This land is whose land?: How SUU communities are narrowing the “nature gap”

For many, the outdoors represent a vast window of opportunity for unmatched recreation and respite. The United States boasts some of the most impressive and wild landscapes in the world in which millions of residents annually retreat in search of solitude and adventure. Utah is particularly renowned for its impressive pull on outdoor recreation lovers, from its striking desert canyons to its “greatest snow on Earth” and the seemingly endless wild lands in between.

However, in recent years, there has been increasing recognition of a historic reality that merits consideration: the outdoor recreation community seems to lack ethnic and socioeconomic diversity.

According to a 2021 study conducted by the Outdoor Foundation, 72% of participants in outdoor recreation in the United States are white, the majority of whom are male. Additionally, nearly one-third of participants recorded an annual household income of over $100,000. Even without the statistics, a visit to a nature park or a quick browse through some outdoor media affirms this.

“There are different barriers for students at times,” said Levi Pendleton, an event coordinator with SUU Outdoors, “whether it be finances, ability, time or whatever else.”

Luckily, Southern Utah University has a number of clubs and organizations devoted to narrowing what many call the “nature gap,” barriers that prevent people from interacting with the outdoors because of economic status, gender or race.

I have noticed gaps in outdoor recreation,” said SUU student Jessica Hanneman. “One is that women are still the minority, but even in that, women of color are less likely to be involved in nature and the outdoors.”

Noticing this and hoping for a group of girls to get outside with, Hanneman began the Women of the Outdoors Club in September 2020. In its two-year lifespan, the club has become one of SUU’s most popular, flourishing with over 50 members. The club prides itself on providing a safe, enjoyable and informative environment for women of all backgrounds to experience the outdoors. 

“I try to do events that are catered to beginners, for women who weren’t able to go camping or hiking in their childhood,” Hanneman explained. “Cultural histories keep a lot of women of color from going to outdoor activities. There is also a big gap of women going outdoors because it can be dangerous for them to camp or hike alone.”

For this reason, the club hosts several activities each month, including hot spring trips, camping, rock climbing and even self-defense training. They meet every Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the Sharwan Smith Student Center Wing to discuss upcoming events.

“I think our club has been able to bridge the gap a little more by making a safe place for women in the outdoors,” said Hanneman, adding that the club would love to see more women of color as it continues to grow.

Another major barrier between people and the outdoors is income. Outdoor recreation can be pricey, especially in adventure sports such as rock climbing and river rafting where safety is often contingent on the use of high-quality, expensive equipment. 

A cheap rope can swiftly transform a memorable day at the crags into an irreversible catastrophe, but luckily, there are programs that can circumnavigate this expensive price point for students.

“The really cool thing about SUU Outdoors is that the program is designed to have a pretty broad reach,” said Pendleton. “What we try to do is bridge a lot of those barriers.”

SUU Outdoors began operating in the early 2000s and has since become an SUU student’s premiere stop for adventure. Offering gear rentals at prices a fraction of the industry standard, as well as affordable or free trips and events, the organization is the most accessible way for students on a budget to experience the outdoors.

“There is a diverse offering in terms of different things we have. If you want something a little more entry level, we have that. If you want something a little more adventurous, we have that too,” Pendleton explained.

Each semester, SUU Outdoors offers a variety of adventure trips students can register for, from free day trips such as rock climbing at nearby locations to exciting overnight trips like river rafting, which students have access to for around $150 as opposed to the thousands a commercial adventure tour company would typically charge. 

Those unable to register for these trips are encouraged to get involved in Local Events, Activities & Programming, also known as LEAP. The weekly free events offered on or near campus include slacklining, hiking, disc golf and their bi-weekly Outdoor Education Seminar. The LEAP program also holds a garage sale where students can expect to find used gear for cheap.

“Our primary focus is the student population first,” said Pendelton. “And it’s not just for outdoor-focused people, either. Anybody can get involved.”

With an arsenal of top-of-the-line equipment and an educated, experienced staff, SUU Outdoors is doing its part in getting students from all walks of life into the outdoors, bridging one gap at a time. 

Nature does not discriminate, but the patterns are glaringly obvious: not everyone gets outside the same. However, it does not have to be this way. Everyone has a right to — and frankly should — enjoy the wildernesses of this beautiful nation, and students can continue to do their part to reduce the nature gap. 


Story by: Jared Clawson
Photos by: Jared Clawson

This article was originally published in the October 2022 edition of the University Journal. Pick up a free copy at any of the stands on SUU campus.