Program introduces inner city to the wilds, hoping to build a relationship

YOSEMITE -- Jorge Castaneda kneels on a rocky ledge with a map of the Sierra spread before him.

"There aren't street names," the 18-year-old said only half-jokingly to the guides about to take him on his first backpacking trip. "How are we supposed to read these maps?"

Castaneda is with a group of young men from inner-city Oakland and Los Angeles who are heading into the Yosemite backcountry for a five-day, 20-mile excursion sponsored by an outdoor education program called WildLink.

The group's aim is to help them forge a connection with public lands that will keep them coming back and beef up the slowly diminishing and overwhelmingly white ranks of those who spend their free time hiking, climbing, fishing or otherwise enjoying open spaces.

A 2004 survey by the U.S. Forest Service showed that 92.7 percent of those who visited national forests over a three-year period were white, even though the country's ethnic and racial makeup includes growing numbers of Latinos, Asians and blacks.

Overall, the number of people visiting public lands is dwindling. The National Park Service found in 2006 it had nearly a million fewer visitors than the year before, and 14.5 million fewer than in 1999.

Experts say many factors are contributing to the drop in visitors, from gas prices to shorter vacations. But, "It may be that a certain portion of our decline is because population growth is being driven by people who are not traditional national park users," said Jim Gramann, visiting chief social scientist with the park service.

A tenuous connection between new generations of people and public lands has potential consequences for individuals who miss out on the physical and mental benefits of being outdoors and for the future of open spaces, say those committed to fostering that relationship.

"We have to make sure the people who will be voting in the future care about wilderness," said park ranger Cynthia Ramaciotti, one of the leaders of the backpacking trip and a coordinator with WildLink, which works with the Yosemite Institute, the Forest Service and park service.

Her thoughts are echoed by Gail Kimbell, head of the Forest Service.

"Perhaps one of the biggest threats to our nation's forests and grasslands is environmental illiteracy," Kimbell told Congress in May, when her agency awarded half a million dollars in grants meant to connect urban and minority kids to the land.

Helped in part by this kind of initiative, programs such as WildLink are popping up around the country. But many experts agree it's hard to change recreation patterns and perceptions.

A park service survey in 2003 showed U.S. residents of all backgrounds gave the same reasons for staying away from public lands -- cost, distance, not knowing what to do there and lack of interest. But some differences emerged.

Blacks were significantly more likely to say they received poor service from park employees or that they felt uncomfortable while visiting parks. Latinos were more concerned than others about having to make reservations far in advance and about personal safety while outdoors.

Experts say these perceptions can be changed, but only through a concerted effort.

"It takes more than one week outdoors," says Gramann.

Challenging myths

Nina Roberts, a professor at San Francisco State University's Department of Recreation, said some of the biggest impediments are access to the gear and knowledge needed for certain outdoor activities, and for newcomers, understanding signs in English and U.S. rules about use of public space.

She said her research has found many Latinos prefer to spend time off with extended families, but limits on how many people can occupy a campsite or picnic facility can get in the way.

"There's a myth in the broader community that ethnic minorities don't like outdoor areas, that they don't care about nature," Roberts said. "That's untrue."

Partnerships with groups like WildLink help remove some of these impediments.

Wildlink reaches young people through community service organizations, Boys and Girls clubs, and schools, tapping into grants and private foundation money to cover the costs.

Before hitting the trail, the young men on the WildLink Yosemite trip learned the basics of surviving outdoors, such as how to read a compass, use a bear canister, filter water and use a camp stove. Most of the equipment was provided by the program: backpacks, rain gear, mats to sleep on.

But not every barrier can be removed. Two young men from the Los Angeles area who had signed up for the June trip had to cancel because they were injured in a gang-related, drive-by shooting the day before, organizers said.

"We're in the wilderness out there too, so in a way it's the same thing as here," said Castaneda. "We're used to fighting bullets, whereas out here we have bears. We're used to walking the streets, and out here it's the woods. But it's about surviving, just the same."

The information visitors might find interesting is being rethought.

"One reason why national parks may be under-visited by some populations is that they're not telling stories that are relevant to that population," said Gramann, the park service scientist.

Interpreters at Civil War battlefields, for example, traditionally have focused on war tactics, rather than discussing slavery and the reasons the war was fought.

Federal officials have focused in recent years on acquiring new sites that might appeal to particular groups.

Manzanar National Historic Site, near the California border with Nevada, marks a site where Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II. It joined the park service in 1997.

Sand Creek National Historic Site in southeastern Colorado, was dedicated in April on the site where Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians were massacred by U.S. soldiers in 1864.

On the Net:

Wildlink, http://wildlink.wilderness.net;

Yosemite Institute, http://www.yni.org;

Urban Releaf, http://www.urbanreleaf.org.