly prescribing time in the outdoors as a remedy for a number of major health issues (Wise and Kane, 2019). Additionally, parks serve a key role in constructing our national identity and disseminating our history (Finney, 2014, pp. 29). With the power of narrative lies the power to shape national sentiment, and if key demographics of the United States do not have equity in this narrative, then their stories might be excluded from what the parks tell us about ourselves (Finney, 2014, pp. 68). Finally, because park visitor patterns are often perpetuated into future generations (Erickson, et al., 2017, pp. 537), the time to ensure access to public lands is now. Remedial action begins with acknowledging the major constraints for POC visitors in parks.

External Constraints

The first set of constraints are external to the visitor. Historic marginalization has prevented many families from having foundational experiences in the parks, and current failures to reach out to minority communities with park-related information exacerbate this problem.

Marginalization. Marginalization is both historic and socioeconomic. Historical patterns of marginalization contribute to current visitation and whether new generations have formative experiences in parks (Erickson et al., 2017, pp. 532).  Until the Civils Rights Act, segregation of public land was legal and the NPS followed state-based Jim Crow laws (Gaines et al., 2020). Hot Springs National Park had segregated bath houses (Gaines et al., 2020), other park visitors were directed to a “colored picnic area” (Gaines et al., 2020), and Black travelers had to consult the Green Book, which outlined where it was safe to stay in the U.S. (Erickson et al., 2017, pp. 532). These marginalizations are now part of a “habitus”: African American people’s mode of conduct attributed to their sociohistorical context (Lee and Scott, 2017, pp. 382). Because of the travel-associated danger and discrimination that they had encountered, elder family members instructed youth to take specific measures to ensure their safety during travel (Lee and Scott, 2017, pp. 387). Even if an individual had not experienced racism themselves, the stories of these encounters constructed a “habitus” of avoiding travel to certain places, like rural America or the deep South (Lee and Scott, 2017, pp. 386). Further, studies show that the collective memory of slavery influences how people of color use the outdoors (Finney, 2014, pp. 59), but that parks referencing these dark times can be places to heal (Finney, 2014, pp. 62). Understanding this history is imperative for land managers. However, it could be difficult for them to remedy due to the persistent nature of such collective pain (especially when racism continues today). For this reason, historic marginalization is an important rhetorical basis for other solutions. 

Marginalization is also socioeconomic. Low-income Americans are more constrained in their leisure activities than other Americans and affluent Americans are three times as likely to visit national parks (Scott, 2013, pp. 3). The affordability of parks for African Americans specifically is influenced by historical discrimination in politics, housing, education, and employment (Erickson et al., 2017, pp. 537). Nearly 28% of African Americans live under the poverty line, and African Americans make a median income of just fifty-nine cents for every dollar of median white income (Wilson and Williams, 2019). In fact, the two most common visitation constraints for all visitors are time and money (Johnson et al., 2001, pp. 127), and affordability was voiced specifically as a concern for many minority group members (Roberts, 2007, pp. 21). Further, socioeconomic status is often a pre-requisite for welcoming behaviors from other visitors or staff (Roberts, 2007, pp. 7), and for information, transportation, and the disposable income required to pay for things like entrance fees (Scott, 2013, pp. 8), hotel reservations, and outdoor gear (Scott and Lee, 2018, pp. 75). Income level can also influence feelings of safety, mobility, and whether one has formative outdoor experiences as a child (Scott, 2013, pp. 7). Due to the reliance of parks on fees, and the fact that land managers are unable to remedy issues related to income disparities, remedial action on this constraint may best be done through navigating around these constraints instead of eliminating them. Marginalization does not encompass all constraints, however.

Perception of Safety. Visiting parks also depends on whether one feels safe there. In one study, the only statistically significant intersection of race and constraints for participation in favorite outdoor activities was fear for personal safety (Johnson et al., 2001, pp. 126) related to wildlife (Finney, 2014, pp. 106), racial conflict (Johnson et al., 2001, pp. 128), or criminal behavior (Roberts, 2007, pp. 21). Fear for safety may be due to historical racism (Erickson et al., 2017, pp. 538), and negative connotations of rural areas (i.e., from poverty or lynching) (Erickson et al., 2017, pp. 539). Perception of safety is even influential on whether people enjoy their “favorite” outdoor activities (Johnson et al., 2001, pp. 127). Further, favorite activities for people of color may have been limited by what was historically deemed appropriate (Finney, 2014, pp. 105) and safe (Johnson et al., 2001, pp. 127). Again, land managers may be limited in that they cannot change the historical and wilderness-related concerns for safety, but they can and should attempt to alleviate these fears and help new visitors to navigate them.

