When we think of the great outdoors, accessibility and inclusivity probably aren’t the first things that come to mind. But nature and green spaces are meant to be one of the few services readily available to us by simply going outside. The ethos of the National Park Service (NPS) is to preserve nature “unimpaired” for the “enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations” (NPS). In reality, the “great outdoors” fall short of being a great space for all.
In 2021, 54% of the U.S. population participated in some form of outdoor recreation, though 72% of participants were white despite representing 59% of the population (Outdoor Industry Association, Census). There’s limited information on disabled people’s use of outdoor spaces and national parks. However, in 2012, the NPS estimated that 28 million global visitors with disabilities visit U.S. national parks annually, though averaging upwards of 300 million visitors (NPS, NPS). The lack of diversity makes the outdoors feel less inclusive as if meant for white, nondisabled people.
• Support and join organizations like Disabled Hikers, Inclusive Outdoors Project, Go Unlimited, Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes, Latino Outdoors, Black Girls Trekkin’, and Team FarSight Foundation Initiatives expanding access to the outdoors.
• Take advantage of the Access Pass that grants free lifetime access to U.S. parks and recreation sites to disabled people.
• Utilize trail guides from Access Recreation or Disable Hikers and the Climbers of Color resource guide.
It’s not that nature or the great outdoors are discriminatory. It’s that marginalized people were never envisioned enjoying these spaces. The early 1900s conservation movement that helped create the National Park System was led by conservationists dedicated to saving and preserving the country’s vanishing forests, natural resources, and species, including the “great race.” Charles Goethe, founder of the National Park Service’s interpretive program, Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the U.S. Forest Service, and even President Theodore Roosevelt were staunch believers in a racial hierarchy and the eugenics movement (NPS, The New Yorker). The reverence given to redwoods, moose, or the “‘noble’ elk and buffalo” was not afforded to the people of color, immigrants, and disabled people who they deemed inferior.
Conservationist Madison Grant, who helped create the National Park Service, was also one of the founders of the American Eugenics Society (NPS). His book The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History, which Adolf Hitler called “my bible,” used racial pseudoscience to defend white supremacy. He successfully lobbied for legislation to protect lands at the expense of poor, immigrant, and Indigenous people while advocating for forced sterilization to ensure race purity.
He, like other conservationist-eugenicists, used terms like “pure” and “pristine” to describe nature and white Americans that needed to be “protected from dirty ‘invasive,’ non-native species.” For Grant and other conservationist elites, the great outdoors was for “wealthy, white Americans to enjoy.”
Many notable environmental and conservation organizations have a history shrouded in racist and eugenicist beliefs. Though today institutions like the National Parks Service acknowledge their problematic origins, they continue to be predominantly white and able-bodied (Washington Post, Diversify Outdoors, NPS) and fail at addressing barriers for marginalized communities accessing, navigating, and feeling safe and welcome in outdoor spaces and natural parks.
“I want to experience more than a mile of nature.”Matthew Tilford, writer and worker in the adaptive sports industry (Roadtrippers)
Communities of color are almost three times more likely than their white counterparts to live in nature-deprived areas with limited or no access to parks, trails, beaches, and other green spaces because of economic disparities and discrimination (American Progress). When they do access outdoor spaces, Black and Brown people are met with hostility and suspicion. Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed while running in February 2020. That same year, Christian Cooper was falsely accused of threatening a white woman while birdwatching in Central Park.
Public outdoor spaces are also often inaccessible for some disabled people. From uneven or obstructed paths to a lack of accessible pedestrian signals, some people often can’t navigate outdoor spaces as efficiently as others – let alone enjoy them (Arch Digest).
Though all national parks alter the landscape to accommodate visitors, accessibility for disabled people is often disregarded. Limited information about trails and parks on websites, vague accessibility labels, maps, and trail posts with no alternatives to the text-only format, improperly trained park rangers and staff, deferred upkeep on facilities designed for wheelchair use but inaccessible to reach, and the failure to offer adaptive technology prevent disabled people from navigating the outdoors more freely (NPS).
“I’m not expecting them to pave and grade the wilderness to make it wheelchair accessible,” says “adaptive adventurer” Nerissa Cannon (Roadtrippers). “However, often the barrier is a barrier to technology. There are a lot of instances where a trail would be ‘accessible’ to a visitor with a mobility limitation simply by using the right equipment.”
Following demands for expanded access and accessibility information, the NPS created the Accessibility Task Force in 2015 to make public lands more accessible by 2020, which has led to some parks implementing accessible infrastructure and services like offering all-terrain wheelchairs (NPS, NPS, Condé Nast Traveler). However, improvements are not universally implemented and often fail to address the barriers to entry and participation (Forbes).
Groups like Disabled Hikers and Black Girls Trekkin’ have taken the initiative to restore inclusivity to national parks and green spaces by publishing trail guides and beginner resources, organizing identity-led groups that encourage and educate individuals on how to navigate these spaces, setting accessibility standards, and more.
Reclaiming the great outdoors is more than closing the nature gap. It’s correcting the narrative of who gets to enjoy the great outdoors.
• National parks have historically been exclusionary for marginalized communities.
• Wealthy, white eugenicists largely led the movement to preserve nature, influencing their conservation advocacy.
• Today, the push for greater accessibility and inclusivity in outdoor recreation is led by the folks historically excluded and disregarded.