Camping in Color, other initiatives aim to diversify outdoor recreation, but is it working?

New Wasatch Mountain Institute program strives to remove barriers for Black families wanting to explore the outdoors.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Visitors to Delicate Arch in Arches National Park wait in line to have their picture taken inside the Entrada Sandstone arch formation as the sun sets, Tuesday, May 16, 2023. Many programs aiming to diversify the outdoors have sprouted up in recent years, and they appear to be working.

Jason Swann was a financial analyst and “model citizen” when he moved to Nebraska to be with his twin brother. While living there, Swann, who is Black, was pulled over by police and, he said, beaten and arrested on false charges. It took him more than a year to get the charges reduced, but it seemed he would never get back the life he had planned. He said having that mark on his record made it difficult to get a job and sent him on an unwanted detour.

Another detour, one down a trail to Dorothy Lake in Colorado, has helped him find his way.

“It changed my life forever,” Swann, who had little outdoors experience before moving to Colorado and joining a hiking group, said. “Just being able to heal the rage that was inside of me, the anger I had toward society and everybody else who decided to write my own story.”

Swann went on to found Rising Routes in 2017. It is one of many organizations that have sprouted in recent years that are geared toward getting Black, Indigenous and people of color into the outdoors. Others include the Outdoor Industry Association’s Thrive Outside Initiative, also founded in 2017, and Camping in Color, a Utah program that will host its first outings late this summer.

A report recently released by the OIA indicates the effort is working. Still, while the Outdoor Retailer trade show’s diversity-centric day of education sessions held at the Salt Palace Convention Center on Monday — which was also Juneteenth — celebrated that progress, many panelists said much work remains to be done.

“I see a base that isn’t as diverse as the population. That’s a little scary,” Kelly Davis, OIA’s director of research, while reviewing a bar graph that showed that while white, non-Hispanic people make up 68.3% of the United States population, they account for 71.3% of all Americans who recreate outdoors.

“And that’s one of the reasons that we’re working on this.”

The good news, according to the report Davis revealed Monday morning, is that those minority groups are making strides outside. Between 2021 and 2022, the participation rate for Black people increased more than 5%. That means last year, 40.7% of Black people engaged in outdoor recreation, which encompasses a variety of activities from birdwatching to kayaking to fishing. Though a record 168.1 million Americans played outside in 2022, only Black people increased their average number of outings. In fact, that group had the highest number of outings per year on average compared to any other ethnic or racial group.

Yet, as Davis’ charts showed, Black people still account for just 12.7% of outdoor participants. Latinos, whose number of participants has grown by more than a third since 2015 — the most of any group — account for 12.4%. Asian and Pacific Islanders make up 5.3% of participants.

The data comes from surveys conducted by the OIA and Davis said the report has a near-zero margin of error.

One organization stepping in to try to boost those participation numbers in Utah is the Wasatch Mountain Institute. The nonprofit has been introducing northern Utah school children to nature via snowshoeing, birding, hiking and camping trips since 2019. In September, however, it will host its first Camping in Color weekend.

A sort of summer version of Ski Utah’s Discover Winter program, the two-day expedition is intended to introduce Black families to camping by reducing most hurdles, including gear and transportation. However, it will include other activities of interest to the participants — such as paddleboarding or rock climbing — all taught by BIPOC instructors. Afterward, campers will be asked to take part in a survey measuring what barriers that remain that would keep them from returning to the wilderness and taking stock of their experience.

Hilary Lambert, the Wasatch Mountain Institute’s executive director, joined with Sydney Murray to create the program. Both are studying at the University of Utah, which helped fund it with a grant from the Campus Sustainability Initiative.

“If you come in here and are like, ‘That was really amazing and I want to take my family,’” said Hilary Lambert, the Wasatch Mountain Institute’s executive director, “hopefully it’s the entry point to that.”

Lambert said her hope is that the people who really enjoy one or more of the activities will introduce others they know to them. Eventually, instead of the program taking people of color on outings, she hopes they’ll take each other. To lower some of the barriers to that, the institute has built and continues to grow its gear library. Currently the library mostly resides at the Wasatch Mountain Institute’s campus at the Rock Cliff Nature Center, but the organization has purchased a trailer to make the gear more mobile.

“We can’t serve everybody,” Lambert said of Camping in Color, “so the gear library is a great tool to help serve more people.”

Lambert said she would like to expand the gear library to include a wider variety of gear and the Camping in Color program to include more families. For that, though, she needs “buckets of money.”

Last November, Swann helped with Salt Lake City’s successful campaign to pass an $85 million bond measure to bolster the city’s trails and parks. Most of that money will go to infrastructure, however, as do most of the grants given out by the Utah Division of Outdoor Recreation. While that’s far from money wasted, what’s needed to get new groups outside, Lambert said, is funding for programs.

In order to get that, and make the most of it, some of the panelists suggested all those programs working to diversify the outdoors could benefit from coming together. A small detour can result in a sea change.

“That one-off grant for a program is nice, but it’s not making that generational change possible,” said Jacob Fisher, the Thrive Outdoor Initiative development and programs manager.

“We’re all collectively worth more together.”