Imagining an outdoors for everyone: How organizations in Eagle County and around the country are increasing the accessibility and diversity of outdoor recreation |

Imagining an outdoors for everyone: How organizations in Eagle County and around the country are increasing the accessibility and diversity of outdoor recreation

How local and national organizations are increasing access, why it’s important and what the community could do to be more inclusive and welcoming

The National Brotherhood of Skiers has partnered with Vail Resorts through its Epic for Everyone program to introduce more young athletes to the support. Looking ahead, the groups imagine a more diverse, inclusive and welcoming world for snow sports.
National Brotherhood of Skiers/Courtesy Photo

On Saturday, the National Brotherhood of Skiers is arriving in Vail to celebrate its annual Summit through Feb. 11.

The organization started in the 1970s with 13 national founding clubs and a mission of creating a community and exposing people of color to winter sports and the vast outdoors. Now, 50 years after its first summit, with 57 clubs around the country, the organization is still building toward these goals and continuing to raise participation in the sport.  

From its inception, the organization has worked to not only increase diversity and representation in the outdoors — particularly as it builds toward its mission of identifying, developing and supporting athletes of color to win on the global stage at the Olympics — but to create an inclusive and welcoming outdoors for everyone.

The mission is one that many local nonprofits and industry giants share, as outdoor recreation brands and organizations begin to work toward broader diversity, equity and inclusion goals. However, there is still work to be done.

“The more diverse groups we have out there, in my opinion, it’s more fun. It’s way more fun to be out there with people that you’re learning new things from.” — Brett Donelson, founder of The Cycle Effect

While overall participation in outdoor recreation has risen by 26% since 2020, the diversity of participation and the industry is still lagging behind, according to the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2022 State of the Outdoor Market report. The report adds that 72% of the outdoor participant base is white, compared to 58% of the overall population. Additionally, the outdoor workforce is 80% white.

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This comes at a time when the population of the U.S. is becoming more and more diverse. Census data has projected that by 2045, no racial or ethnic group will represent the majority of the population.

“There’s no better time than now to start focusing on diversifying our industry and making sure that people know that they’re welcome in the sport, because the next two, three, four generations are going to be really diverse,” said Travis Tafoya, manager of inclusive access and community impact for Vail Resorts. “We need to make sure that we’re keeping up with who’s there and who can be a customer, who can be a guest, who can come out and experience these resorts.”

No ‘start here’ sign

The National Brotherhood of Skiers has worked to build community, representation and opportunities for people of color to get involved in snow sports starting at a young age.
National Brotherhood of Skiers/Courtesy Photo

Lee Valentine currently serves as the executive vice president of the National Brotherhood of Skiers but has been engaged with the organization since 2005. He’s a life member of the organization’s Atlanta club, the Southern Snow Seekers, and previously served on the club’s board and as its president.

In Valentine’s words, he came to skiing “a little late in life.”

Valentine was born and raised in Virginia and never experienced any significant snowfall. That is, until he received an appointment to the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. There, he was first introduced to the idea of skiing and snowboarding. The academy organized weekly ski trips with charter buses and gear rentals available on campus. However, while Valentine’s roommate invited him multiple times throughout the season, he never participated.

“I had no exposure to the sport, no connection to it, so it just didn’t seem relevant for me,” he said.

It wasn’t until 2004, when a colleague (who was a member of the Atlanta NBS club), invited him to Breckenridge for a ski weekend that he first gave the sport a go. Within four days, Valentine said he bought all the gear and equipment, scheduled a lesson and had his first day on skis.

“I took a one-day lesson through the resort at Breck that Monday, and at the end of the day was still doing the snow plow, and could barely get on and off the lift,” Valentine said.

A group of skiers from an NBS Chicago club were also on the mountain, however, and one of the members spent the next morning working with Valentine and teaching him to ski.

“If I had not had the support of those other members from NBS who happened to be there that week, I may have thrown him a towel after that first lesson, I very likely would not have stuck with it,” Valentine said.

But stick with it, he did, and by the end of his first week, Valentine was not only skiing down black diamond runs, but he had developed a passion for the sport and for the National Brotherhood of Skiers’ mission.

Valentine loved the combination of speed, grace and coordination required to ski, and discovering that there were also people like him — who he classifies as “professional black people who live in my community and who traveled out West to ski” — who shared that passion drew him in.

