(CNN)In a time of intense political polarization in the United States, experts say, we need nature more than ever. Wild spaces offer opportunities for recreation but also for healing and unity. They are places to come together to breathe deeply and reflect on where society is headed.
“We’re at a really important moment in human history,” said Florence Williams, author of “The Nature Fix.” “We’ve never been so disconnected from nature as we are right now.”
With omnipresent technology and rising urbanization, people are becoming less connected to the great outdoors.
“What happens to a culture when it can no longer envision a future that is better and more beautiful than the one happening now?” asked Richard Louv, author of “The Last Child in the Woods” and the “Nature Principle.”
Exploring natural places enables everyone to see the world in a new way — but it’s an experience that’s often restricted to specific segments of the American population.
The healing potential of wilderness
Green spaces bring numerous health benefits. Nancy Wells, a professor of human ecology at Cornell University, explained that experiences in nature can lead to decreased blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, assist with direct attention fatigue, and increase cognitive function. Nature might even buffer the impact of stress, Wells said.
“There is also evidence that nature is a social magnet,” she said. “Nature draws people together and helps to foster neighborhood social ties.”
Some doctors are even prescribing time in nature as part of treatment plans for chronic issues like high blood pressure or attention-deficit disorder.
“Because the outdoors provide a range of benefits that we often don’t think about, we need those spaces for us to be our better selves,” said Jose Gonzalez, founder and executive director of Latino Outdoors.
Many advocates suggest that the decreasing connection to nature accompanying urbanization may have more drastic consequences than anticipated.
“This is about holding on to our own humanity,” said Shelton Johnson, an African-American park ranger and storyteller in Yosemite National Park. “What it means to be ‘human’ existed within the context of wilderness for tens of thousands of years. It’s like walking into a psychologist’s office and saying, ‘I don’t know who I am anymore.’ Where can we find who we really are? By climbing a mountain or by going down a river or walking into a forest at sunrise.”
Solving the diversity problem in the great outdoors
Natural areas in the United States have long symbolized national heritage, protected valuable natural resources and provided areas of recreation and respite. But for whom?
Evidence shows that white populations disproportionately access public lands for outdoor recreation. The second National Park Service Comprehensive Survey of the American Public, carried out by the University of Wyoming and published in 2011, found that only about one in five visitors to a national park site is nonwhite, and only about one in 10 is Hispanic.
This lack of diversity in outdoor recreation extends to the leadership of the park system and the outdoor industry at large. “The outdoor sector is probably the most homogenous field that exists today,” said Angelou Ezeilo, founder and CEO of the Greening Youth Foundation.
As the population of the United States continues to rapidly diversify, experts say, the face of the outdoor community has predominantly stayed the same: male, white and wealthy. According to the 2011 national park survey, the demographic composition of visitors to public lands hasn’t changed since the previous survey in 2000.
“Look who is on the cover of Outside magazine,” Gonzalez said. “You can look at the history of these covers. It will predominantly be a white male doing some kind of extreme outdoor adventure. What that affirms is: This is what the outdoors is, and this is who belongs in it.”
Teresa Baker, a leading advocate for people of color in the outdoors and founder of the African American Nature and Parks Experience, explained that the lack of diversity in the outdoor community extends beyond marketing campaigns and popular publications, into the natural spaces themselves.
“For communities of color in general, we’ve never seen us in the outdoors. We’ve never known that we have a place in these spaces. When you don’t see other people who look like you and when you don’t see the makeup of the staff that look like you in the national parks, you don’t feel welcome,” Baker said.
Many communities of color describe a sense of anxiety when thinking about outdoor spaces. There is some fear of the unfamiliar or unknown but also fear for safety.
“It’s not common to look at the outdoors as a place of respite. It’s a place where we’ve lived or worked or been forced to live and work,” said Glenn Nelson, a multiracial journalist and advocate and founder of The Trail Posse.
