Minorities missing from the outdoors
By Bob Frye
Published: Sunday, May 16, 2010
Houston Graves could always count on one thing when he and his friends would fish Presque Isle Bay.
They'd show up with their bass boat, a 20-foot pro-grade Skeeter. They'd launch, armed with some of the same high-quality gear used by the most popular anglers on television. They'd catch their share of nice fish.
And they'd get lots of stares that had nothing to do with any of that.
"All of the white people would look at us in amazement," said Graves, a black from Penn Hills. "It was like, why would black people be running a boat like that?
"Most white people probably don't know many black people who fish, and most have probably never run into a black person who hunts."
It's no wonder. Statistics show that outdoor recreation is, nationally and in Pennsylvania, lily white.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has monitored participation in outdoor activities since 1955. It issues a report -- the National Survey of Hunting, Fishing and Wildlife-Associated Recreation -- every five years that details everything from what people hunt and fish for to how much they spend to do it.
The report also traces ethnic and racial trends and reveals that the people who spend time outdoors in this country are almost exclusively non-Hispanic white. That's remained true even as the nation as a whole has become more diverse.
In 1980, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the United States was 79.6 percent non-Hispanic white, 11.7 percent black and 6.4 percent Hispanic.
Almost three decades later, in 2008, America was 65.6 percent non-Hispanic white, 15.4 percent Hispanic and 12.2 percent black. Yet the racial makeup of those hunting, fishing and wildlife watching changed nary a bit over that time.
In 1980, according to Richard Aiken, a natural resource economist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, 95 percent of the nation's hunters, 93 percent of its wildlife watchers and 92 percent of its anglers were white. In 2006, 96 percent of hunters, 93 percent of wildlife watchers and 92 percent of anglers were white.
It's not just hunting and fishing where that racial gulf exists, though. Research done by The Outdoor Foundation found that even when expanding outdoor recreation to include everything from hiking and camping to canoeing and skateboarding, 80 percent of outdoor recreationists across all ages nationwide are white.
That's reflected locally.
A study done last year of visitation at six Pennsylvania state parks, including Ohiopyle and Pymatuning, found that 97 percent of visitors were white, compared to 1 percent black, 1 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Asian, said Heather Bennett, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resource's outdoor recreation manager.
Likewise, Venture Outdoors, the 10-year-old Pittsburgh group that sponsors hikes, paddles, bike trips and more, has seen its number of participants grow from a few hundred in 2001 to upwards of 40,000 last year.
"But that has not included all of the populations of Pittsburgh," said assistant executive director Sean Brady, noting that just 10 percent of Venture Outdoors' customers were minorities. "There's still a disconnect between the outdoors and Pittsburgh's minority population."
Randy Stark, who has been working on hunting heritage issues as chief conservation officer for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and president of the National Association of Conservation Law Enforcement Chiefs, agrees.
"If you kind of get on a balcony and look at this," Stark said, "the racial differences between the people who are involved in the outdoors and the rest of their neighbors is really quite shocking."
The Outdoor Foundation and Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation has spent a lot of time recently trying to figure out why that is.
That research has shown that some of the same things that keep Caucasians inside impact minorities. Issues include competition from video games and TV, work, team sports, family commitments and an overall lack of time.
Minorities also speak of some unique barriers, though. Hispanics especially are far more likely to say they have nowhere to fish, hunt or hike, or at least don't know where they can do those things.
Public land agencies are to blame for not overcoming that, contends Audrey Peterman of Atlanta, who organized the "Breaking the Color Barrier in the Great American Outdoors" conference last fall. The National Park Service, for example, knows that 99 percent of the visitors to Yosemite National Park are white, yet it's been, at best, slow to share information on opportunities to get outdoors, and, at worst, reluctant to do so, she said.
"It's like these lands are hidden in plain view," Peterman said. "Neither the (National) Park Service nor any of these agencies have really done the kind of educational programs needed to get minorities outside more, even as they talk about the need for diversity and change and blah, blah, blah. There's been lots of talk, but no action. No one is held responsible."
Safety is another concern. Outdoor Foundation research revealed that minority children are twice as likely as Caucasians to see the outdoors as a place where they can get hurt in accidents.
Their parents sometimes have darker fears.
Peterman said that when she and her husband first took up camping, friends urged them to arm themselves because blacks weren't welcome in the outdoors. Graves said his wife likewise wondered whether it was wise to go into the woods "with all those white guys with guns" when he began hunting.
Statistics show those fears to be largely unfounded, at least recently.
According to the FBI's Hate Crime Statistics 2008 report, just 97 of the 7,783 hate crimes reported that year -- about 1.2 percent -- occurred in "fields/woods." That ranked far behind the three most common crime scenes: residence/home (2,480 cases, or 32 percent), highway/road/alley/street (1,354, or 17 percent) and school/college (907, or 12 percent).
That's not always been the case historically, though, and that's driven minority participation in the outdoors underground, said Stephanie Simmons, the black and Native American Pittsburgh woman who serves as membership engagement chairwoman for the Allegheny Group of the Sierra Club.
"There's this rumor going around that brown people don't do the outdoors," Simmons said.
"But what brown people don't do is tell white people they do the outdoors.
"Let's face it, for years and years, if you wanted to be a part of that community, you weren't welcome."
Minorities cite a lack of cultural background in the outdoors as another issue. Mark Damian Duda, owner of Responsive Management, a research firm dealing with natural resource issues, said that became apparent to him when he was asked to poll minorities on their outdoor involvement in Virginia several years ago.
"I had an African American woman tell me that 'you buy things that look like you.' Essentially what she was talking about is that there are no role models for minorities in the outdoors," Duda said.