Distance. The impact of location on whether people visit parks has been researched as well. Travel cost and the lack of private transportation and direct routes are sometimes concerns for people of color (Roberts, 2007, pp. 21). Similarly, geographic accessibility of public land varies by race and ethnicity, with African Americans having an “accessibility” rating of about 19% that of whites’ (Weber and Sultana, 2013, pp. 449). However, while geographic accessibility is disparate, the difference between actual visitation is even higher (Weber and Sultana, 2013, pp. 454), meaning that location alone is not a complete explanation (Krymkowski, 2014, pp. 40). A few metrics to explain this difference could be considered. First, the narrative theme of locations is important: African American visitation to Nicodemus NHS, for example, is much higher than proximity would predict, attributable to the African American narrative of the park (Weber and Sultana, 2013, pp. 451). Thus, location may not be as important as appealing to communities of color and helping with their concerns about visiting.

Information. A final external barrier is that of information. Many minority group members cite lack of information as a barrier to their use of national forests (Crano et al., 2008, pp. 179). Lack of interest, time, physical health, transportation, and lack of information were the top five barriers to use according to one study (Crano et al., 2008, pp. 189). Some other key issues identified include lack of knowledge about the existence of parks and how to get to them, lack of knowledge of what to do in a park, and lack of experience with technical outdoor skills (Roberts, 2007, pp. 19). It has also been confirmed that people of color notice a lack of publicity and advertising about parks (especially in ethnic media) and have concerns about the authenticity and cultural relevancy behind those communications (Roberts, 2007, pp. 22). In a survey of Florida residents, 37% of respondents found that lack of awareness was the number one reason not to visit parks for African Americans (Finney, 2014, pp. 107). Barriers in information are pivotal in shaping who is present in parks, indicating an area that managers can tap into as a remedy.

Internal Constraints

A second group of constraints are internal perceptions. If members of communities of color feel that their identity excludes them from a comfortable park experience, they will not visit. Sometimes this perception is developed through actual or anticipated acts of discrimination, but other times it could be through a lack of outdoor representation, or through a perception of parks as “white spaces”.

Discrimination. Internal constraints arise from actual discriminatory experiences and from the fear of discrimination (Floyd, 1999, pp. 5). A study of the diverse community surrounding the Golden Gate National Recreation Area is helpful in understanding this. Each group mentioned discrimination in that they were watched closely, asked for I.D.s, or were followed (Roberts, 2007, pp. 23). All but one informant in another study described an instance of clear racial discrimination during travel (Lee and Scott, 2017, pp. 385) and if they had not experienced racism themselves, they described a fear of racism in the African American community related to park visitation (Lee and Scott, 2017, pp. 386). As one person said, “people don’t want to go where they don’t feel welcome” (Roberts, 2007, pp. 24). POC visitors are three times more likely than white visitors to say that parks provide poor service and are not safe (U.S. Department of the Interior, 2011, pp. 11) and others have joked that they might find “Whites Only” signs at park entrances or be lynched while collecting firewood (Nelson, 2015). It is clear that discrimination features heavily in the minds of people of color when they think about visiting parks, and management teams need to recognize this.

Subculture. Subcultural hypotheses highlight how visitation might reflect African Americans’ beliefs about cultural identity (Floyd, 1999, pp. 4). As the outdoor industry has been associated with whiteness, its activities may be avoided by African Americans (Erickson, 2017, pp. 531). One report found the subculture hypothesis to hold the most explanatory value for the difference between African American and white visitor use (Krymkowski et al., 2014, pp. 42). The report suggests this could be a result of the history of national parks being reserved for the white middle class and of the lack of formative experiences for youth of color (Krymkowski et al., 2014, pp. 40). Another interview group confirmed that outdoor recreation is viewed as “white” in communities of color (Goodrid, 2018, pp. 56), and that this influenced the quantity and quality of POC experiences outdoors as they choose not to participate or feel uncomfortable when they do (Goodrid, 2018, pp. 82). Subcultural perceptions are often connected directly to the presence of other people of color in digital and physical outdoor spaces.

