Grand Canyon to Great Lakes: Evaluating our Access to the Outdoors

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As we weather yet another month of Zoom calls, an overabundance of hand sanitizer, and ceaseless stay-at-home orders, many communities have begun to loosen restrictions on social activities in an attempt to restore some semblance of normalcy. But when it comes to outdoor attractions, national parks, and popular tourist sights, many remain closed or offer limited entry — a disappointment for ardent thrill-seekers and simple sight-seers alike.

After being cooped up in their houses for months on end, even the most avid homebodies are antsy to get outside. Stanford students — with their ski-tripping, Dish-hiking, and sunshine-soaking spirits — seem like they’d be first in line to be out the door once quarantine restrictions are lifted. But just how outdoorsy is the Stanford community, exactly?

To glean some insights, we focused on a single question from the Marriage Pact survey: “I consider myself outdoorsy.”

1 outdoorsy

We started by obtaining a baseline measure of Stanford students’ “outdoorsy-ness” by looking at students’ responses on a scale of 1 to 7 (with 1 being “strongly disagree” and 7 being “strongly agree”). The mean response of all Stanford students fell at 4.65, slightly higher than the midpoint of 4. This means that Cardinal undergraduates in general tend to consider themselves moderately outdoorsy — which makes sense at a school where hikes and bike rides are common Saturday activities.

To delve further into our research question, we analyzed responses across different metrics, beginning with students’ academic majors. We found a statistically significant difference in the mean of responses between students in the School of Earth, Energy and Environment Sciences than those in all other fields, implying that students who choose to study the Earth also enjoy exploring it (confirmed by a two-population t-test, p-value < 2.2e-16. In other words, this is statistically significant). This seems self-explanatory; after all, it makes sense that an Earth Systems major would get outside more than a CS major living it up in Huang Basement.

We then looked at political affiliation, finding statistically significant differences between responses from students on opposite sides of the political spectrum.

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Determined statistically significant through a 2-population t-test between the Left and the Right with a p-value of 4.40e^-5; counting Independent as Right-leaning.

We ultimately discovered that students who fall to the right of the political spectrum tend to associate themselves more with the “outdoorsy” label than their left-leaning counterparts. This divide makes sense when we consider traditional red state activities, such as hunting and fishing for sport.

The Sioux City Journal, for example, leveraged data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the 2018 Census to determine the states with the highest proportion of registered fishermen. The top 5 on the list — Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and North Dakota — are all tried-and-true red states.

We spot the same divide when it comes to gun ownership. According to the World Population Review, the five states with the highest percentages of gun owners — Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, West Virginia, and Wyoming — all lean heavily to the right.

While hunting and fishing certainly aren’t the only ways to engage with nature, these findings clearly point to a political discrepancy in two major areas of outdoor recreation — one that may carry over onto college campuses.

We looked at race as our final metric, discovering a statistically significant difference between white and non-white survey respondents.

3 avg response

Determined statistically significant through a 2-population t-test between white vs. nonwhite, with a p-value of < 2.2e-16.

While our data only captures responses from Stanford undergraduates, our findings reflect a larger racial disparity in outdoor spaces across the US, which tend to be dominated by white populations while remaining less accessible to minority groups.

National Park Service data shared with ABC News found that only 23 percent of visitors to national parks over the past 10 years were people of color, while the remaining 77 percent were white despite minorities composing 42 percent of the US population.

ABC News cited a lack of transportation and the cost of living as the top reasons why ethnic minorities don’t visit the outdoors as often. But outdoor spaces may also feel unwelcoming to people of color who don’t seem to fit the “outdoorsy” stereotype. According to ABC, “twice as many Black and Hispanic Americans said they don’t know what to do in national parks than whites.” When asked if they share the same interests as people who typically visit national parks, “34% of Black respondents and 27% of Hispanics said no, compared with only 11% of whites.”

Although white, right-leaning Stanford students may be the most eager to get outside, our data raises an interesting question: How much is a person’s affiliation with outdoorsiness related to ease of access or representation than pure interest in the outdoors?

We began with one question — how much do Stanford kids enjoy nature? But a look at Stanford’s undergraduate population in general can’t capture the nuance that defines our experience with the great outdoors. For now, the closest we may get to Joshua Tree is through a virtual Zoom background. Until a return to normalcy, it may be worthwhile to reflect on our own relationship with the outdoors.