You don't look like me. Come outside.

I have on multiple occasions in this column blog extolled the virtues of parks and natural areas. I have described the unprecedented increase in park visitation as our friends, family, and neighbors took to the parks and trails to the benefit of their mental and physical health during the pandemic. I have talked about economic impacts, health benefits, and the intangible benefits of having places to take the family to make life-defining memories in the outdoors. 

And that’s all still true. 

But in contemplating these outdoor places, or any place for that matter, I see the world through my own eyes, my own paradigm. And unthinkingly, I just assume everyone else sees the same world. I assume that everyone else sees these places as safe, fun, accessible, and inviting. 

But they don’t. And the worst part is, I don’t know how to change that. Yet.

Here’s the deal. I’m middle-aged, middle-class, married with two young kids, college educated, professionally employed, and white. I’m healthy. I grew up here, have family here, and know a lot of people around here. Yes, I am incredibly fortunate, and I try not to forget it. 

I grew up outdoors. I hunted, fished, camped, hiked and spent my weekends and summers in the woods. My dad is an outdoorsman, as was my grandpa. In short, outdoorsy stuff is in my heritage. So of course I’m inherently drawn to such places as lakes and woods and trails and campgrounds. And I expect everyone else to be also. 

But not everyone is like me. 

Try this: Close your eyes and envision a hiker, hunter, fisherman, camper, or naturalist. Who do you see? I bet they weren’t black or Hispanic or Asian or anything other than white. And probably male. 


I searched "hunter" in Google Images and here's what I got. I'm impressed at the number of women represented but the middle-age, middle-class, and white description is pretty universal here. 

That has to change. 

If I look at our typical park visitor or program participant, they look a lot like me. While the age and gender demographics vary pretty widely, the middle class and white description almost always applies. Granted, 94 percent of Des Moines County residents are white. But white people make up only 87 percent of our main population center, Burlington (81 percent as of the 2010 census). And according to our data, that’s where most of our visitors and program participants come from. 

So why aren’t more minorities attending our programs or visiting our parks? Why don’t more women hunt and fish? What barriers do I not see?  What can we as a public agency do to break down those barriers? What programs can we offer to get different people outdoors? Our parks and programs are open to everyone, but are there underlying or intangible cultural or societal barriers that we don’t see, that nobody points out? 

As the guy in charge of ensuring our county’s parks and programs are accessible and inclusive, these are questions I struggle with. I know it’s hard to buck stereotypes and expectations, but we have to at least try.

I’m not alone. Conservation and outdoor recreation agencies across the country are asking the same questions. For example, as hunter numbers decline, there’s been a big push to make the sport of hunting more inclusive but the tried-and-true messaging of “it’s our heritage” doesn’t apply to demographics that have virtually no history with the sport. Hunting and shooting sports have been an older white man’s game for generations. Considering the fact that the bulk of wildlife conservation funding comes from hunters and shooters, the demographics of those communities need to more closely reflect that of the population at large or the entire system is in jeopardy. 


Why are images like this such a rarity?
Image credit: African American Hunting Association

From my perspective, everyone should discover and enjoy the benefits of parks and outdoor recreation that I’ve so often written about here. If there are sizeable segments of the community that, for whatever reason, are missing out on those benefits then I want to do what I can to change that. 

I don’t know the answers but we’re at least starting to ask the questions. Our new environmental education strategic plan outlines new programs designed to reach new segments of the community. Our hope is by connecting with underserved demographics via programs in our parks and with our staff, we will not only introduce new people to the joys of the natural world, but we can have the necessary conversations to help us understand what it will take to make our parks and programs more inclusive. It won’t happen overnight and there will almost certainly be missteps along the way. But that’s the price of progress. 

I’ll close with an invitation to anyone reading this that doesn’t look like me. I’d like to talk with you, or your organization, as the case may be. Help me understand our differences so we can develop and share the benefits of the outdoors together. 

Reach me by phone at 319-753-8260 or by email.

This is a modified version of my Living Land column that is published monthly in The Hawk Eye.