By: Kevin T. Bryan, Opinion Contributor
When many of us think of conservation, images of flora and fauna come to mind. We might also envision sweeping cinematic landscapes of lush forests reared against colorful sunsets or towering snow-capped mountains. However, we often fail to make the connection between people and the natural beauty around us.
The concept of conservation is often limited to the boundaries of national parks and monuments, and does not stretch to include young boys and girls of every American community. Conservation seldom veers off historic trails to connect Americans across our vast diaspora, providing avenues to share our histories, cultures and experiences. Thankfully, a shift is underway.
Rather than defining our nation’s public lands as destinations few of us may reach, grassroots organizations are empowering constituents to see themselves in the natural world and to understand how nature shapes their lives. Through this far-reaching process, these organizations are collectively shaping the next 100 years of conservation.
In February 2016, I was asked to facilitate a first-of-its-kind discussion among civil rights, environmental justice and grassroots conservation organizations pursuing a shared vision of a more diverse and inclusive culture in the management and preservation our nation’s public lands. Almost 18 months later, the Next 100 Coalition continues to spearhead a movement committed to bringing that vision to reality.
This reimagination of conservation reverberates throughout the broader movement. I have met with grassroots leaders, people of color advocacy organizations and established conservation organizations to discuss ways to achieve together this shared vision of a culturally inclusive future. These conversations are long overdue, and often expose some harsh truths about us as a nation.
Much action is already underway to achieve the shared vision of the Next 100 Coalition. Coalition members such as Outdoor Afro and Latino Outdoors are encouraging African American and Latino residents to find their place in nature. Groups like the Greening Youth Foundation and the Hispanic Access Foundation are creating internship opportunities for youth of color. These opportunities provide valuable work experience and create a more culturally diverse pool of prepared candidates to serve as the next generation of professionals in the conservation sector. Coalition partners in Colorado, Nevada and California have initiated their own group of local organizations working under the same principles.
While these organizations are at the forefront of these efforts, traditional conservation groups are beginning to support these advocacy groups already working on the frontlines.
The Natural Resources Defense Council recently collaborated with the Next 100 Coalition to produce a series of videos featuring Coalition members where they share their connection with nature through their unique personal perspectives. Outdoor Afro and Latino Outdoors have partnered with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, among other groups, to provide ongoing opportunities for communities of color (particularly young people) to experience the great Appalachian Trail. Several other environmental groups and outdoor retail companies are already in talks with Coalition members and other similar groups to better understand mutual interests and figure out how to incorporate these different connections to nature within their programming.
While these initial efforts provide a good starting point, they are by no means sufficient. There is a need for broader dialogue about increasing access of communities of color to public lands. We also see the need to address the lack of diversity among the workforce of public land management agencies, particularly at the federal level.
This might seem like a lot to tackle, but the truth is that these organizations are already leading a cultural transformation in the way we engage with public lands. The use and enjoyment of public lands are, by definition, a right, and their management, access and policies increasingly reflect the cultural and racial diversity of our nation. However, management should also show an understanding and respect for the inhabitants of these areas. It is everyone’s obligation — our federal government, conservation organizations, the outdoor industry and the public — to protect these lands in a manner that allows their enjoyment and their conservation for future generations in the most inclusive way.
With this in mind, what must our commitment be for the next century of America’s public lands? Our society must continue to embrace and support the different ways in which we connect with nature. We must also make sure these ways reflect our ever-widening diversity.
Public lands are a collective inheritance that belongs to all of us in the present and the future. The Next 100 Coalition will push for policies and programs that reflect our nation as it is, not as it was. Challenges will emerge as we broaden our reach, yet these issues are not insurmountable. In our experience, not addressing these issues is more for lack of will from our leaders than lack of resources or ideas.
Kevin T. Bryan is a senior policy director at the Keystone Policy Center. He is also a strategist and coordinator for the Next 100 Coalition, a group of organizations seeking a more diverse, inclusive culture and approach to how we manage, protect and connect to our public lands.