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Think of the Children: Eliminating Inequality in Outdoor Recreation

December 23, 2013 By Natalie Heneghan, Macalester College

It's time again for Minnesota 2020's series of environmental policy Op-eds from Macalester College students. Over the next two weeks, we'll feature articles that explore issues from food labeling to wolf hunting. We hope you enjoy this collaboration with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department and its students.

I would consider myself an “outdoor enthusiast.” I love to ski, hike, bike, swim, and paddle. And Minnesota is generally a welcoming place for people like me.

But a troublesome caveat to this is the fact that most of my favorite outdoor activities aren’t even a faint possibility for many lower income children and their families in the Twin Cities.

For a lot of young people, the best they can afford is to hop over to their neighborhood park – if it’s usable and if it’s safe enough – for some quality nature time. But there is a wealth of activities that only a small swatch of citizens is affluent enough to be passionate about: visiting a state park, biking along our miles of trails, or canoeing down the Mississippi, for example.



I see a twofold problem: access to outdoor recreation and environmental education is distributed unevenly to Minnesota children, hurting at-risk, lower-income, and minority children. What’s more, the popular environmental justice debate largely ignores issues of recreation and youth.

According to data from the Minnesota State Demographic Center and the DNR, as of 2010, non-whites and Hispanics made up 16 percent of Minnesota’s population, while they only represented 2 percent of visitors to Minnesota’s parks and trails. Cost, distance, and lack of information were the most-named reasons for not taking advantage of these resources. On top of entrance fees and travel costs, the price of equipment like bicycles, fishing poles, or rental skis puts up barriers to participation. Children without the means to purchase these items – effectively the “admission tickets” to most outdoor activity – suffer from not only a lost experience but also, over time, a lack of exposure.

We invest in underprivileged children in countless other ways: literacy programs, computer skills training, tutoring, mentoring, and even community gardens with the purpose of helping them find value in education, friendships, and food sources. I believe the Twin Cities excels in these endeavors. Our successes can and should be extended to outdoor opportunities and environmental education. Once exposed to the thrills of exploration beyond their backyards, kids can start to see the value of their natural surroundings.

Youth development programs encounter the same obstacles to providing these opportunities as lower-income parents do. Is it expensive to equip a few dozen kids with canoes or backpacks or bikes? Of course it is. But groups throughout Minnesota and the country have taken on the challenge.

One of the best examples is the Urban Wilderness Youth Outdoor Education (OWYOE) program. The partnership among Wilderness Inquiry, the National Park Service, Mississippi River Fund, Minneapolis and St. Paul School Districts, the DNR, and over 40 more organizations aims to provide 20,000 disadvantaged urban youth with canoeing, camping, and fishing opportunities on and around the Mississippi River over the course of three years. OWYOE’s mission is based in a firm belief that environmentally aware children will become conscious, responsible adults. It is a model for strong, effective partnerships between private and public entities efficiently utilizing limited funds.

So what’s the solution? If you have the time to volunteer, go for it. In addition to OWYOE, programs like YouthCARE’s Camp Sunrise and the Sierra Club’s Inner City Outings Mission need dedicated teen and adult volunteers proving to kids that yes, they can do it too.

But in the long run, let’s work on making these excursions less of an exception and more of a rule. Let’s start working on the affordability of fishing poles, park passes, and bicycles as diligently as we attend to solar panels and organic produce. More importantly, let’s start hearing about the kids. Let’s focus on those who do not have a choice about how close their homes are to toxic waste dumps, but someday might join the ranks of environmental justice advocates, if afforded exposure to and education about our natural world.

Whether through everyday conversation, in correspondences to policy makers, or just vocal support of programs already on the right track, we can insert these issues into the environmental justice discussion. We know the saying: the kids are the future, so let’s start treating them as such.

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