Representation. Subcultural perceptions are reinforced by outdoor media and staff representation. There is a symbiotic relationship between media and behavior: the absence of people of color in the outdoors make the media about the outdoors “white” and conversely, the lack of outdoor diversity in media encourages this absence by perpetuating a “racialized outdoor leisure identity” (Martin, 2004, pp. 514). In both Outside and Ebony, white people were six times as likely to be portrayed with an outdoor identity than people of color, and in Time, people of color had a zero percent chance of being portrayed with this identity (Martin, 2004, pp. 525). Of 4,600 images of people in Outside over ten years, only 103 of those were of African American people, most often in urban settings as popular sports figures (Finney, 2014, pp. 78). This creates the perception by minorities that they are not welcome in the outdoors, feeding frustrations with this white imagery (Finney, 2014, pp. 79). In another study, all groups of people of color agreed that they did not see their race represented in park employees, but there was disagreement on whether it matters—those who thought it mattered believed that there was value in role modeling and having someone with whom to identify (Roberts, 2007, pp. 19). However, there was general agreement that narratives about people of color are much more impactful if told by a person of color, and that these narratives were insufficiently represented in the stories of parks (Roberts, 2007, pp. 20). The issue of representation has useful management potential because it relates back to and has remedial potential for historical marginalization, lack of information, and the perceptions of the “white” outdoors.

The constraints in the literature indicate two things: first, we cannot assume homogeneity about minority constraints in public lands (Johnson et al., 2001, pp. 128) so we must consult people of color themselves on the issue. Second, while it is tempting to silo the barriers into neat packages, we must recognize that these constraints are interrelated. The statements about parks from communities of color indicate that they often feel that they are not welcome in or do not identify with the current imagery and narrative in the parks, or that they do not have information about parks. This suggests that the way to confront these constraints is through outreach of information that also builds a sense of inclusive outdoor representation. In the social media age, land managers have a tool to confront these issues of outdoor narrative. In order to see the potential for this kind of outreach, we might ask how outdoor media looks right now, and what that can tell us about potential solutions.

 

Methodology

To analyze whether a racialized outdoor identity still exists, I implemented a content analysis of all the posts from January 1, 2020 until October 31, 2020 on 11 different Instagram social media accounts. The dates were chosen intentionally to secure a good sampling of posts, to include data on both sides of the Black Lives Matter movement in June 2020, and to analyze content during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the idea that social media was a part of how people experienced national parks (NP) and the outdoors in 2020. The accounts included the following: Outside, Time, and Ebony (for comparative value with the previous study by Derek Martin), and the official National Park Service (NPS) account, as well as accounts for each administrative NPS regions in order to get a good geographical sampling: Yosemite NP, Bethune NHS, Denali NP, Acadia NP, Rocky Mountain NP, Hot Springs NP, and Great Smoky Mountains NP. Outside directs its content toward outdoor audiences, while Time and Ebony are focused on current events (Ebony toward African American audiences). The NPS accounts are likely followed largely by outdoor audiences. Bethune NHS was included because of its African American historical narrative, as a comparison with other parks and as an inquiry on whether people engage more with parks that include their narratives (Weber and Sultana, 2013, pp. 451). Basic account statistics are included in Appendix A. 

There are a few reasons behind the choice to code Instagram accounts. These accounts reach more than 18 million people every day with their posts. Compared to the circulation of the magazines during the previous study – 6.2 million – this is significant (Martin, 2004, pp. 520). Further, the accounts may reach more than just their own followers, based on shares to personal “stories,” meaning that these accounts reach people who are not typical outdoor account “followers”. The visual orientation of Instagram also means that the narrative emphasis of each post is on the image. Some accounts, like Acadia and Rocky Mountain NP, repost photos from their visitors’ accounts, meaning that the images on the account directly represent who is visiting the park. 