“It kind of provided a sense of community for me or an outlet for me to enjoy the sport and enjoy it with other people who look like me,” Valentine said.

For Valentine, becoming part of a community willing and able to introduce him to snow sports allowed him to participate in a sport that at one point in college he didn’t feel a part of.

For many of the underrepresented groups in the outdoor industry, the barriers to entry are significant.

Corporations like Vail Resorts as well as organizations like the NBS and local nonprofits including SOS Outreach, The Cycle Effect and the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement, are working to overcome these barriers through significant programming efforts.

Equipment and gear

Perhaps the most significant, and obvious, barrier is the cost of entry. Not only are the gear and equipment required expensive, but there are high costs associated with items like lift tickets, transportation and lodging. This has long been the case, but can be particularly insurmountable in “these inflationary times,” Valentine said.

For many local nonprofits and groups, overcoming this barrier means providing gear and equipment to participants.

Within Vail Resorts’ Epic for Everyone Inclusive Access programs, the company works with its industry partners — like Helly Hansen, Hestra Gloves, PepsiCo, and BlackStrap — to provide gear at cost to its nonprofit partners.

With gear and the sport itself also comes language that people who have never experienced the sport may not understand. 

“Any culture you go into or any group you go into, whether it’s dance, whether it’s mountain biking, whether it’s art, there is a vernacular there, there are common words being used that are not known from an outsider’s perspective,” said Brett Donelson, the founder of The Cycle Effect, a local organization that is seeking to introduce more young women to mountain biking.

One of The Cycle Effect’s athletes rides the Soda Creek Scramble, the fourth round of the Summit Mountain Challenge Mountain Bike race series. The Cycle Effect is looking not only to empower young women through mountain biking but to build representation in the sport.
The Cycle Effect/Courtesy Photo

Tafoya said that often in his work with Vail Resorts’ nonprofit partners — particularly those located outside of resort communities — there is a lack of knowledge about what gear is required and why.

“A big part of my role is kind of guiding these organizations through what snow sports are, what the gear is, and how to get them into it,” he said.

Even within the sport, there’s a constant comparison of gear and equipment. With many of the local programs looking to expand access and increase participation, gear is provided. For The Cycle Effect, providing the gear to its girls right off the bat helps eliminate some of this comparison as they often start with the same or similar bike, jersey and gear.

“They’re not sitting around comparing all these different pieces — like I see with so many people out on the trails — they’re just there to learn how to ride the bike,” Donelson said. “We made a baseline there, which I think is really helpful for these young women to come in and feel safe and secure, to learn the skills and not be worried about extra stuff.”

While the cost of transportation can be a barrier, so can access to the trails and mountains.

“Transportation is a real issue because a lot of the times I think the more affluent communities are the ones that generally live around the trails or are the ones that build the trails,” Donelson said. “In some of our communities, getting kids to those trails can be challenging because a lot of times they’re not built in the neighborhoods that our kids live.”

Sense of belonging

Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement is a local collaborative of nonprofits led by Walking Mountains to provide equal access to outdoor spaces and opportunities for Eagle County families. Since 2015, it has allowed families to build confidence in the outdoors through opportunities to hike, snowshoe, and get outside with their community.
Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement/Courtesy Photo

“You have gear, you have a lift ticket and then the mountain in itself is super intimidating if you don’t have that experience,” said Gina Van Hekken of Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement. “I still think a majority of (the barriers are) lack of knowledge, awareness and not feeling comfortable.”

Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement is a local collaborative of nonprofits led by Walking Mountains to provide equal access to outdoor spaces and opportunities for Eagle County families. The group was created in 2015 out of a Great Outdoors Colorado grant and initiative around the same purpose.

Most outdoor recreation activities — particularly like skiing and mountain biking — can feel intimidating for those who have never experienced them. And therefore, getting started can be overwhelming. 

“There’s no ‘Start Here’ sign when you get to the mountain. And so it’s not a very beginner-friendly experience,” said Seth Ehrlich, the executive director of SOS Outreach.

Part of this is the legacy of snow sports, as Tafoya put it.

“With mountain sports, and snow sports specifically, you often get into it because your parents did it and their parents showed them and took you skiing one time,” he said.

Part of this exclusion can also come through language — both in the specific vernacular used in mountain sports — but also in the language itself. When Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement was first establishing itself it identified that many of the county’s Latino population was excluded from some of the activities because there was a lack of Spanish resources, signs and other Spanish-speaking participants. 