Rue Mapp, founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, explained that for many people of color, the legacy of slavery continues to fuel a negative association with rural or wooded areas. Gonzalez said that for some Latino communities, time in the outdoors conjures harsh memories of migrant work.
“You don’t have to go too far back in our history in America to see that access to nature experiences, whether it be on the coast or in some pristine park lands, have been restricted and inaccessible by law to African-Americans and other people of color,” Mapp said.
Johnson, who’s worked in the national park system for more than 20 years, explained this discomfort: “If you’re a woman, if you’re a person of color, if you’re in a wheelchair or have a cane, if you’re elderly, if you’re of a faith that’s different from the dominant faith, there is a wind blowing against you that only you, or only people who look like you, can feel. But if you are an empowered, wealthy, European-American male, it is a calm still day, and it has been a calm still day since the day you were born.”
There is also an economic barrier to accessing the outdoors. “Cost and transportation can also be prohibitive,” Gonzalez said. “For example, do we all own that Subaru that we can hop into to get out into these spaces? Are entry fees prohibitive?”
To solve the diversity problem in the outdoor community, experts say, we need to redefine what it means to be outdoorsy. Advocates explained that getting outside and exploring public lands can be daunting without personal experience or community members to guide you.
“We need to be able to promote outdoor lifestyles that are real,” said Ambreen Tariq, communications director and board member of Green Muslims. “People often view the outdoors as you’re a backpacker or you have to be extreme and minimal. But that’s not my lifestyle. The outdoors means you go outside and you enjoy nature in whatever setting you want. Maybe that’s a cookout; maybe that’s gardening; maybe that’s going to a state park that’s down the street.”
Through her Instagram account, Brown People Camping, Tariq hopes to be increase authenticity and accessibility of the outdoor community for people of all backgrounds.
Many nonprofit organizations, such as Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors, Adventures for Hopi, the Greening Youth Foundation, Big City Mountaineers and the Center for Diversity and the Environment, aim to address the barriers for traditionally underserved communities in the outdoors. These organizations often partner with outdoor retailers and reach hundreds of thousands of individuals across the country.
“It doesn’t just happen by more people showing up,” said Queta Gonzalez, programs director for the Center for Diversity and the Environment.
“We have to build capacity. People have to learn how to create an inclusive environment for everybody. To do that, we have to look at our own implicit bias, our own internalized superiority, our internalized oppression, and we have to work across difference,” she said
Outdoor retailers such as REI and Patagonia are also working to attract this budding customer base and project more diverse imagery in marketing campaigns.
“There’s been a really intentional effort to tell new stories, to show new faces and to imagine broader aperture of the stories of the outdoors,” said Laura Swapp, REI’s director of public affairs and marketing. “The question of ‘Are we relevant, and who have we been relevant for?’ is the number one thing we ask as folks who love the outdoors.”
Diverse voices for conservation
More and more people of color, minority communities and indigenous people are strengthening their connection with nature through outdoor experiences.
“It is not about establishing a relationship with the land. It is about re-establishing a relationship,” said Latino Outdoors’ Jose Gonzalez.
“Once you have that experience and you’re connected to natural places, we want to convert that into a civic voice and speak up for national parks,” said Hayley Mortimer, vice president of regional operations of the National Park Conservation Association.
Over the next century, diverse communities will be crucial in the battle to protect the nation’s public lands from losing their designations, experts say.
“What I understand about these spaces is, if we don’t fight for them, they’ll be taken away,” Baker said.
Without the inclusion of all people, regardless of background, environmental groups will not have the support they need to push the conservation movement forward.
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“Sometimes, communities of color are asked to be conservationists too soon. The truth is that people will protect what they love, but they are not going to love something that they don’t have a relationship with,” Mapp said.
Creating a more welcoming outdoor community and dismantling barriers to access will help reconnect people with the land. The future of the planet and of our human health depend on it, experts said.
“Nobody wants to be in the last generation where every kid, not just the kids with parents who love nature, has the chance to lie in the weeds and watch the clouds move,” Louv said. “That’s a powerful place to start.”