All posts featuring people between January 1st and October 31st were coded. Any post in which personal identities were indistinguishable was coded as “ambiguous” and excluded. Next, each post was coded as displaying an outdoor leisure identity, or not. An outdoor identity was defined as any person who was participating in a wilderness activity or engaged in outdoor employment. Non-outdoor identities included urban or indoor settings and activities. In each post, individuals were then coded based on their race and/or ethnicity on a trichotomous basis: Black, white, and other. Models coded as “other” were excluded from the analysis, although future studies including all races and ethnicities should be done. Determinations on race and ethnicities were based on visual cues of skin color, hair, and facial features. If individuals were tagged in posts, the tagged accounts were referenced for confirmation, on the assumption that such tagging draws attention to these individuals and “followers” would do the same. All coding was done by the author.

 To ensure that large groups in single photos did not carry disparate weight, each post was capped at four individuals. Individuals were coded based on their “main character” status: people on whom the visual is focused were coded with a higher priority. For example, in a photo in which a single ranger is speaking to a large group of children, the ranger is coded with higher priority than the children, while the group of children are coded as “other” and excluded from analysis on the basis that they were not the focus of the post.

A few other guidelines were used. Some photos were coded as “collage,” when they contained a very large group of diverse people in which no one appeared to be the “main character.” These were excluded from the analysis. Posts that included several photos of one person were only counted as one person. Posts that included several photos of different people were coded based on the 4-person cap, with photos to the “front” of the post counted first, based on an assumption that being toward the schematic “front” of the post held more weight and “followers’” attention faded toward the “back” of the post. Historic images are often shared on the NPS accounts, and these were included because, even though they are not contemporary, they represent a dominant narrative in the parks.

 

Hypotheses

My hypotheses mirrored the previous study in addressing a racialized outdoor identity (Martin, 2004, pp. 519) in each account, while adding some additional contemporary questions. They are as follows: 

  1. The percentage of white models shown in the outdoors will be higher than the percentage of Black models in the outdoors.
  2. The percentage of “outdoor posts” featuring white models will be higher than the percentage of “outdoor posts” featuring Black models.
  3.  A dichotomy will be drawn between accounts that are representational and accounts that feature outdoors content (i.e., the more outdoor content an account features, the fewer diverse people will be present in their images). 
  4. Percentages of representation will increase after May 25, the date of George Floyd’s death.
  5. Posting frequency in the NPS accounts will increase after March (when most states started issuing stay-at-home orders), due to pandemic outreach efforts.

 

Limitations

A limitation of the study is the sample size of 2,369 people and 1,567 posts. Many outdoors posts focus primarily on setting or include very distant people or people in gear that makes them unidentifiable. Notably, Denali and Rocky Mountain only featured one POC model (Table 1). While this might be an interesting indication of patterns of representation, it makes it difficult to compare percentages in a meaningful way. In order to be generalizable, another study might include more posts and more accounts.

A second limitation is the use of Instagram exclusively. While this media is a primary means to reach young people, some organizations may not be using it yet to its fullest extent, or, like in the case of Rocky Mountain NP, may go on hiatus occasionally when a social media skilled employee leaves employment. Further, Outside, Time, and Ebony are magazine accounts, meaning that their resource investment is for print, not for social media.

A final limitation of the study is the time period chosen for the sample. Media accounts may have made temporary changes to their content in frequency and type of posts based on the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. Patterns of posting in the future may change. 

 

Results

Hypotheses 1 was partially confirmed by the analysis (Table 1). When comparing the percentage of all POC models who were featured with outdoor identities with the percentage of all white models with outdoor identities, in Time, Outside, the NPS, Yosemite, and Great Smoky Mountains, POC models are less likely than white models to be portrayed as outdoor people. Acadia, Ebony, and Hot Springs do not follow this pattern. Ebony’s divergence is explained by its African American audience, and Hot Springs and Acadia could be explained by their location in areas with larger populations of people of color. When comparing these results with the study done in 2004, we can see that Ebony (from 1% to 4.6%) and Outside (from 11.6% to 74%) have increased their percentage of people of color being featured with an outdoor identity, and to a lesser degree so has Time (Martin, 2004, pp. 524). This could be the result of social pressures for inclusivity.

