Are the demographics of our country mirrored in public lands use? A new study shows that this is not the case.
This is the first time a nationwide study has compared data from the 2010 U.S. Census and the Forest Service National Visitor Use Monitoring Survey (2010-2014). The data highlighted a disparity in racial and ethnic use of national forests. This suggests an equity gap, wherein racial and ethnic minorities are not using Forest Service recreation opportunities at the same rate as their racially white counterparts. Overall, Blacks or African Americans, who make up 13 percent of the U.S. population only accounted for 1 percent of national forests visits; Hispanics or Latinos, who make up 17 percent of the population, accounted for less than 7 percent.
If 90 percent of the people visiting our national forests are non-Hispanic whites, and they represent only 63 percent of the U.S. population, what does this mean for the management of national forests and our ability to connect with groups who are underrepresented in visits to these forests? As our country is predicted to shift to a majority-minority population by 2044, what will this mean for how we manage recreation on public lands? If racial and ethnic minorities are not equally accessing public lands, the question becomes why and how do we change this?
There is a large body of research on racial and ethnic barriers to public land use. David Flores, lead author of the report “Recreation equity: Does the Forest Service serve its diverse publics?” is a social scientist with the USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station. He said, “There is a whole range of complicated reasons why diverse populations do not use public lands often. Unfamiliarity and distance play a role, as well as economic, social, and cultural reasons. Growing up in a predominately Mexican neighborhood, I thought the mountains were places where wealthy whites lived; I had no interest in exploring those areas. It took some time and effort for me to understand and appreciate public lands.”
Flores noted that the National Visitor Use Monitoring survey is not perfect, but “is really the only tool we have to evaluate who is visiting our national forests.” Every 5 years the survey is conducted on one-fifth of national forests, reaching about 100,000 visitors. The intent is to estimate the volume of visitors, who they are demographically, why they are coming to the national forests and how satisfied they are with their visit. It is a voluntary survey that takes about 15 minutes to complete, which is a barrier to some visitors completing it. “But,” said Flores, “even if you take in account that some visitors may choose not to take the survey, the disparity is still so large, the findings are concerning.”
Flores is hopeful that we can find a way to use our national forests to bring people of different cultures together. “These are places where the physical barriers that you find in urban settings, such as roads, bridges, and buildings that typically divide communities are removed,” said Flores. “National forests are an equalizer, a place where everyone can experience the great outdoors.”
The paper is available for download.
An accompanying Science You Can Use Bulletin, "Recreating in Color: Promoting Ethnic Diversity in Public Lands" is also available for download.
The Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS) is one of seven regional units that make up the U.S. Forest Service Research and Development organization. The Station maintains 12 field laboratories throughout a 12 state territory encompassing the Great Basin, Southwest, Rocky Mountains, and parts of the Great Plains, and administers and conducts research on 14 experimental forests, ranges, and watersheds, while maintaining long-term databases for these areas. RMRS research is broken into seven science program areas that serve the Forest Service as well as other federal and state agencies, international organizations, private groups, and individuals. To find out more about the RMRS go to www.fs.fed.us/rmrs. You can also follow us on Twitter at www.twitter.com/usfs_rmrs.
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