Trails for everyone, forever

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Chain Lakes. Photo by Bruce Tomko.

The Journey Toward Trails for Everyone

by Charlie Lieu

On Labor Day, I had the great fortune of hiking through the extremely popular Chain Lakes on Mount Baker, just prior to the arrival of heavy smoke from forest fires. As a lifelong lover of the outdoors, I have spent a significant part of my adult life on trails. That day was the first time I saw people on trail who represented the melting pot of America. I heard people speaking in French, Arabic, Russian, Vietnamese, Hindi, Chinese, Spanish and a couple of languages I couldn’t quite place — maybe Finnish and Korean? Given that it was the middle of a pandemic, it’s unlikely this diverse representation of hikers were visitors from other countries; rather, they were people who lived here in America.

This, I thought, this is the EXACT embodiment of “trails for everyone, forever.”

America’s national parks were established under the fundamental thesis that every American has the birthright to enjoy the country’s wild splendors — in short: “trails for everyone, forever.”

Unfortunately, in reality, this country has never lived up to this ideal. Since the arrival of Europeans in America, Indigenous people were routinely forced off of their lands, including to create national parks. In the Jim Crow era, national parks were a part of systemic segregation, which discouraged non-Whites from participating in the outdoor experience.

In short, American’s diversity is not equally represented in our wild spaces. While public land agencies, along with conservation and recreation nonprofits, have ended their intentionally inequitable practices — there is a lot of work still to be done in order to make everyone feel welcome and genuinely engaged.

Charlie and friends smiling during a hike.
The author, Charlie, stops for a photo with friends along her hike. Photo by Charlie Lieu.

This is where I must confess that I had not always seen this engagement gap as a problem. I discovered the world of outdoor recreation in the ’90’s, well after the era of Jim Crow. I was comfortable with the norms of the wilderness profile, which, while skewed to affluent and White, did not seem to actively bar me from access. There were moments when I didn’t feel welcomed, but it never stopped me from going out into wild places. I was unaware of the harm that had been done in prior generations and how in the not-so-distant past, the people of color in this country were actively disenfranchised.

Of course diversity is important. As an Asian female engineer and operations professional, I am keenly aware of the practices of exclusion, as well as the biases that hinder my work and my advancement. However, as a lightskinned, thoroughly Americanized competitive athlete, my outdoor experience had been predominantly welcoming and encouraging, so in the context of outdoor recreation, I never pondered whether diversity is an issue. As a new board member of Washington Trails Association in 2017, I did wonder whether the organization’s front-and-center prioritization of a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiative should be the most important undertaking, especially when public lands face so many other challenges.

My evolution from a tacit DEI supporter to a DEI advocate is a long one. From the fall of 2017 through the spring of 2018, a series of incidents caused me to recognize and acknowledge the hidden issue of harassment and assault in the rockclimbing community, which is one of the many user groups accessing trails. In the first part of 2018, with the help of experts and three dozen partner organizations, I conducted a series of surveys to assess this issue. The surveys were so widely responded to that the dataset became one of the largest nongovernmental survey outputs to date, and showed clear and significant challenges. This led to the launch of #SafeOutside, an anti-harassment and assault initiative that ultimately expanded to the outdoor industry at large.

Chain Lakes Loop - photograph by Carmen Li
The Chain Lakes Loop provides access to awe-inspiring wild experiences for many kinds of hikers. The survival of special places like these rely on trails for everyone, forever.  Photo Carmen Li

I spent the remainder of 2018 cataloging the negative experiences of thousands of people, while coming to terms with my own negative experiences, which up to that point had been neatly compartmentalized. I unwittingly dove deep into the complex social and psychological issues surrounding harassment and assault, and identified my own unconscious biases and lack of awareness across the gender, racial and other socio and economic spectrums. With the help of DEI professionals, extensive conversations with user groups, and training offered by WTA, I learned how diversity, equity and inclusion intersect with negative perceptions and bad behaviors.

It was a period of difficult growth, but I came out the other end with a few critical learnings:

  • While it’s not always obvious to all trail users, the data shows not everyone feels welcome, encouraged or able to get outside.
  • Fighting for justice, whether it’s social or racial, is not a “once and done” activity — it’s a practice based on a fundamental ethos that guides you through a lifetime.
  • Believing in the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion does not exclude other important issues like public lands stewardship and advocacy.

As we all consider these lessons, it’s important to also understand that the composition of our country is changing. The data, as well as anecdotal evidence, points to the fact that trail users are becoming more diverse. With the growing popularity of social media in the younger generation, and the pandemic fueling first-time outdoor exploration, more and more new people who do not fit the traditional trail user profile are heading out and will continue to do so. If we fail to engage the full diversity of our user groups, we lose the opportunity to connect with and educate everyone on the more fundamental issues facing public lands — particularly in conservation, stewardship, advocacy and access.

However you approach it, trails for everyone, forever, isn’t just a feel-good concept, it’s inextricably linked to the ethos and survival of public lands, as well as the hard (and at times, uncomfortable) work of DEI. It is a call to action we must all heed if we want to continue to protect and advocate for the amazing wild places we’ve all come to love and enjoy.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Support trails as a member WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.