Table 1: Likelihood of Being Portrayed with an Outdoor Identity, Race 

Ebony Time Outside NPS Denali* Acadia Rocky Mountain* Hot Springs Bethune NHS Yosemite Great Smoky
yes, Black 4.6% (32) 1.2% (3) 74.1% (20) 50% (8) 100% (1) 100% (7) 100% (1) 67.7% (21) 0% (0) 83.3% (12) 83% (10)
yes, white 0% (0) 3.5% (16) 76.4% (110)  88.5% (23) 100% (32) 91.8% (90) 100% (32) 62.3% (135) 0% (0) 89.5% (102) 98% (100)
no, Black 95.4% (664) 98.8% (257) 25.9% (7) 50% (8) 0% (0) 0% (0) 0% (0) 32.3% (10) 100% (47) 16.7% (2) 17% (2)
no, white 100% (30) 96.5% (442) 23.6% (34) 11.5% (3) 0% (0) 8.2% (8) 0% (0) 37.8% (82) 100% (7) 10.5% (12) 2% (2)

Hypotheses 2 was partially confirmed by the analysis (Table 2). First, a person with an outdoor identity was most usually a white person (except for in Ebony). Second, in many accounts the percentage of POC representation descended when moving from all models to only outdoor identity models within each account. Thus, while POC might be represented, they were less likely to be represented with an outdoor identity than with a non-outdoor identity. For all accounts except Ebony, outdoor models ranged between 80 and 97 percent white. Further, in Time, Outside, the NPS, and Great Smoky Mountains, the likelihood of a POC model being used was higher when discussing all models, as opposed to outdoor models. Again, Ebony (from 67.9% to 100%) and Outside (from 1.3% to 15.4%) increased the likelihood that an outdoor model would be a person of color since 2004 (Martin, 2004, pp. 525).

Table 2: Likelihood that an Outdoor Model is a Person of Color, Compared with all Models

Ebony Time Outside NPS Denali* Acadia Rocky Mountain* Hot Springs Bethune NHS Yosemite Great Smoky
Outdoor, Black 32, 100% (32) 3, 15.8% (3) 15.4% (20) 25.8% (8) 3.1% (1) 7.2% (7) 3% (1) 13.6% (21) 0% (0) 10.5% (12) 9.1% (10)
Outdoor, white 0, 0% (0) 16, 84.2% (16) 84.6% (110) 74.2% (23) 96.9% (31) 92.8% (90) 97% (32) 87.7% (135) 0% (0) 89.5% (102) 91% (100)
All models, Black 696, 95.9% (696) 260, 36.2% (260) 15.8% (27) 38.1% (16) 3.1% (1) 6.67% (7) 3% (1) 12.5% (31) 87% (47) 9.5% (12) 10.5% (12)
All models, white 30, 4.1% (30) 458, 63.7% (458) 84.2% (144) 61.9% (26) 96.9% (31) 93.3% (98) 97% (32) 87.5% (217) 13% (7) 90.5% (114) 89.5% (102)

*denotes account with low sample size, percentages used with caution

Hypotheses 3 was strongly confirmed by the analysis (Table 3). With increasing percentages of outdoor content come decreasing percentages of people of color featured in the account. Ebony, Bethune NHS, and Time (with less outdoor content) held the highest percentages of people of color featured, while more explicitly outdoor-oriented accounts like Outside and the NPS accounts featured fewer people of color. Notably, the NPS national account did much better than the other outdoor accounts on this percentage, indicating that there might be a difference between individual park accounts and the national one. Another account to note is Bethune NHS, which featured no outdoor identities but high percentages of representation. Bethune is one of the parks that features an African American narrative as foremost in the park, indicating there may be a representation dichotomy between narratives in historical parks and those in wilderness parks. 

