Why Aren't We Talking About Class When We Talk About Obstacles to the Outdoors?

DISCLAIMER: As is often the case, these blog posts are inspired by things I’ve read, things I’ve seen or things I’ve heard.  There are some comments that inspired this post but I am not going to say who said them because they were a part of another conversation and I do not think they properly represent the opinions of the speaker.  The person who said it is someone I have a great deal of respect for and I do not want to besmirch his name without him having a chance to expand upon those thoughts and quite frankly, it was only the spark to this post, the fire behind it was already burning.

 

Hunting versus other outdoor recreation.  Hunting joining other outdoor recreation to form a coalition. Urban versus rural.  Upper class versus lower class.  When it comes to facing outdoor issues, alone or together, there are a lot of delicate moving parts.  For all that people have in common with each other, the little things that define us also have the power to destroy us.  

“I try to buy everything I can from Patagonia because they care about where they source material from.  I’m not buying crap from Walmart.”  

That’s paraphrased, it’s been a minute since I heard it, but that’s the gist of it.  

Well, that’s nice, I’m glad he can afford to buy a bunch of very expensive clothes.  I’m also glad he doesn’t have kids and doesn’t have to buy new clothes for someone long before they’re worn out because the kid has grown out of them.  There are many of us who really can’t justify spending that kind of money when something from Columbia or another lesser priced quality company will do.  There are many of us who can’t even fathom being able to afford Patagonia.

Many urban environmentalists have never been to small factory towns or coal mining towns, unless possibly to exploit them (i.e. news stories, documentaries). They don’t understand the people who live there.  Jobs are plentiful in cities, they don’t understand these folks just can’t get other jobs if the mine shuts down or the factory moves to China.  They don’t understand that these people shop at Walmart, not because they don’t care about third world slave labor, but because it’s what they can afford.  In my hometown, if you want to buy a Patagonia or North Face jacket, you’re going to drive an hour to either Indianapolis or Louisville.

Whether you want to rock climb, canoe or hunt, these things cost money… lots of money.  Urban kids at least have access to some groups who can assist with this, probably not enough kids have enough access, but due to population density, there are folks out there working on it.  The poor, rural kid from the coal town?  Not only does he see someone wanting to put his dad out of a job, but he sees these rock climbers with their expensive gear coming in and having fun in his backyard. He doesn’t see himself in these rock climbers because everyone he knows goes to work in the mines and comes home too tired to go climb rocks for fun.  

Rich, poor, urban, rural, we all want clean air, clean water and beautiful mountains.  We should be working towards renewable energy.  Clean air, clean water and public lands should be non-partisan issues. However, as we work towards a more sustainable future, we cannot steamroll over hardworking American families to get there.  Just because you won’t feel the effects of shutting down that oil pipeline while driving your Prius in Boulder, doesn’t mean that there aren’t any.  

As we move forward, trying to work together for the outdoors, I think we need to be more conscious of the class issues.  We talk constantly of diversity, of different forms of recreation, of women becoming hunters and we talk about getting more diversity into the outdoors because it’s all white people.  If we do talk about poor kids, it’s about using city parks to reach those urban kids of color.  I’m all for all of those things, but we’re not talking about the economic hurdles into the outdoor space.  If someone is talking about this, I’m not hearing it.

We have fewer and fewer hunters, we hear about it all the time, but tags are just as hard to get.  Why? Because wealthy hunters can still afford to go out-of-state to chase game.  It’s getting harder and harder for the average Joe or Jane to get into hunting, but if you have the money, you’re all set whether you want to chase whitetail in Ohio or Dall Sheep in Alaska.  This is true across the entire outdoor space, not just in hunting.  My family and I wanted to go whitewater rafting this summer, but it was going to cost $400 or more for the three of us to do it. Sure, we could have afforded it if we weren’t prioritizing other activities, but some families don’t have the choice to prioritize, $400 for 90 minutes of fun is just not a possibility.

So, what’s the solution?  I don’t have all the answers but there’s three things I see immediately.

1.     We need to accept this is an issue that stands in our way of recruiting new folks to the outdoors.  We need to talk about this every bit as much as other forms of diversity.  Whether you’re black and urban or white and rural, money is one of the roadblocks you’re facing to getting involved in the outdoors.  Even if someone takes you on a summer camp in the woods and you fall in love with the outdoors, when you go back to the city what’s going to happen? You’re going to dream of going back to the mountains but not know how you’re going to get there.

2.     Everyone, including the urban dude in the Subaru and $400 Patagonia jacket, needs to realize that not everyone’s reality is their reality.  There is poverty in the United States and there are a lot of families that are working poor and it’s not just in the cities.

3.     Especially those of us with rural backgrounds, we need to step it up.  This could look different for different people but everyone needs to do something.  Maybe this means taking a cousin or old neighbor out and loaning them some gear, or giving some of your old gear away to someone who could use it, help out with your local Boys Scouts (who now accept girls) or maybe, if you still live in a rural area, you could start a chapter of Fathers in the Field at your church or bring some other organization into your area.

I’m committed to doing my part through my work in Fathers in the Field, partnering with Colorado Parks & Wildlife with their hunter recruitment programs, expanding some of the things the Mile High chapter of the Mule Deer Foundation does and looking for any nook and cranny to make a difference.  I challenge all of you to do what you can as well. Not everyone can save the world, but everyone can make a difference, even if it is only in one person’s life.