The following appeared in the 2020 Sep/Oct issue of Adirondac Magazine
By Tim Rowland
During the racial discord of the 1960s, hikers in the Adirondacks couldn’t help but notice that very few if any people of color were availing themselves of the trails. More than a half century later, some of those same hikers can hardly help but notice that very little has changed.
The mountains, lakes, and rivers of the Forest Preserve belong to everyone, but not really. A vast slice of the American birthright—the great outdoors—has not been available to people of color for reasons that are obvious and subtle, simple and complex.
It’s been apparent not just on the trails full of (white) hikers, but in adventure magazines and outdoor catalogs where happy (white) people are angling for trout or sporting the latest microfiber vest. It’s noticeable in taprooms and lodges where (white) mountain bikers and skiers discuss the day’s exploits.
Black writers have tartly observed that their brethren’s only experience with the North Country is when they are sent there to the prisons that were built in no small part to provide jobs for whites. Black hikers report barriers to enjoying the outdoors, from overt acts of racism to backcountry practices that do not feel inclusive, to well-meaning but ham-handed attempts at friendliness.
Today, the Adirondack region is five years into a concerted effort to address the problem, as an environmental, economic, and moral imperative. In the late summer of 2014, a symposium sowed the seeds for the Adirondack Diversity Initiative (ADI), which through education and action is showing white people how to create a welcoming environment while supporting programs that bring people of color from the cities into the mountains. Organizations including ADK, John Brown Lives!, the Adirondack Council, and the Adirondack North Country Association have made inclusion a priority for the sake of all people and for the long-term viability of the Adirondack Park itself.
“We want to make sure we have the welcome mat open to the wilderness,” says ADK Executive Director Michael Barrett. “To do that we need to reach out to new and diverse audiences.”
For ADK, that includes educating staff against “implicit bias” that might not register to a white person but rings clear as a bell to a person of color. A white person greeting a black person, for example, with an offered fist bump and a “s’up” can offend a black person who happens to be an English professor. And while an admonishment over wearing the wrong kind of shoes is not an explicitly racist statement, it does stem from knowledge and privilege that white people have been privy to, and black people may not have been.
It can also be uncomfortable, advocates say, to enter a bastion of whiteness such as the Adirondack Park in the first place. Pete Nelson, who was a founder of the ADI, says the park’s ethos “is rooted in the privileged, white male mythology” that needs to be disassembled. “We have to make sure that