Table 3: Outdoor Identities and POC Models

  Ebony Time Outside NPS Denali Acadia Rocky Mountain Hot Springs Bethune NHS Yosemite Great Smoky
Percentage of Models with Outdoor Identity 4% 3.9% 84.9% 80.5% 100% 94.7% 100% 62% 0% 96% 94%
Percentages of POC Models 93.7% 25.6% 9.4% 21.6% 1.3% 4.2% 1.5% 8.6% 87.0% 6.5% 8.3%

Hypothesis 4 had mixed results (Table 4). Representation after George Floyd’s death and the associated movements increased for Time, Outside, NPS, Rocky Mountain, Hot Springs, Bethune, and Yosemite, while it decreased for Ebony, Denali, Acadia, and Great Smoky Mountains. The most pronounced difference noted is in Time and Outside, both of which featured activist content during and after the Black Lives Matter movement in early June.

Table 4: Effects of Black Lives Matter Movement on Representation

  Ebony Time Outside NPS Denali Acadia Rocky Mountain Hot Springs Bethune NHS Yosemite Great Smoky
Black, before May 25 97.3% (256) 19.8% (65) 3.4% (3) 33% (9)  7.7% (1) 16.7% (4) 0, 0% (0) 8.9% (8) 77.3% (17) 0% (0) 15.4% (8)
white, before May 25 2.7% (7) 80.2% (264) 96.6% (85) 67% (18) 92.3% (12) 83.3% (20) 3, 100% (3) 91% (82) 22.7% (5) 100% (42) 84.6% (44)
Black, after May 25 95% (440) 50% (195) 28.9% (24) 46.7% (7) 0% (0) 3.7% (3) 1, 3.33% (1) 14.6% (23) 94% (30) 14.3% (12) 6.5% (4)
white, after May 25 5% (23) 50% (194) 71.1% (59) 53.3% (8) 100% (19) 96.3% (78) 29, 96.7% (29) 85.4% (135) 6% (2) 85.7% (72) 93.5% (58)

Hypothesis 5 also had mixed results (Table 5). Some accounts appeared to have increased their posting to connect with the public during pandemic-related lockdowns, while others appear not to have used this resource for outreach.

Table 5: Pandemic-Related Changes in Posts

NPS Denali Acadia Rocky Mountain Hot Springs Bethune NHS Yosemite Great Smoky
posts before March (Jan- Feb) 8 2 13 0 16 5 14 10
posts after March (Apr-May) 5 5 1 10 38 3 20 15

Discussion: Using Media to Navigate Constraints

The confirmations of the hypotheses indicate that, after sixteen years, there is still strong evidence for the white outdoor leisure identity that Derek Martin explored, in a new perspective on Instagram accounts. There has been an increase in representation, which may be an indication of the success of societal pressures. However, these accounts still have work to do in representing people of color who are engaging in outdoor activities. The changes in representation after the Black Lives Matter movement of June 2020 indicate that these accounts are sensitive to social movements and are not exempt from participating in them. Some accounts also used their social media as a way to engage with people during the pandemic, indicating that media is a meaningful way to reach out for some parks. The evident “white” outdoor identity could cause internalized feelings that wilderness recreation is “for” white people, that discrimination might occur in wilderness recreation, or that wilderness recreation should be avoided for the preservation of subcultural identity (Martin, 2004, pp. 529). The fact that an updated study confirms that the “outdoor identity” is still white might indicate that efforts to increase representation in the outdoors have not yet fully succeeded, and that visitation patterns are likely both a reflection and a cause of this racialized identity. As mentioned before, success in this area may not be measured by percentage changes in visitor use, due to cultural differences. What we can measure is the change in how many people of color say that their constraints include things like discrimination, lack of information, or feelings that parks are not for them. In order to ensure that the right to public land is accessible to all, the literature suggests some changes to park outreach and culture.

Navigating External Constraints

An outreach media campaign can be used to confront external constraints by helping some people to get around them and into the parks. Some suggestions are outlined here:

  • Craft personal and culturally relevant invitations to communities of color, published in targeted media (Roberts, 2007, pp. 46). 
  • Inform fourth-grade teachers about free fourth-grade passes. Bringing in kids will also help draw parents to the parks (Roberts, 2007, pp. 46). 
  • Post itineraries for park visits to remove planning constraints for first-time visitors. 
  • Share information on safety incidents (Roberts, 2007, pp. 21) and tips on how to stay safe. 
  • Post information on free passes and fee-free days (Mott, 2016, pp. 457) to remedy socio-economic concerns. 
  • Confront perceptions of expensive overnight travel by leveraging geographically targeted ad campaigns to local areas (Mott, 2016, pp. 458). Communicate public transit routes and timetables.

