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Earth Matters: Welcoming New Faces to the Outdoors

This article was written for the July 25, 2020 “Earth Matters” column in the Daily Hampshire Gazette by Kari Blood, Communications & Outreach Manager. The column is sponsored by the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.

Do you enjoy being outdoors hiking, fishing, watching birds or paddling a kayak? Think about how you came to experience that for the very first time as a child or a teen, or even later in life. Like most of us, you probably didn’t head out all by yourself: Someone else brought you there, showed you where to go and what to do. They shared their love of being outdoors with you. Whether this person was family, friend or teacher, they were part of your community.

The importance of community and of being outdoors have both been elevated recently. As schools, restaurants and offices were shuttered in March to slow the spread of the coronavirus, we were suddenly cut off from our communities. As the weather warmed, getting outside was a relatively safe way to escape our houses and be near (but not too near) other people. And during this stressful time, the benefits of recreation in nature for our physical health and mental well-being became even more important.

Well-known public parks, trails and conservation areas have seen a big increase in visitors locally and nationwide, and for a good number of these visitors, this might have been their first time there. Our society appears to be experiencing a new recognition of the value of these public open spaces: That’s good news for public support of permanent land conservation, the best way to ensure that our natural places will be available for all people to enjoy for generations to come.

However, another dramatic recognition has been taking place. The harsh realities of systemic racism against people of color — Black Americans in particular — have finally taken their long-overdue place in the headlines and, more important, in white Americans’ consciousness. During the pandemic and the national clarion call for racial justice, two truths have been confirmed: We all need nature in our lives, and yet, we don’t all have equal access to it.

It isn’t enough that our national parks and local conservation areas are “open to the public.” Just because all people are allowed to be in a place doesn’t mean that all people have the same awareness that it’s there for them, or equal means to get there. And even if they do have the transportation, financial means, equipment and free time to visit, they may not feel welcome or safe because of some people’s suspicious or threatening behavior toward them.

This inequity has to change. As more people are in need of public nature areas for their health and well-being, many are visiting them for the first time. What can be done to increase access and help everyone feel welcome and be safe?

Environmental organizations locally and nationally are now committing to reach out to Black Americans and other people of color who have historically been excluded from enjoying public lands — either deliberately or unconsciously — and to learn how their organizations can do better. This is only a first step, but a significant one.

As an individual, if you enjoy being outdoors, consider how you might help others to feel welcome in nature. If you first experienced the natural world with someone from your community as a guide, why not pay it forward and become that person for someone else? Invite a friend, a neighbor, a co-worker, an acquaintance who isn’t as comfortable outdoors as you are to join you for a (masked) walk at your favorite park or conservation area. Share with them your stories about the places and activities you love, and help them picture themselves there.

You can also be encouraging and welcoming of “first-timers” you meet when you’re at your familiar places. Recently, my husband and I hiked to Goat Peak on Mount Tom, and stood overlooking the view of Easthampton and beyond. A smiling middle-aged African American man and his teenage daughter came up the trail, and as he admired the view with us, he said, “I’ve lived in this area for more than 40 years and I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never been up here before.” I told him not to be embarrassed: We’ve encountered many people these past few months who tell us it’s their first time at whatever local conservation area we’re visiting.

I was truly glad to see him and his daughter there. I told him about the fire tower just up the trail and encouraged them to check out that spectacular view, which he did with enthusiasm. My hope is that he felt welcome on Mount Tom, and when he comes back again, he’ll be a guide for another first-timer.

If you’re a “first-timer” who would like to explore one of the Pioneer Valley’s many public nature areas, look to your community. A great source for guides and suggestions is your local or regional land trust. Kestrel provides our Trails for Everyone maps with suggested routes on our local conservation areas.

And, here are some links to our partner land trusts around the Pioneer Valley and hilltowns:

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