The following appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of Adirondac Magazine
By Julia Goren
More and more conversations about the future of New York’s public lands and waters involve diversity. And rightly so.
Over the last few years, our nation has reawakened to issues that it had long treated as “solved.” Underrepresented groups have shared their experiences and, in turn, highlighted just how far we are from the equitable society that we so desire. This extends to the outdoors, where many feel that not enough has been done to welcome diverse audiences.
In light of this, ADK supporters often ask me one of two questions: First, why is ADK engaging in diversity issues? And second, what is ADK doing to make access to New York’s public lands and waters more equitable, inclusive, and welcoming?
Why is ADK doing this?
Let’s start with the why. Simply put, engaging in conversations and actions around diversity is the right thing to do. As one of the Forest Preserve’s principal representatives, we have a moral obligation to make sure that everyone feels welcome on New York’s public lands and waters. Doing so ensures that we remain faithful to our values as an organization, and that we remain relevant for generations to come.
It is also in the best interest of the Forest Preserve itself. The future of New York State is diverse, and if the Forest Preserve is to connect with its future constituents, it must be a place where all feel welcome, safe, and that they belong. This incoming generation will soon make decisions on behalf of these lands as voters, so it is crucial that they feel a connection to the Forest Preserve in such moments.
And what is ADK doing about it?
Regarding what ADK is doing, there are several things that we can discuss. An easy—but important—area in which we have been addressing diversity is through staff hiring and training. For the last few years, ADK has been making a concerted effort to hire more diverse staff through improved marketing and hiring practices. We have also worked to train our staff to be more mindful and welcoming of diversity. This includes everything from small details, like including pronouns on nametags, to overhauling our seasonal staff training program.
To this end, our education staff worked with the Adirondack Diversity Initiative and the Saranac Lake Chamber of Commerce in 2021 to pilot a diversity training program called Business Belonging. As staff took each course, they provided feedback to help strengthen the delivery and efficacy of the program. Now that the pilot program is complete, we have started integrating it into our staff training.
This has a knock-on effect for other aspects of ADK. One result of a more inclusive staff is that our numerous public-facing locations in turn become more welcoming. This is critical, as ADK interacts with hundreds of thousands of visitors every year in the Adirondack Park.
Two recent actions
Recognizing the importance of this responsibility, we are also addressing our facilities’ infrastructure to ensure that more people feel welcome. This includes the recent addition of gender-neutral restrooms at Cascade Welcome Center and the completion of our first-ever ADA-accessible tent site at Heart Lake this past summer. These are part of a larger goal to increase accessibility at our facilities, which will eventually include the construction of accessible lean-tos in the Wilderness Campground and a transformation of the Heart Lake Loop into an entirely ADA-accessible trail.
We are also exploring partnerships with organizations to connect previously underrepresented groups with our facilities and the public lands around them. There is a lot more work to be done here by ADK, but each conversation with groups like these inspires us to continue the work needed to make New York’s public lands and waters more welcoming.
Finally, many of the issues that impact diversity in the outdoors operate on a really, really big scale. We are talking about issues that go well beyond what staff training and facility upgrades can address. If we are to begin solving these challenges in a meaningful way, we need big-picture solutions. To this end, ADK has been involved in two recent actions that have helped further diversity solutions on a larger scale.
The first is our budget request for Forest Preserve funding. Back in 2021, we joined twenty-six organizations and municipalities to ask for $10 million in dedicated funding for the Forest Preserve. This included $600,000 for diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) programs and training.
The second is the “Open Spaces for All” report. Through our role in the New York Outdoor Recreation Coalition, we worked with the Open Space Institute to help create this document, which gives New York State a set of actionable steps to make public lands and waters more inclusive and welcoming. “Open Spaces for All” also represents a consensus among a wide variety of outdoor-related organizations both on the fact that diversity is a priority and on ways we can focus on it going forward.
Governor Kathy Hochul and the New York State legislature responded by including $8 million in the 2022 state budget. Though this was less than our target, it represents a crucial and notable investment into the Forest Preserve and efforts to make it more welcoming to all. We are now working to ensure that this budget line remains stable and, as we move forward, grows to meet the many needs of the Forest Preserve.
Addressing diversity in the outdoors will require constant discussion, education, and action. It is hard to talk about, but necessary for the future of New York’s people and their lands. Within the pages of Adirondac magazine, we will continually engage these topics through a new column entitled “Exploring Inclusivity.” Through this, we will discuss challenging and often uncomfortable topics. We hope this will help us take incremental steps toward creating a more inclusive and welcoming outdoors for all.
Julia Goren is ADK’s deputy executive director, managing ADK’s North Country operations among other responsibilities.
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