Baseball, football, basketball, even golf with the recently embattled Tiger Woods, have had minorities in posiitons of prominence, he noted.
"But the outdoors hasn't had that face," Duda said. "That's an issue."
Why it matters
Two decades ago, the lack of minority sportsmen was not a huge concern. Now - with Census Bureau projections saying minorities will represent a majority of the nation's population by 2042 - that's changed.
A study done by the American Sportfishing Association determined that if fishing nationally were a corporation, it would rank 47th on the Fortune 500 list of America's biggest companies. To stay that strong in the future, it's increasingly going to need people of color to become customers, said Heather Seiber, the Cranberry Township native and communications director for the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation.
The companies quickest to reach out to those people will have a huge advantage, added Donny Adair, who does diversity training for the city of Portland, Ore., and is working to develop a TV show as founder of the African American Hunting Association.
"This is a real opportunity," he said. "The first companies that go out there and reach out to African Americans and people of color are going to have real product loyalty."
Likewise, state agencies responsible for managing fish and wildlife need those customers, said Ron Regan, executive director of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. They are funded largely by license sales and a federal excise tax collected on things such as firearms, ammunition and fishing rods.
Yet, one study done by the National Shooting Sports Foundation determined that, nationally, only 69 new hunters are being recruited for every 100 lost to death, age or other issues.
If that trend continues -- if there are fewer hunters and anglers in the future, in part because the growing minority population does not participate more -- there will be less money to pay for conservation, he said.
An even larger concern, some say, is what will happen to the nation's natural resources if a growing percentage of the population has no connection to them.
"Our future environmental stewards, our future outdoor consumers, our future outdoor workforce, will be increasingly minority," said Christine Fanning, executive director of The Outdoor Foundation. "If they've never pedaled a bike or paddled a stream, outdoor recreation and the environmental resources of this country are at risk, in my view.
"Where will the political will to protect those things come from if we don't recruit more people now?"
History shows that it's possible to recruit new groups into the outdoors.
A decade ago, the outdoor industry and wildlife agencies began an intense effort to recruit women into outdoor activities. That has worked. In Wisconsin, for example, just 7 percent of hunters age 48 and older are women. But 20 percent of the hunters age 12 and 13 are girls, Stark said.
To achieve similar results with minorities, outdoor groups need to keep asking questions, Regan said.
"It's not as simple as translating your regulations book into Spanish," he said. "There is a lot of values information that's needed. There's demographic information needed. There's motivation and cultural information needed. What are (minorities) going to value about fish and wildlife conservation in this country• We have to reach out to them and figure that out."
Beyond that, experienced sportsmen need to take it upon themselves to get others involved, said Jose Taracido, a Hispanic-American originally from Cuba who now works as farmland habitat program supervisor at California University of Pennsylvania.
He grew up hunting, fishing and trapping in rural Missouri. Many of his cousins grew up in New York, Miami and Chicago. They never experienced the outdoors as he did, he said.
They love to fish and shoot when they descend on his Washington County home for family reunions, though. It just takes someone showing them what the outdoors are all about, he said.
"You've got to give them a taste of it," Taracido said. "That's all you can do. The worst you can do is 50/50. They'll either like it or they won't. But I think you'll do better than that. A lot better. And it's worth it.
"I know with myself, the most fortunate thing that ever happened to me was the opportunity to be in nature."
A look at how America has changed racially over the past few decades.
Year -- Total U.S. Population -- % non-Hispanic white -- % African American -- % Hispanic
1980 -- 226,545,805 -- 79.6 -- 11.7 -- 6.4
1990 -- 248,709,873 -- 75.6 -- 12.0 -- 9.0
2000 -- 281,421,906 -- 69.1 -- 12.1 -- 12.5
2008 -- 304,059,724 -- 65.6 -- 12.2 -- 15.4
A look at how Pennsylvania has changed racially over the past few decades.
Year -- Total state Population -- % non-Hispanic white -- % African American -- % Hispanic
1980 -- 11,863,895 -- 89.1 -- 8.8 -- 1.3
1990 -- 11,881,643 -- 87.7 -- 9.2 -- 2.0
2000 -- 12,281,054 -- 84.0 -- 9.8 -- 3.2
2008 -- 12,448,279 -- 81.4 -- 10.2 -- 4.8
When it comes to the outdoors, Caucasians, African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans have something in common. All participate in the same five "gateway" activities -- biking, running, camping, fishing and hiking -- more than any other outdoor pastimes.
The only difference lies in participation rates.
Here's a look at each group, how each activity ranks for them and the percentage of people in that population who participate.
1. Running/jogging and trail running -- 14 percent
2. Road biking, mountain biking and BMX -- 12 percent
3. Freshwater, saltwater and fly fishing -- 11 percent
4. Car, backyard and RV camping -- 4 percent
5. Hiking -- 3 percent
1. Running/jogging and trail running -- 23 percent
2. Road biking, mountain biking and BMX -- 13 percent
3. Hiking -- 12 percent
4. Freshwater, saltwater and fly fishing -- 10 percent
5. Car, backyard and RV camping -- 10 percent
1. Freshwater, saltwater and fly fishing -- 19 percent
2. Car, backyard and RV camping -- 17 percent
3. Road biking, mountain biking and BMX -- 16 percent
4. Running/jogging and trail running -- 14 percent
5. Hiking -- 13 percent
1. Running/jogging and trail running -- 18 percent
2. Freshwater, saltwater and fly fishing -- 14 percent
3. Road biking, mountain biking and BMX -- 12 percent
4. Car, backyard and RV camping -- 11 percent
5. Hiking -- 7 percent
Source: The Outdoor Foundation's "Outdoor Recreation Participation Report 2009."
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