In 2019, data collected from National Park Service, USDA Forest Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service surveys found that 88 to 95 percent of all visitors to public lands are white.
The national non-profit collaborative Get Black Outside is partnering with the Forest Service to change that statistic.
Four Forest Service units recently joined the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, See You at the Top, and the Tennessee Aquatic Project in hosting the first snorkel-and-camp Get Black Outside event.
Participants from a variety of youth programs snorkeled, camped, hiked, and talked openly about cultural histories represented by recreation areas on the Cherokee, George Washington and Jefferson, Monongahela, and Ocala National Forests.
More than 120 Black youth, youth leaders, and families participated in the event, some of them new to visiting national forest recreation areas. Forest Service biologists and National Association of Black Scuba Divers members taught safe snorkeling practices to Black youth and opened their eyes to the biodiversity that can be found in waters like Virginia’s Passage Creek.
Guided hikes focused on the history of the area, and educational activities focused on everyone’s role in protecting the water quality of their local watersheds.
The Get Black Outside program was founded by See You at the Top and the Tennessee Aquatic Project to advocate for “nature equity, with a goal that people of color, especially all African-Americans, have the opportunity to engage in nature.”
The partner goals are well aligned with this mission, ensuring that outdoor spaces are welcoming and safe for people of color. Forest Service programs are already in place to help bring this kind of activity to national forests.
Zanethia Barnett, an SRS research fisheries biologist and member of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, helped bring the new partners to the Forest Service. The Tennessee Aquatic Project usually explores coral reefs and sunken slave ships within coastal waters; Barnett encouraged them to bring programs closer to home.
Craig Roghair, SRS fisheries biologist, and Kim Winter, national leader for the Forest Service NatureWatch program, coordinate the national freshwater snorkeling educational programs and support staff across the National Forest System with snorkel programs to engage visitors in a fun way to learn about water.
They have organized snorkeling events across the country for school groups and water enthusiasts and have converted the lessons learned from a two-decades-old snorkeling program on the Cherokee National Forest in eastern Tennessee into a toolkit (pdf) that all forests can use to implement their own snorkel program.
Bringing together partners whose missions focus on serving Black communities can help increase awareness of the abundant recreation opportunities national forests have to offer. This fulfills the Forest Service goal of “Delivering Benefits to the Public by Connecting People with Nature,” so all people feel welcome and realize the physical, spiritual, and emotional benefits of recreating in the outdoors.