Van Hekken said that the movement found that many community members in Eagle County didn’t know “where to access information in their native language to learn about opportunities.”

Even once participants arrived at community outdoor events, there often wasn’t an opportunity for Spanish translation.

This created a significant barrier, especially coupled with not feeling “welcome or comfortable in the outdoors,” she added.

To tackle this, Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement began by first bringing activities to the local Latino communities to build comfort, confidence and education in outdoor activities. But also, the organization created a bilingual position that would attend not only Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement events, but its partners’ events as well, to serve as a translator and family liaison.

“We’ve really been able to build people’s confidence in wanting to participate in the outdoors, and we’ve helped them see themselves in outdoor activities, like give them that sense of belonging,” Van Hekken said.

Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement recently received a grant from The Colorado Equity Fund. It is using the funding to hire six bilingual “EVOM representatives” who can work part-time and help host outdoor programs throughout the county.

The organization is also working to create a gear library for the local community to overcome some of the cost and equipment barriers, and also to create an opportunity for targeted education. This would help make the activities seem more accessible and provide resources in Spanish for community members to build the knowledge base that so many outdoor activities require.

Building community, representation

Through building community and representation, more kids and adults alike have the opportunity to get outdoors.
National Brotherhood of Skiers/Courtesy Photo

As Valentine experienced, one of the ways to create a sense of belonging is by finding your community.

“If you’re not brought up with people who have brought you here, whether it’s through your family or otherwise, then it’s very hard to get started,” Ehrlich said.

SOS Outreach helps build this sense of belonging through its mentorship programs, which help build natural connections in the community.

“It’s in connecting adults and kids around a shared passion. We have the advantage because our program participants are excited to go on the mountain and our mentors are excited to be able to connect through their love of the mountains with kids and build that strong relationship,” Ehrlich said.

While the National Brotherhood of Skiers is predominantly engaged in snow sports, Valentine said that a critical part of the clubs’ work is creating other year-round social and recreation activities. This, he said, keeps local groups connected in the offseason and helps with recruiting.

“You may have somebody who likes to run or likes to cycle, but they’ve never been skiing before. So they link up with their local NBS club, and when the winter rolls around and they see that there’s a one-day ski trip plan to a local mountain, they might tend to say, OK, I’ll give it a try,” he said.

Additionally, creating a community within the youth programming efforts includes getting families involved.

In the last couple of years, The Cycle Effect created a bike match program to get bikes into the hands of its participants’ siblings and parents.

“We used to really just focus on the specific athlete, but we realized that if we don’t get their families involved, then there’s not a great future potential for this athlete to become a lifelong mountain biker,” Donelson said.

The Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement quickly saw that introducing families to sports together can have a ripple effect on communities and individuals.

“By giving people more experiences and having it feel positive and having it feel meaningful, you are empowering individuals to bring friends along or to seek out things on their own independently,” Van Hekken said. “That’s really kind of where the next step is for participants is as they build their confidence and interest, really starting to try to pursue these things independently.”

Starting in fourth grade, SOS Outreach identifies students that are facing some sort of challenge or risk in their life. Then through mentorship and getting them into the outdoors, the organization is able to help them make connections, grow, and experience new things.
SOS Outreach/Courtesy Photo

While mentorship and community exist in many realms and activities, the outdoors provides “the most powerful way to foster those connections,” Ehrlich said.

“Within SOS, the first time our kids meet adults, they know that they have something that they’re bonded by, which is an appreciation and a love for the outdoors. And as a result, trust is developed sooner and connections are developed sooner,” he said.

The Cycle Effect’s mission is rooted in empowering young women and is achieved specifically and uniquely through mountain biking and being in the outdoors.

“It’s such an awesome sport because it is so challenging. And so there are so many opportunities to build resiliency through this sport and to set goals for yourself,” said Sophia Gianfrancisco, the development and grants manager for The Cycle Effect.

This resiliency and confidence are built through several aspects of the sport. To Donelson, three aspects stand out. First, the amount of gear builds responsibility and accountability as the girls go through the programs. Second, as an individual sport, “their performance is based on what they bring to the table that day,” which allows them to accept both responsibility and credit. And thirdly, the sport brings “miniature failures” and success each day, giving them little obstacles to overcome and to build their confidence through.