Navigating Internal Constraints

  Part of confronting the perception that parks are not inclusive is by making that true. African Americans have been influenced in their visitation by negative interactions with white park rangers who make up 80% of park staff (Mott, 2016, pp. 458). From the Buffalo Soldiers to the establishment of Sequoia (Kings Canyon) National Park, African Americans have been pivotal in shaping public land. The stories and imagery of these individuals should be shared (Mott, 2016, pp. 458) to build a more inclusive outdoor narrative. Each park should require that all of its interpreters are prepared to talk about minority narratives and include them in media messaging by doing the following:

  • Equip park staff with the training required to respond to diverse constituents (Roberts, 2007, pp. 9).
  • Encourage diverse applicants by sending minority staffers to job fairs, creating clear paths of promotion, partnering with historically Black colleges and universities, and advertising jobs to local communities (McCown et al., 2012, pp. 279). 
  • Opt out of the “safe route” around past controversies and aim to engage visitors in a conversation on American racial history (Coslett, 2016, pp. 125) (Roberts, 2007, pp. 16).  Address cultural values, target minority communities, and make connections in thematic content (McCown, 2012, pp. 276). 
  • Seek advisement from POC communities (Roberts, 2007, pp. 45) and include POC in the leadership of the parks to establish that parks are a local resource and encourage long-term engagement (Jacohson et al., 1997, pp. 43). 
  • Build relationships between staff and visitors and be consistently committed to equity (McCown et al., 2012, pp. 274).
  • Feature media that portrays the target audience (Roberts, 2007, pp. 18). One way to do this is through hiring diverse media interns who are the age of the target audience (Roberts, 2007, pp. 18).
  • Post about preferred activities (Mott, 2016, pp. 467) using humor, captivating language, and imagery of social connections (Roberts, 2007, pp. 23), and referencing nature as a way to address social concerns (Roberts, 2007, pp. 25). 
  • Amplify POC outdoor media accounts. Accounts such as Outdoor Afro (Outdoor Afro, 2020) and Diversify Outdoors (Diversify Outdoors, 2017) have already created far-reaching networks highlighting diversity in the outdoors and parks should partner with them through Instagram collaborations and partnerships. 

 

Conclusion

The many barriers that keep people of color from feeling welcome in the American outdoors may seem daunting. An examination of park media indicates that not only do outdoor accounts not feature people of color, media accounts in general play into the construction of a racialized outdoor identity. This identity is a result of visitor use patterns, but could also be a cause of them, as people of color do not find that parks are a welcoming space for them. The racialized outdoor identity also intersects with historical and contemporary constraints for POC visitors in parks and is amplified by stories of threatening and even violent behavior on the part of other people in the parks. It is clear that inequity in the outdoors is part of a larger landscape of racial prejudice which requires the collective attention of Americans.

The suggested changes above are supported in the literature and are offered as a step toward more inclusion in public lands. Because the suggestions are primarily crafted to operate within current interpretation structures and take advantage of ongoing media programs, they can be feasible and effective ways to welcome communities of color. However, the most fundamental suggestion to be made is that land management teams listen to the voices of people of color in all aspects. In prioritizing these voices in the decision-making process, public lands have a much better chance of building effective media. Information campaigns should aim to reach out to new visitors and help them navigate their constraints, whether external or internal, and protect our collective right to public land. Media is not representational if it does not reference the voices of people of color. 

Public lands are not exempt from the pursuit of racial equity in the United States. These places have historically been directed at the image, narrative, and access of white Americans, without welcoming the minority members of our community. However, if public land is a citizen’s right, as we have said it is, then the constraints keeping minorities from visiting should be remedied. There is no doubt that outdoor activities offer employment and physical and mental health benefits (Pearson and Craig, 2014, pp. 1), but even more than that, the public lands are places where we tell our national stories, and these stories should include everyone. We have an opportunity now to ensure that the outdoors is no longer a white space, and we must take it.

Works Cited

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