Conservation in the West Poll Points to Issue of Diversity in Environmentalism and the Outdoors

It’s no secret that the outdoor industry and outdoor enthusiasts are by and large a privileged group. Outdoor recreation often requires traveling long distances and can be expensive, dissuading many without the time or means to participate. Additionally, because it exists almost entirely in a privileged milieu, its imbalances are perpetuated.

The lack of social diversity in outdoor recreation was exemplified at the Outdoor Retailer trade show hosted in Denver in Jan. 2018. A largely white audience perused the hundreds of vendors advertising their new waterproof socks, jackets, and innovative takes on the water bottle. These same individuals promoting their new products and taking advantage of the outdoors are also often those most involved in conservation and environmentalist circles.

White people are disproportionately represented in outdoor recreation. In 2015, 80 percent of all national parks visitors, volunteers, and staff were white, according to the National Park Service. Overrepresentation in outdoor recreation leads to overrepresentation in conservation and environmental activism, a field that should be interracial and bipartisan, as it affects us all deeply.

Despite the lack of interracial and bipartisan representation in environmentalist movements, an overwhelming majority of Westerners self-identify as conservationists, yet this majority is failing to channel their beliefs into action. The Outdoor Retailer trade show served as the venue for the release of the Conservation in the West poll, an annual survey conducted by the Colorado College State of the Rockies project. The poll emphasized that 76 percent of Western voters self-identify as conservationists—a 13 percent increase from two years ago—while 74 percent identify as outdoor recreation enthusiasts. Latinx voters experienced an 18 percent rise in those who identify as conservationists. Despite strong conservative influences in the eight states polled (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming), 52 percent of Westerners disapprove of the Trump administration’s handling of conservation issues.

It is clear that conservationist attitudes are prevalent across voter demographics. What we lack is action that reflects conservationist mindsets. This discrepancy may be explained by the fact that conservation issues, while viewed as important, are not at the forefront of voters’ minds. In a 2016 presidential election night poll, only two percent of respondents mentioned anything related to the environment as a central issue. However, when prompted, many affirmed the importance of such issues. The fact that environmental issues are sometimes upstaged by other political discussions may be one factor contributing to inaction.

Though the outlook for diversity in environmental activism may seem bleak, numerous organizations are working to increase participation and uplift voices from minority groups.

At the release of the Conservation in the West poll, Maite Arce of the Hispanic Access Foundation underscored the concern in the Latinx community for the preservation of water and public lands in the West. She stated that, Latinx people are “embracing [their] role as conservation stewards” as a result of these concerns. Arce’s non-profit organization connects Latinx with opportunities for civic engagement in order to create a more equitable society. It functions by first providing Latinx communities with opportunities to engage in outdoor recreation and subsequently pairing these experiences with avenues to join in environmental movements. This model, Arce claims, is exemplified by Latinx engagement in the movement to protect Colorado’s Browns Canyon and recognize it as a National Monument. Above all, she argues, public-private partnerships with “stakeholders that know our communities” are central to “break[ing] down barriers” to outdoor recreation for Latinx people, and, by extension, barriers to environmental advocacy.

In the face of ever-increasing effects of global climate change, progress will require greater unity. In the West, we have the means necessary to make progress, but lack decisive action. Even as minority groups begin to gain the resources and opportunities to more fully join the conversation, the problem remains that many environmental activists are the white, upper-middle class outdoor recreationists that frequent outdoor trade fairs. With the public opinion in the environment’s favor, we must unite across partisan, racial, and ethnic divides in order to create a more powerful and effective environmental movement.

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