Nestled in between the vast deserts of the American southwest and the sky scraping ramparts of Colorado’s San Juan mountains is Fort Lewis College. Because of its proximity to some of the United States most beautiful natural settings, the college is a haven for people who want to pursue their education while also spending time outside.
One doesn’t have to look far to see that FLC is a school filled with avid outdoor goers - mountain bikers wiz through campus on their way to ride single track in Horse Gulch, climbers trade their notebooks and pencils for harnesses and climbing shoes on their way to climb at X Rock after class, and colorful kayaks adorn the roofs of cars parked outside the Student Union or Jones Hall.
But, in recent years, America’s community of outdoor recreators—people who perform extreme sports in natural settings—has been facing an existential question: what is the community’s relationship to race, and how does it plan to bring more people from diverse backgrounds into the outdoors?
Fort Lewis College is located on the ancestral homelands of the Ute people - which were forcibly stolen from them by the US government - and lands that are connected to the communal and ceremonial spaces of the Apache, Pueblos of New Mexico, Hopi, and Navajo Nations. According to Fort Lewis’ website, 58% of the student body are people of color, with 185 Indigenous tribes and Alaska Native villages represented on campus. 54% of students at FLC are women.
And because such a large part of FLC’s student body enjoys spending time moving through the outdoors, that is a question the college has been grappling with.
Outdoor recreation in the United States has historically been partaken in by mainly white, affluent people, the majority of whom being male.
According to the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2022 Outdoor Participation Trends Report, which monitors patterns such as sustainability and inclusivity in adventure sports, over 70% of outdoor recreation participants are white.
This apparent lack of diversity grows greater when examining different types of outdoor recreation. Statistics from a 2022 National Ski Areas Association survey revealed that just short of 89% of skiers and snowboarders are white, with only 1.5% of the study’s participants identifying as Black, 5.5% identifying as Latino/a and 0.6% identifying as Indigenous.
Additionally, lots of the equipment needed to partake in these outdoor activities are very expensive, which further discourages people from participating. An article in Outside Magazine quoted a 2020 study from the Outdoor Foundation, which found that 29% of participants stated that the cost of equipment barred them from taking part in outdoor recreation.
Because of these trends, the world of outdoor adventure has become a place that isn’t particularly welcoming to people of color.
In the Fall of 2021, Joslynn Lee, FLC alumni, faculty member in the school’s chemistry department and member of the Navajo and Laguna Acoma Pueblo tribes, decided to create Fort Lewis Outdoor Equity. As someone who enjoys spending time running, skiing, and biking in Durango, Lee saw the lack of diversity as something she could address.
This is not the first time Lee’s worked to make Fort Lewis a more equitable college. Lee said that in 2019, she emailed FLC President Tom Stritikus suggesting that plaques detailing inaccurate retellings of the college’s history as an Indian boarding school be removed from the campus clock tower.
This got the ball rolling, and Lee worked with Stritikus, Native activists and FLC faculty members until the plaques were removed in 2022.
In the fall of 2021, Lee applied for funding from the Outdoor Equity Grant, and received over $25,000. The money from the grant came from the Create Outdoor Equity Board, a part of the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife.
The board allocated over $3 million to different groups in Colorado who are working to get more people of color and members of underserved communities into the outdoors, Lee said.
“The state of Colorado announced that it was allocating money to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and people could write small grants proposing how to get more LGBTQ+, Indigenous, Latinos and Latinas, and BIPOC people outside,” Lee said. “I wanted to frame this grant as a space to educate college students who are in our beautiful community and take advantage of being outside.”
To create that space, Lee launched a course for first-year students in 2022 with an angle on introducing students from marginalized communities to the outdoors.
The logic behind making a course for first year students was to spark a love of the outdoors while creating a community of like-minded people that they will carry through their whole college career and beyond, said Lee.
Lee said that 43 students have participated in her programming so far in the 2022/23 programming. Seventy nine percent of the students identified as BIPOC, 65.1% identified as female and 34.9% identified as male.
The launch course was centered around taking students on several backcountry outings, ranging from hikes along the Colorado Trail just outside of Durango to spending a day on the slopes of Purgatory ski resort.
“As a student and growing up in the area, I was comfortable going outside on my own, but what I see with a lot of students is that it's intimidating,” Lee said. “A lot of listening sessions highlighted just not being as comfortable in our greater Durango community, both non-native and BIPOC students. So it’s increasing the amount of inclusivity throughout our whole community, not just on campus.”
Tucked in a corner near the entrance of FLC’s Student Life Center is Outdoor Pursuits, the school’s outdoor recreation outfitter.
Prayer flags, ice axes, and pictures of various mountain summits bedeck the walls. Guidebooks and maps line the shelves of a worn bookcase that stands next to the door. Kayaks, backpacks, bouldering pads, and tents are stacked to the ceiling in the back.
Students can come into OP and rent out any of the gear lining the wall for free, or receive advice about route plans or tips about upcoming trips with OP from their fellow students working the front desk.
At the beginning of the 2022/23 school year, OP received the Indigenous Adventure Fund, a $10,000 donation meant to cut the cost of enrollment in OP programs Josh Kling, coordinator of permitting and programming at OP who has worked with the organization on and off since 2001, said.
The money was donated by Steven Leash, an FLC alumni and former SOL Leader at Outdoor Pursuits, Kling said. The organization also partnered with FLC’s Native American Center to promote the opportunities that the IAF creates for Indigenous students.
