Our Distant Backyard: Accessing Our State Parks

There are moments in life that change you forever. That moment came for me last October when President Obama officially designated the San Gabriel Mountains a national monument.

I had been waiting for an opportunity like this since I was a kid. I grew up in El Monte, in the shadow of the majestic mountain range that I could always see, but never reach. Like many in my community, I didn’t have access to a car and I never got a chance to explore this wonder in my backyard.

There are many young people in urban communities who are ready to become environmental enthusiasts and support conservation efforts. Photo courtesy of San Gabriel Valley Conservation Corps.

When President Obama decided to protect the natural beauty of the San Gabriels, he noted that he was doing so as part of a long tradition of preserving the best of our nation for generations to come. But for the urban, park-poor neighborhoods that see the mountains, but have yet to visit them, he made another crucial point: conservation isn’t about locking away these treasures, but about finding ways to open up the outdoors to everybody, across ages, ethnicities and socioeconomic circumstances.

Finding a way to help untapped communities develop a relationship with nature is critical to the future preservation of our natural resources, but it will require a shift in how we engage people with the outdoors.

Here in Southern California, the U.S. Forest Service has a creative partnership with the San Gabriel Valley Conservation Corp (SGVCC), which provides youth leadership and vocational training through jobs in the outdoors. Youth have had opportunities since the national monument designation to work alongside park rangers to keep the mountains in pristine condition. This program offered me the chance to develop a meaningful relationship with the outdoors, and finally stand amidst the peaks that I’d only ever seen from a distance. It offered me a direct path to nature that transformed my life.

There are many other young people in urban communities who are ready to become environmental enthusiasts and support conservation efforts, if only given the chance to fall in love with nature as I did. Just as the Forest Service is doing with the San Gabriel Mountains, state parks need to rethink how they manage public lands and connect diverse community groups to nature. It’s not enough anymore to expect that people will make their way to these treasured spaces. The outdoors need to be relevant to future users in order to protect our natural resources, and ensure that every resident has the opportunity to enjoy their environmental patrimony.

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For me, a bond was created with the San Gabriel Mountains when I was given a chance to be part of its care and preservation. I decided to go a step further than my work with SGVCC and now I attend fire tech classes at Rio Hondo College. My studies will prepare me to become a wildland firefighter – the calling I discovered thanks to SGVCC and the opportunities I’ve had over the past year.

The transition from park deprived to park supporter can be replicated through a concerted effort to better connect new communities to the outdoors that reimagines the way people experience nature.

The California  Parks Forward Commission calls for parks visitors to reflect the demographics of the state’s population by 2025, and lays out a roadmap to get there.  The Commission has provided concrete proposals like better programs, maintenance improvements and technology upgrades that can truly bring state parks into the 21st century and make them accessible for all.

For younger generations, enjoying nature means being able to share the experience collectively. Photo courtesy of San Gabriel Valley Conservation Corps.

The recommendations want to remove the buffer between nature and California’s urban communities. By proactively pursuing opportunities of greater engagement, citizens will have a better chance of getting outdoors more often.

At San Gabriel, park officials are doing this through beautification projects that turn basic picnic areas into community gathering spaces that welcome families and large groups to host outdoor gatherings more easily. They are adding more picnic benches, cleaning the picnic areas and working with community groups to make make the garbage bins public art displays. By creating signage in multiple languages, creating social spaces in parks and even providing transportation options that make it easier for people to reach recreational areas, park officials can help first-time users overcome the fears and obstacles that keep people away.

I look to my daughter as another reflection of the changing relationship between Californians and our parks.  

For me, the San Gabriel Mountains offers a place of solitude where I can get away from the hustle and bustle of urban Los Angeles. This is often the traditional understanding of how one might interact with nature, but my own seven-year-old daughter opened me up to many more possibilities.   

My daughter doesn’t appreciate the solitude of the outdoors, finding greater pleasure in sharing the experience with her friends and loved ones. Wanting to provide her and her friends the chance to enjoy this space together, I have partnered with her school to bring her class on a field trip to the mountains. That way, she and 30 of her friends will experience the trails and new picnic areas collectively. The hope is this exposure will spark a lifelong interest in discovering and protecting our natural heritage.  

This is the kind of approach we need to take as we move forward in our parks system: helping all people access parks and making them feel comfortable when they arrive. If we can address these issues, we can cultivate a population that cherishes our parks system and to invest in its preservation.

Top image: Atop the San Gabriel Mountains. Photo by Daniel Medina.

"Like many in my community, I didn’t have access to a car and I never got a chance to explore this wonder in my backyard," says Irvin Barragan. Photo by Daniel Medina.

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