Pennsylvania is investing millions to ensure people of all backgrounds, abilities have access to public lands

Pennsylvania agencies overseeing outdoor recreation have made headway in expanding access to public lands, but not everyone feels safe or welcome at parks and forests.

signage at a park

A bulletin board in Rothrock State Forest (Georgianna Sutherland for Spotlight PA)

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

Anthony David Jr. wasn’t comfortable exploring state parks and forests while attending college in Harrisburg.

As a Black man, David worried about accidentally walking onto private property while on a hike, an activity he grew up in Washington, D.C., thinking was a “white person thing,” he told Spotlight PA.

“We never got that opportunity to pass hiking down through generations because we’ve been living in so many centuries of terror and lynchings,” he said.

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But after serving on the state’s Environmental Justice Advisory Board, which helped update a statewide policy to guide environmental decisions, David learned more about conservation, environmental improvements, and the value of spending time outdoors. He graduated in 2023 and moved back to the nation’s capital, where he now feels comfortable outdoors and advocates for environmental issues, including recreation. If he were to return to Pennsylvania, he said, he would explore state trails and bring more people with him to share the experience.

His story demonstrates why the commonwealth is investing millions in projects and advisory boards to ensure all Pennsylvanians enjoy the state’s more than 3 million acres of public lands and numerous outdoor recreation opportunities.

Commonwealth agencies that handle outdoor recreation and their local partners have taken steps to expand the use of these spaces by connecting kids with the outdoors, improving accessibility, and challenging assumptions that certain activities are exclusive to white people.

Still, more work is needed to ensure everyone who wants to can visit and feel safe using public lands.

Pennsylvania must develop a recreational plan to guide policies and programs every five years to qualify for federal grant dollars from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has distributed more than $178 million statewide over the last 55 years, according to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

The most recent Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, which runs through 2024, identified safety and transportation as barriers to wider use of state facilities. Some communities of color also reported feeling unwelcome and unrepresented in the outdoor industry.

The report recommended that the state work with schools to connect kids to outdoor recreation facilities, build and promote easier trails, increase the number of adaptive equipment — such as kayak launches, playgrounds, and fishing access — and find more ways to include young people and diverse groups in programming decisions.

Wesley Robinson, a DCNR spokesperson, told Spotlight PA that Pennsylvania has made headway with some of the recommendations. However, vacancies within the department have slowed the pace of developing new programs, he said.

He cited the 2022 launch of the NextGen Advisory Council as one accomplishment. The council, which includes high-schoolers to 35-year-olds, weighs in on policies and programs aimed at increasing public land use and addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion issues.

The Office of Outdoor Recreation, established with $422,000 as part of this year’s state budget, will also play a role in developing new policies, Robinson said. Additionally, a $52.5 million investment announced earlier this fall funded 23 trail projects, land protection and conservation efforts, and 99 development or rehabilitation initiatives.

DCNR is looking to hire a specialist to oversee the outdoor recreation plan, Robinson said. Whoever fills the role, which is funded by a National Park Service grant, will work with other state departments, including transportation and health, and outside groups.

Additionally, DCNR is trying to improve how it tracks diversity among visitors. The agency currently relies on counters to monitor attendance at state lands, Robinson said. While the method is “relatively accurate” in tracking visitation, it doesn’t let visitors self-identify personal information, like gender or race.

“The way that we’re going to make our headway is going to have to be incremental,” he said.

The state also works with local partners to overcome barriers to outdoor recreation, including making facilities accessible to everyone, regardless of physical ability, and teaching skills that make people feel safe and welcome on public lands.

Natural Lands, a nonprofit focused on land conservation, maintains 42 nature preserves and one public garden in eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey.

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Oliver Bass, the organization’s president, said the group takes a broad approach to diversity and works to collect input from visitors about why they decided to come to one of their sites. Staff then use this feedback to assess gaps in their base and how to address them.

Most importantly, Natural Lands makes sure greeters welcome visitors and answer any questions, something Bass said helps people — especially first-time patrons — feel better doing activities outside more often.

Legacy Land & Water Partners, founded by Todd Pride in eastern Pennsylvania, teaches kids and adults how to hunt, fish, bird-watch, and conserve natural spaces with the hope that participants continue to visit state parks or game lands and use the skills with boosted confidence. More than 15,000 people have attended trainings offered by the group.

Other organizations aim to make communities of color feel welcome outdoors, such as Black Girls Hike Too, which Stephanie Nicole Dawkins launched during the pandemic to take a break from the stresses of working and parenting from home during the shutdowns.

Dawkins, who lives in Delaware but grew up visiting her grandparents on a farm in New Jersey, remembered how relaxed she felt being outside as a kid. Her group has since organized roughly 75 hikes throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware, but she thinks a state-level partnership and grant funds would only bolster their work.

About 80% of participants are first-time hikers, she told Spotlight PA. Most of them come to the group out of curiosity, and seek a safe way to connect with other women and nature.

Dawkins emphasized that the group also exists to make hiking more inclusive for actual girls, like her 10-year-old.

“My daughter knows she can do anything if she wants to do it,” Dawkins said. “I want a new history.”

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