Does the Outdoors Have a Cultural Problem?

outdoors culture problemFor years the outdoors was the great equalizer. Stephen Mather, the first head of the National Park Service, welcomed cars to national parks for a reason: to make them the meeting ground for all Americans. He wanted to shift parks from the playground of wealthy railroad tourists to a place where, due to the recently affordable Model T, from different incomes and walks of life could rub elbows on trails and in campgrounds.

Then a newfangled wonder product hit the market: waterproof, breathable Gore-Tex. It had a different look to it than the classic yellow rain slicker or green rubber poncho. It kept hikers dry without soaking them from the condensation, and, like most new products, it was more expensive than a poncho. It also looked different, so it suddenly became possible to tell backpacker’s tax brackets from a distant ridgeline.

Now the evidence is bulding that the outdoors has drifted away from Stephen Mather’s vision as a meeting ground of cultures. The outdoors is becoming homogenous. And it’s not just about the cost of good gear: its about culture, bureaucracy, and comfort.

A recent survey of kids nationwide by The Nature Conservancy puts the problem in stark contrast: 88% of American kids spend time online every day, but only 40% spend time outdoors even once a week. But the reasons are equally telling: they don’t feel comfortable outdoors due to bugs, heat, and cold, they don’t have transportation to get there, and it’s too expensive.

It’s Uncomfortable
The perception that being outdoors means being uncomfortable is eminently solvable. In fact, it’s already been solved: outdoor technology has long-since figured out ways to keep us warm, dry, well-fed, and safe from all butt he most extreme elements. The skills involved—dressing for the outdoors, camping in comfort, and so on—are easily taught by everything from outdoor stores to community colleges to scouts.

It’s Expensive
The expensive part is no secret. Gear is expensive, but also also good. The good news is that basic gear that can keep us warm and dry in most circumstances has been dropping in price compared to a few years ago as it becomes widespread. But using the gear has gotten more expensive. A basic tent site at a state park costs $21/night for one car…plus an $8 reservation fee. And then there’s the various access passes and permits such as the Northwest Forest Pass, the state Discover Pass, and passes for using local boat ramp or entry to local, state, or regional parks. Between the cost, the gear, and the hassle of navigating world of access, it’s only natural that many people will simply decide to do something else. At a time when the middle class is shrinking, gear and access costs that assume a middle-class lifestyle are e a barrier for more and more of us.

No Place for Me
But there’s an even more chilling statistic. In the Nature Conservancy survey, 43% of kids say when they go into the great outdoors, they don’t feel welcome among the other people there. So much for Mather’s idea of parks as a cultural meeting ground. The Nature Conservancy’s report doesn’t plumb into the precise reasons, but it doesn’t take much figuring out.

Over time we’ve become increasingly kitted up in ways that accidentally throw up a cultural barrier. Outdoor sports have developed a strong tribal culture among its various segments, able to recognize skiers, climbers, and paddlers by the stickers on their gear or the types of roof racks on their car. The good part part of being a tribe is being in, and sharing the campfire with like-minded souls. But it’s easy to forget that the outdoor culture is also making someone else feel out. It’s not a new dynamic: a New Yorker on his first journey west wrote about feeling ostracized by veteran cowpunchers in the Dakota Territory in the 1880s. (The New Yorker’s name was Teddy Roosevelt, and he eventually won them over.) When those in-out “are these my people?” dynamics are combined with questions of race and economic disparity, the barriers become significant. And they come at great cost to both people and the outdoors. As America’s population diversifies and the middle class continues to struggle, this divide threatens our societal cohesion. The divide also threatens the outdoors itself: if the most rapidly growing sectors of the population don’t feel welcome in the outdoors, we’ll struggle to fund things like trails, campgrounds, and parks.

It’s Everyone’s Job
None of this means that we should give up gear that keeps us safe or stop doing what we love. But the Nature Conservancy’s data shows us in no uncertain terms that it’s to our advantage to be welcoming and non-exclusive. lest we accidentally send the message that if you don’t have the latest gear you’re not part of the in crowd. As the 43% of kids that don’t feel welcome in the outdoors have shown us, work is needed to get across cultural barriers in the outdoors.

And the outdoor industry and outdoor loves should support some policy changes. We need to fund our parks so that camping is affordable to everyone. We need to simplify recreation and access passes: as of this writing, a bill introduced by Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon is languishing in Congressional gridlock. We find ways to get urban populations to the wilds when they can’t afford transportation. We need more nature close to where people live. which will take a concerted effort by land management agencies, outdoor companies, and policymakers.

But some is simply meeting people, chatting in trailhead parking lots, introducing people to the places we love and why we love them. Stephen Mather would be proud.

By Neil Schulman

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