“Participating and working with OP impacted Steven’s experience at the college and wish to try to create similar experiences for current native students,” Kling said. “As a tribal council member of the Cahuilla tribe, Steven advocated for establishing the fund to take away financial barriers for students to participate in OP programs. If the fund is well-received, there is the possibility for additional funding in the future.”
Kate Macklin, the operations coordinator at OP who started working at OP at the beginning of the 2022/23 school year, said that the IAF facilitates opportunities to create affinity groups, or groups of people who have a shared interest in something.
Essentially, affinity groups make an inherently uncomfortable situation, such as an arduous hike through the mountains, more comfortable by putting someone in a group of people with similar life experiences and cultural backgrounds, she said.
“An affinity group is, in this case, a group of Black, Indigenous, or people of color in the outdoors,” Macklin said. “They are people who want to be in the outdoors with other people who have similar identities to them.”
Macklin said that what’s important in creating more diversity in the outdoors is to create more opportunities to create more BIPOC affinity groups, which will in turn create more of a welcoming community in these wild places.
“By creating an environment where there's a critical mass of people who have shared or similar identities, then that can inherently create a more comfortable place for them to be uncomfortable,” Macklin said.
Macklin and Lee have been working to coordinate a relationship between Outdoor Pursuits and Fort Lewis Outdoor Equity in the hopes to give BIPOC students an opportunity to join affinity groups and to cultivate a life-long love of the outdoors, she said.
Essentially, OP supplies the necessary equipment to FLOE, such as skis, backpacks, or tents, so that Lee’s organization can introduce those students to these experiences.
The hope is that the trip with FLOE will encourage more BIPOC students to go on trips with OP and continue having positive, welcoming experiences in the backcountry, Lee said.
“We surveyed students, and a lot of them had never utilized OP before,” Macklin said. “So we decided that this spring that we would go and try to rent equipment - snowshoes to do snow hiking, and then skiing or snowboarding - and I've had a lot of students who wanted to go back and utilize that equipment when we're not doing any activities.”
Macklin backed this up, stating that from her and her fellow staff members’ experiences, there has been an increase in BIPOC participation in OP programming.
As of March of 2023, Macklin noted that OP had yet to finalize the 2022/23 academic year’s demographic data, and so no hard conclusions could be drawn regarding the numbers of BIPOC participants.
“The launching of the Indigenous Adventure Fund this fall has led to what would appear to be a notable increase in our Indigenous students’ participation,” Macklin said.
Since one of the challenges preventing the outdoors from becoming a more welcoming space is the financial barrier of equipment, both Macklin and Lee said they have been working to change that.
Out of the 43 students who participated in Lee’s launch course, 24 students received boots, 26 received socks, 19 received hydration packs, Lee said.
Zoe Corbine, a theater major at Fort Lewis and a member of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, said that through her experience at Fort Lewis College, the cost of OP trips has been something that she noticed, despite her interest in participating in the same type of activities OP offers.
“They are not very expensive,” Corbine said. “But still, I think I saw one that was $60 or something, and to some people that's this week's dinner. I know that when money gets tight, it's not easy to want to take fun trips for yourself.”
Lee also said that, especially in college, there are more important expenses than spending money on outdoor equipment or experiences.
“If you're a college student, you want to pay off your tuition, or you want to have food,” Lee said. “So, if you want to get outdoors, that just adds up. And that's where we're trying to intervene: making that barrier lower so that they can maybe say, ‘oh, I want to do more, so I might have to start saving or figure out how to buy other things.’”
Lee, Corbine, and Macklin all said that different people have different ways of interacting with nature.
Whether it is cultural or personal, no two people view the outdoors the same. What is important is making the outdoors more welcoming for people to spend time there, in whatever form that takes.
“Native people have always been connected to the earth,” Corbine said. “Going outside doesn’t just mean doing one of these sports, it could be anything that gets people into these spaces.”
Macklin said that there are people who simply don’t want to take part in activities like mountain biking or rock climbing.
“Some people don't want a suffer fest in the mountains, and some people live for that,” said Macklin. “And some people say, I don't want to sleep on the ground, which is totally cool. So, there's a lot of different ways to interact with the outdoors. And OP is one of those ways; to act as a vehicle to get people outside.”
Lee’s organization is another avenue for people who haven’t had the chance to get into nature. But for Joslynn, it’s important to build a broad community that is welcoming, she said.
“We've had a lot of Indigenous students, and sometimes, people will feel more comfortable to pray before they go on a hike, or make an offering, because they're given such a special day to go out,” Lee said in reference to Fort Lewis Outdoor Equity. “Some students may not feel that comfortable, if they're in a group that's going to point at them or mock them for doing what is traditional. So, we're trying to figure out: should we stay as an affinity group, or should we expand outward?”
No matter what FLOE or OP plan to do to continue building safe spaces in the outdoors, they are actively working to create these communities.
“Get with your people, whoever your people are - your friends, your classmates, the people in your club - whatever your community is, and just go outside with them and see how it feels,” Macklin said. “And use OP, because we have all the gear you could want to try those things, and it’s free.”
In a similar vein, Lee said that no matter who you are, you deserve to spend time in these spaces. What’s more is that Fort Lewis has resources that will enable you to get out there and enjoy the wild places near campus and beyond.
“Everybody belongs outside,” Lee said. “There’s never bad weather, there’s always feeling comfortable - so that’s your gear, knowing the trail, and going with someone who has some knowledge of the trail to make it less intimidating. It’s a shared space, so being mindful of each other and being mindful of yourself is important.”