With inclusivity in mind, efforts are underway to make the great outdoors great for all

By: - July 28, 2021 6:15 am
A wide, accessible train under construction in Manchester

The All Persons Trail is under construction in Manchester’s Cedar Swamp Preserve. (Amanda Gokee | New Hampshire Bulletin)

In the past year, the conservation movement has been grappling with its racist roots and history. Organizations are trying to acknowledge the ways those roots extend into the present day – and fix it.

Last July, the Sierra Club publicly apologized for its “substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy.” Key figures in the conservation movement, such as John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club in 1892, made “derogatory comments about Black and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes,” the apology reads.

In his early writings, Muir calls Indigenous people “savages,” and refers to both Indigenous and Black people as “dirty.” Muir was friends with Henry Fairfield Osborn, a fellow conservationist who also helped found the American Eugenics Society. The eugenics movement centered on the idea of breeding a genetically superior race, and it led to practices like the forced sterilization of Indigenous women. The movement also targeted the poor and the disabled, who were seen as groups of people that were genetically unfit and who, therefore, should not be allowed to pass on their genetic makeup.

The Nature Conservancy, which released a statement around the same time as the Sierra Club, vowed to recognize the racism of the past to work toward a more equitable future. “We must acknowledge our movement and organization’s past and present struggles with racism and equity,” reads the statement, released July 19, 2020.

Across the nation, those who have greatest access to the outdoors are white and able-bodied. This is in part due to the legacy of conservation and barriers such as cost, transportation, and trail features, but also because of fear and an outdoor culture that is overwhelmingly white.

These national problems about who has access to the outdoors are also felt locally.

“Terrible things have happened to people of color in the woods that make them feel unwelcome there,” said James McKim, president of the Manchester chapter of the NAACP. “Because of our nation’s history, people of color don’t feel comfortable in the woods.”

James McKim

And the history of white supremacy extends into present day New Hampshire. After white supremacist vandalism was found on an Audubon preserve in Concord last year, the Inclusive Outdoors Act was introduced to require conservation officers to complete training in civil rights enforcement, anti-discrimination, and de-escalation. While people of color described the discrimination they experience in the outdoors, state park personnel were unaware of those incidents occurring on public land, according to reporting from NHPR. The bill, which was introduced in the Senate, died in the House.

In Manchester this week, a groundbreaking event was held for the new, accessible All Persons Trail designed with input from communities that have often been held at arm’s length of the outdoors. The trail in the Nature Conservancy’s Cedar Swamp Preserve is just over one mile, and will be 6 feet wide to allow for the passage of wheelchairs.

Through listening sessions, the organization realized the trail had to be wider than initially planned and the parking lot bigger to allow space for a bus to turn around. The trail needed to have a bathroom, and it had to have benches visible from the entrance to make it more welcoming for older people or anyone who might want to take a rest along the way. Each bench will show the distance to the next bench.

“All the things that me as an able-bodied white person with a car and means, you know, that I haven’t had to think about, and we knew some of them but we didn’t know all of them,” said Mark Zankel, state director of the New Hampshire Nature Conservancy.

McKim, who spoke at the groundbreaking, said more organizations should follow this model and take the time to listen before a project is completed. “That’s where the needs will be surfaced from the people who actually have the needs, which is something I wish more organizations would do,” he said. “You don’t know what you don’t know until you ask. And once you ask, the money is there.”

All those additions nearly doubled the cost of the project, from $400,000 when it was announced to $700,000. But Zankel said donors haven’t balked at the bigger price tag. “I feel like it’s attracted a lot of really wonderful gifts because people see this bigger vision benefiting more people,” he said.

The Nature Conservancy has been working to make more accessible trails for the past three years, starting with an initial project in Ossipee. That project didn’t involve community input but was well received regardless, according to Joanne Glode, a southern New Hampshire ecologist for the Nature Conservancy. Glode is also the project manager of the All Persons Trail, which is expected to open in October. She said impact to the sensitive wetlands area will be minimal since the new trail will be overlaid onto an existing one. The area is home to Atlantic white cedar – a globally rare species. It grows only in a constricted range in the coastal zone stretching from Georgia to Maine. But because of urban sprawl along the Eastern Seaboard, much of the tree’s natural habitat has given way to development.

“Its natural native habitat has been pretty much decimated in a lot of places because of big city building and development,” Glode said. It grows in a few patches, and one of them is the Cedar Swamp. 

“This one here happens to be the only one that’s growing with giant rhododendron,” Glode said. Giant rhododendron is another state listed species which, while common further south in the Carolinas, is rare in New Hampshire.

For the Nature Conservancy, work conserving rare habitats and species is linked to equity. 

Mark Zankel

“We don’t believe that we can achieve our vision, which is a healthy and sustainable world where people and nature thrive together, so long as humanity continues to be afflicted by gross injustice and inequitable access to nature,” Zankel said.

The groundbreaking of the trail is being celebrated as a much-welcomed and needed addition to a slim roster of accessible options for people in Manchester. And Zankel is hopeful that the project could inform future policy efforts. But the broader problem of access is far from being solved.  

“Where we are now is a mess,” said Rep. Maria Perez, a Milford Democrat and the chair of the Latino Caucus.

She said the presence of white supremacist groups like the Proud Boys in the state is a serious cause for concern for people of color in New Hampshire, a concern that’s preventing them from feeling safe outdoors. That discomfort exists when Perez is thinking about going for a hike, and now it’s getting worse. She feels it even when she thinks about taking her dog for a walk around the block. Perez said that fear was heightened when she attended a Nashua School Board meeting on Monday and the Proud Boys entered “and started screaming and yelling.” School Board President Heather Raymond confirmed that the Proud Boys recently started attending school board meetings.

Perez worries they’ll start showing up elsewhere.

“I’ve been here almost 34 years in New Hampshire. And this is like the worst time ever, the feelings that I have and the feelings that other people have feeling unsafe,” said Perez, who immigrated to the United States from El Salvador. “I don’t feel comfortable going into the outdoors by myself anymore.”

Perez testified in support of the Inclusive Outdoors Act, and she said the death of that bill was part of a bigger problem of a House that has been hostile to legislation aimed at inclusivity. 

 “To be honest, this session has been so difficult,” she said. 

Without the political will to pass policy, fostering inclusion in the outdoors is left to local efforts. 

The city of Manchester, for example, has allocated some of the $43.2 million in relief funding from the American Rescue Plan to hire three park rangers. 

“We want to make sure that people who are utilizing our outdoor space in the city of Manchester know that they’re available, feel safe while they’re there, and understand all of the opportunities when they’re there,” said Mayor Joyce Craig in an interview following the groundbreaking of the All Persons Trail. The rangers will be available seven days a week to answer questions and address issues. 

While there has been talk of adding these positions for years, Craig said the city was never able to fund it. But the federal money changed that.

Manchester is also offering microgrants for community projects.

“There are opportunities for the community to actually apply for grants to do things together. So it could be in a neighborhood, it could be in a park, you know, the opportunities are endless,” said Shanon MacLeod, the policy director for Craig’s office.

For its part, the Nature Conservancy said that in addition to external work like building accessible trails, the organization is also working to diversify its board.

“We can’t go back and undo what’s been done, but we can think about the influence the power and the opportunity that we have in our sector to diversify,” Zankel said.

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee reported on energy and environment for New Hampshire Bulletin. She also previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.