California and Nevada want more than just white people enjoying the outdoors. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Look around. Who do you see when you play in the outdoors? Do others look like you? Likely the answer is “no” if you are not white.

The National Ski Areas Association reported that in the 2021-22 season, 89 percent of skiers were white, 5.7 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, 5.5 percent Latino, 1.5 percent Black, and less than 1percent American Indian or Alaska native.

Officials estimate 75 percent of visitors to state and national parks in the U.S. are white, while as a whole white people represent less than 60 percent of the overall population.

Nevada and California are making a concerted effort to be more inclusive not only to people of color, but to those on the lower rungs on the economic ladder as well those with mobility issues.

“We know just looking at our typical visitors when you drive through our parks it is predominately white folks using parks for camping,” Bob Mergell, administrator for Nevada Division of State Parks, said. “Our goal is to try to reach out to groups who historically may not have utilized state parks.”

At the end of last year California released a document titled: Outdoors for All: Providing Equitable Access to Parks and Nature. In addition to English, it will be translated into four languages, which is another effort to be inclusive.

The public had an opportunity to comment on this document when it was released last summer, as well at the multiple workshops, including the one in Truckee.

“What I heard in Truckee and at other rural places is that you can be surrounded by public lands and still not have access,” Katherine Toy, California Natural Resources Agency’s deputy director for access, said. “Access to recreation in Tahoe can be expensive; transit is an issue.”

Expenses include paying more than $100 for a lift ticket, renting or buying gear, needing appropriate clothing, and possibly a lesson to know how to participate.

“One in 4 Californians do not have the same access to outdoors that others have. That is something we can do better,” Toy said. “There are a number of positive health outcomes for those who have easy access to nature. People deserve to have access to the outdoors in their everyday lives and not have it just as a special treat.”

Toy is in charge of the state’s Outdoors for All initiative that was launched in 2021 when the state allocated $1 billion to the cause. This included $500 million in grants to local communities for parks infrastructure, transportation and education programs, and the other $500 million for expanding access to State Parks and other state facilities through infrastructure and improvements to existing programs.

Professional skiers and those watching the sport are predominately white. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Forming alliances

Both states are working to hire more people of color as well as use promotional materials that reflect diversity.

It’s not just about getting people to participate in sports popular in the Tahoe-Truckee area, it’s about getting people to their local and regional parks. It’s about developing outdoor spaces where there aren’t any. People also need to feel safe, and that isn’t always the case for non-whites.

“The strategies outlined in this section will help achieve a future where every Californian feels safe, welcome, and encouraged in the outdoors, and can enjoy California’s outdoor spaces without hesitation,” the document says.

California’s is the largest state parks system in the country with 279. The state estimates 6 in 10 residents live in park-poor neighborhoods, which by definition is less than 3 acres of open space per 1,000 residents.

For comparison, Nevada has 27 state parks.

In mid-October, California State Parks signed a five-year memorandum of understanding with the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians (who are based on the West Slope of El Dorado County) at the future site of the California Indian Heritage Center known as Pusúune in West Sacramento. It’s being built for the protection, preservation, and interpretation for parks on the tribe’s ancestral homelands.

This is the fifth MOU State Parks has signed with a tribe in the last year.

Nevada is working with groups like Blacks in Nature and Black Folks Camp Too.

A bill approved by the Nevada Legislature in 2019 created the Office for New Americans. One component of the law is that every state agency must have a diversity and inclusion liaison.

For Nevada state parks that person is Janice Keillor. This designation is in addition to being the department’s deputy administrator.

“Little by little we are going to chip away at the barriers that exist,” Keillor said.

Note: A version of this story first appeared in the 2023-24 winter issue of Tahoe In Depth.

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