Nature and Diversity: Opening Outdoor Opportunities to People of Color


Nature in America’s national parks, refuges, and protected spaces is a profusion of color: from the purple-pink rhododendrons in the Great Smoky Mountains to the palette of reds, tans, and oranges on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, from the steel blues and grays of Glacier Bay to the thousand varieties of green at Olympia.

There is one aspect of our park system which remains far less diverse, however: the people. Of the 300 million-plus park visitors every year, only 22 percent identify as racial minorities, although these groups make up 37 percent of the U.S. population. African Americans are especially underrepresented, comprising only seven percent of park visitors (in contrast, they represent 13 percent of the population). As people of color are expected to become the majority by 2044, this underrepresentation not only deprives millions of Americans the opportunity to participate in a cornerstone of our national heritage, it also threatens the existence of the park system itself.

Impediments to Access for People of Color

“There are a lot of factors that go into why families of color don’t go to national parks,” says Sarah Scruggs, a three-time SCA intern who is currently stationed at the Mount Saint Helens National Monument in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. “This wasn’t something that was accessible to people of color in generations past, and now there are other obstacles like the rise in admission prices. Also, some of the parks are very remote and if you don’t have a reliable car or know how to access those places, then you’re not getting out there.”

(SCA alum Sarah Scruggs working at the Mount Saint Helens National Monument in Washington state.)

Beyond logistical and financial factors, Scruggs believes that the problem also has a cultural component. Scruggs spent a lot of time camping and hiking as a child growing up in a mixed-race family – but she found that her experience was not the norm for many families of color. “A lot of times, being outdoorsy in a recreational sense is considered a ‘white’ thing to do,” she says. The problem, she adds, carries over into the staffing of the parks themselves. “People of color have been working outside for one reason or another historically, so it feels like we’re still climbing to get the respect that’s deserved in the workforce. And once you get that, it’s hard to want to go back outside.”

Daniel Agudelo, a fellow SCA veteran and seasonal interpretative ranger at the Everglades National Park in southern Florida, has a similar assessment. “How can I portray the concept of wilderness to a family that lives in a city and speaks very little English?” he asks. This is an especially pertinent question since Agudelo is stationed in Miami-Dade County, where 60 percent of families speak Spanish as a first language. “If we’re trying to be more inclusive to the community, we as a park need to resemble that community,” he adds.

(SCA alum Daniel Agudelo working at the Everglades National Park in Florida.)

This desire to make the park more inviting to a broader range of visitors spurred Agudelo to propose a first-ever Spanish tour of the Everglades. “We were offering a German walking tour once a week, but nothing in Spanish?” he points out. With the support of his supervisor, he took to social media to promote his initiative, building on the park’s own outreach offer of free trolley service from Miami for those without cars or who are unable to pay the $25 entrance fee.       

The SCA Works to Diversify Access to Nature – and Jobs

Fostering an ethic of conservation and stewardship among younger generations is a critical mission of the SCA – and that mission must include people from all backgrounds. To that end, the SCA has taken a series of steps both to open programming to a more diverse population and to bring conservation opportunities to underserved communities. The NPS Academy – which Daniel Agudelo attended – is an innovative, experiential learning program designed to introduce undergraduate and graduate students to career opportunities with the National Park Service. The program, which is particularly geared to students who self-identify as being from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, is allied with the National Park Service’s stated goal of “recruiting and retaining a workforce that reflects the diversity of the nation.”

Meanwhile, the Urban Tree House Program provides free environmental education programs for K-12 urban youth in cities ranging from Washington DC to New York (Governor’s Island, Manhattan) to Chicago. Through hands-on conservation projects, participating youth have an opportunity to establish a relationship with the environment and have fun at the same time.

(An environmental education intern works with local children at the Urban Treehouse in Washington, DC.)

Where Urban Tree House stimulates a love for nature, the SCA’s Community Crews offer inner-city youth – who for economic or family reasons may not be able to spend several weeks in a national park – a practical chance to restore parks, waterfronts, and landscapes right in their own neighborhoods. The crews, open to high-school age students in cities and regions across the country, operate both during the school year and summer, with both paid and volunteer positions available.

Enjoyment of the outdoors, of course, is not something that is limited to national parks, monuments, and refuges, but applies everywhere. Although there is still much more to do, the SCA has made progress in bringing outdoor opportunities to populations throughout the country, while preparing the conservation leaders of tomorrow to take the lead in the protection of our natural resources.

(SCA Pittsburgh Community Program crew members walking to their work site.)

A Question of Representation

For Sarah Scruggs, every person of color who enters into the conservation field – be it in the Park Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Land Management, the state and local park system, or an academic or advocacy position – makes it that much easier for the next person to follow. “I’ve heard a lot of stories from friends about what made them pursue this,” she says. “And they say, ‘Well, I met this ranger who was also Hispanic or Latino or a woman or bilingual. And we connected and that made me want to get into the field.’ So that creates a circle of how to get people of color into the parks and aware of the jobs and opportunities that exist.”

(Sarah Scruggs working in the field.)

Scruggs knows that it can be difficult to be a groundbreaker, but she feels it’s a critical role for minorities to play. “People of color in the outdoors are very much in the minority, and it’s hard to be the only one out there – literally,” she notes. “But we should keep reminding ourselves that we’re doing this for future generations and working to make space for underrepresented populations in the outdoor community.”

While courageous rangers of color like Scruggs and Agudelo are paving the way for others to follow, the onus should not be on individuals alone to effect widespread change. Indeed, it is also the responsibility of the Park Service and organizations such as the SCA to make sure that as diverse a population as possible knows of opportunities for both recreation and careers in the outdoors – and feels welcome, motivated, and informed enough to seize them. Not only is it the right thing to do morally, but the future of our national parks may also depend upon it.

For more information on SCA’s work to promote diversity, please see our article “Diversity in Conservation: Expanding Career Opportunities in the Environmental Sciences.”