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San Diego’s world-class beaches, mountains and deserts aren’t easily accessible for many communities, a problem extends across California. A new bill by Sen. Ben Hueso aims to start making equitable outdoor access a priority for the agencies that govern California’s natural resources.
Until her junior year of high school, going outside for Tatiana Butte meant running errands or going to the store.
Butte, who grew up in Paradise Hills and continues to live there, said that as a kid, the parks closest to her home often felt unsafe, and her family didn’t have a car to drive to nicer ones farther away.
During her junior year of high school, Butte got involved with an organization in southeastern San Diego, Outdoor Outreach, that links youth from communities like hers to the outdoors. Through the program, she went kayaking and to the beach in Coronado – two firsts. The only beaches accessible by public transport from Paradise Hills are Mission Beach and Imperial Beach, and both journeys took hours.
People travel to San Diego from all over the world for its natural allure. It’s one of a few places where the beach, mountains and desert are all within reach.
But San Diego’s outdoor spaces actually aren’t easily accessible for many communities in the county, a problem extends across California.
“Communities like mine have not been able to access outdoor space for economic reasons, but also historically, communities of color haven’t been accepted into outdoor spaces, and things like surfing and hiking,” Butte said.
A new bill proposed by Sen. Ben Hueso aims to start making environmental equity and equitable outdoor access a priority for the state agencies that govern California’s natural resources.
“California is a beautiful state enriched with culture, history, and natural resources,” said Hueso in a statement. “Unfortunately, millions of Californians don’t have access to our state’s parks, beaches, and outdoor spaces, nor our state’s array of museums and cultural/historical sites. Communities that lack access to these recreational and educational opportunities are the same communities that suffer from other environmental injustices, and tend to be rural, impoverished communities with higher populations of racial and ethnic minorities. These disparities are affecting our state as a whole, as a lack of recreational opportunities is associated with greater likelihood of obesity, mental health issues, and more long-term health problems.”
The bill itself doesn’t propose or mandate specific programs or initiatives to address inequities present in the state’s beaches, trails or parks nor does it direct funding anywhere for this work. The bill amends California’s Public Resources Code to include a section acknowledging the barriers that prevent Californians from visiting state outdoor spaces, “including lack of affordable transportation to state parks and beaches, the cost of admission, parking and overnight accommodations near public lands, lack of exposure to the outdoors necessary to being comfortable in those spaces, cost of outdoor recreation equipment and lack of diversity among staff at all levels of the Natural Resources Agency.”
“I think the best way to think about this though is that the bill makes a statement that access and equity is a priority, and makes it the policy of the state to capitalize on opportunities to promote access and equity, especially for people who face barriers to access,” said Jaymee Go, the coordinator for California’s Parks Now coalition, a group of organizations that work on outdoor access, public health and conservation and that sponsored SB 624. “There really isn’t one particular example of a barrier that the bill seeks to address. Rather, the intent is to ensure that, at a high-level, agencies and departments always conduct their work within a framework of promoting access and equity as a priority.”
Go and others who advocate for more equitable access to the outdoors say they are hopeful that codifying equitable access to the state’s natural resources as a value will lead the state to be more proactive in incorporating equity into all its operations, programs and policies and capitalize on more opportunities to level obstacles that exist for some communities.
“There has been a lot of success in programs, but there hasn’t been a place for the agency to promote access more actively,” Go said.
Outdoor Outreach, the organization that first introduced Butte to the outdoors in San Diego, is part of the Parks Now coalition that sponsored SB 624. Ben McCue, the organization’s executive director, said for years there’s been talk at the state level about access to the outdoors for all, but less clarity on what that would actually mean, so it hasn’t been very actionable.
Organizations like his that work to make the outdoors more accessible have themselves faced barriers because managers of state lands often prioritize activities that bring revenue, like concession stands, when it comes to doling out permits, McCue said.
Lots of agencies and commissions that govern various natural resources in California, like the California Coastal Commission, have been trying to develop their own ways of dealing with equity and access issues, McCue said. But the group felt it was time to create an umbrella directive.
The California Coastal Commission, a state agency that oversees parts of the coast that are public, recently unveiled an environmental justice policy. But the commission is limited in its scope, said Chula Vista Councilman Steve Padilla, the agency’s chair.
The Coastal Commission weighs land use decisions in the parts of the coast under its purview and handles some appeals of permits where cities may have jurisdiction.
“The commission can’t unilaterally go in and mandate programs that undo the land use posture that exists,” Padilla said. But when new projects come forward or communities are updating plans, the commission can scrutinize whether they support low-cost visitor accommodations, whether they have multimodal access for people without cars and whether they have discounted rates for recreational programs.
In addition to southeastern San Diego, other communities including, El Cajon, City Heights, San Ysidro and National City also face barriers in accessing outdoor spaces. For one, many of them simply face a dearth of parks, according to a recent report from the San Diego Foundation. Places like Barrio Logan and National City also experience more pollution because of their locations near industrial bays and highways. Chicano Park, for example, is under the Coronado Bridge.
Having access to the outdoors is linked to better outcomes in school, in addition to better overall physical and mental health and well-being, said Manuel Belmonte, a program coordinator with the San Diego chapter of Latino Outdoors, which works to improve access to the outdoors among Latinos.
“A child that doesn’t have access to green spaces is going to suffer scholastically,” Belmonte said. “There are health components and it has repercussions in their life in the long run. That lack of access can have the ability to limit one’s life chances.”
Indeed, Butte said gaining the access to the outdoors helped her deal with depression.
Maria Guadalupe Mendez Arroyo, who grew up in Barrio Logan, also first got meaningful access to the outdoors through Outdoor Outreach during her junior year of high school. She went on a group hike through Balboa Park.
Though Memorial and Chicano Parks are somewhat walkable from her house – about 15 and 30 minutes, respectively – her parents didn’t like her and her siblings going there often because they wouldn’t always clean or there would be people smoking there.
“Once I had access to the outdoors, it was like something inside me would be peaceful,” Mendez Arroyo said. “I would let go and just admire nature.”
Santos Plaza, an instructor with Outdoor Outreach who also first started spending significant time outdoors in high school, said being given the ability to rock climb, surf and go on challenging hikes helped his physical health, but also showed him he could be brave and courageous in ways he hadn’t imagined.
“I moved around a lot as a kid, but mostly in the communities I was in, they were lower-income,” Plaza said. “There was a majority of people of color and I think the most outdoorsy experiences I had was going to the park. One of my favorite memories as a child, was there was an empty lot at an apartment complex we were living in, and me and my sister were running through the dead grass and cat tails imaging we were in the forest.”
When he was a freshman in high school, Plaza got an opportunity to try rock climbing for the first time. He was scared of heights, but the support he received from his instructor that day stuck with him.
“It was one of the first times that someone was speaking this greatness and courage into me,” he said. “That was what made me want to explore the outdoors more, to test my limits and see how far I could go and how far I could push myself.”
Belmonte said Hueso’s bill, if passed, will hopefully set the groundwork to improve access to outdoor spaces – whether that’s through funding the construction of new parks or infrastructure in those communities or funding organizations like his that seek to facilitate access to outdoor spaces.
A few years back, McCue recalls Hueso coming to speak to a group of students participating in one of Outdoor Outreach’s programs. They were doing an overnight beach camping trip with a group of youth from Calexico.
Hueso started by asking the students, “Where are we?” and “Whose beach is this?” McCue said.
“These are public spaces for all, but there are both physical and cultural barriers about who gets to access them,” McCue said. “That is what this bill is trying to address.”