The other way the industry can build a sense of belonging is by building more diverse representation in these sports. It’s on this foundation that the The Cycle Effect was founded and seeks to expand access by aiming for 70% of its participants to be girls who identify as Latino and/or Black, Indigenous and People of Color. 

“(Mountain biking has) been a historically male-dominated sport and affluent sport. There’s not a lot of representation,” Gianfrancisco said. “If you don’t see other people that look like you, then it just doesn’t feel like an environment that you want to get involved in because you don’t want to stick out or feel like you don’t fit in.”

While The Cycle Effect is working to build representation in the sport through the programming, it doesn’t happen overnight, Donelson said.

“Something that has been a challenge for creating access is it takes a long time to create representation in a sport,” Donelson said. “It’s not something you can either just throw money at or throw great coaches at or throw whatever at to just check box and have it happen. If you do it, what I believe is correctly, it takes a lot of time to build those people that are truly going to represent the communities and the sport for others to look up to.”

This representation, however, is important not only for participants but at all levels of the industry, Tafoya said.

“We need to have resort GMs that are people of color and more representative of our general populations. We need to have CEOs of companies that are more representative,” he said.

While Vail Resorts has certainly made this push with gender — having its first female CEO as well as having four of its five Colorado resorts run by women — Tafoya said this diversity needs to continue to broaden.

“I’m just excited about what’s going to come next of pushing towards racial equity, pushing towards including people living with disabilities into these spaces as well,” he said.

Building access

SOS Outreach and Vail Resorts have been partnering to expand youth access to snow sports to underrepresented populations since 1993 in Eagle County. The partnership has expanded across the country.
SOS Outreach/Courtesy Photo

While there are many approaches, even just in Eagle County, to overcoming many of these barriers to access, Vail Resorts’ Epic for Everyone program represents one model, which it uses across the country.

Tafoya, who now oversees this program, actually was introduced to the model at a young age. Born and raised in Eagle, Tafoya’s parents had a front-row seat to the community and Vail Resorts growing into what both are today. Tafoya’s introduction to snow sports came through participation in SOS Outreach.

SOS Outreach and Vail Resorts have been partnering to expand youth access to snow sports to underrepresented populations since 1993 in Eagle County.

“They’re our largest and most significant partner and ensuring that our kids are receiving the same experience as any other mountain participant to be able to be a part of and be able to engage with,” Ehrlich said. “This is not an initiative, this is not an effort, this is not a marketing effort. This is really community development. And that is something that when it works, it’s because everyone’s involved in it and everyone’s really a part of it.”

The partnership opens up access to the mountains to the organization’s youth participants, offering lift access, equipment, professional lessons and mentorship opportunities.

It’s this model that Vail Resorts uses in its Epic for Everyone program. Throughout the country, it partners with nonprofit organizations — including SOS and the National Brotherhood of Skiers as well as numerous Boys & Girls Clubs — to get underrepresented youth out on the snow.

And it’s a model that’s not only working but growing. In 2019, Vail Resorts’ former CEO Rob Katz and wife Elana Amsterdam, through the Katz Amsterdam Foundation, announced the foundation would donate $10 million over five years to build its programming in this area.

Ehrlich said that this is SOS Outreach’s largest class ever in Eagle County, crossing the 500-kid threshold this year. Nationally, there are 3,200 youth participants from SOS this year.

The National Brotherhood of Skiers has also seen increased participation this year. The organization only started participating in this program last season with four of its clubs and 350 youth participants. This year, it has nine clubs and 650 youth participants involved.

“That is a real, meaningful, meaningful program in terms of numbers and in terms of impact for us and our members,” Valentine said.

For Vail Resorts, Tafoya said these partnerships are all about building “long-term engagement” and having a lasting impact in its communities.

“Without this program and without this experience, too many of (the kids) feel as if they’re on the outside: ‘Everybody else goes up on the mountain for the ski days, and I stay here. My parents are the ones supporting as the backbone of the services being provided, and yet we’re not welcome on the mountain,’” Ehrlich said, adding that once introduced to the sport it “opens up a whole host of opportunities moving forward of, what else can I do? What else can I take on?”

It’s for this reason that expanding access for youth participants can be so critical.

“If you can expose the youth, and even better, get them involved in a more extensive environment, then you can put the hook in them, so to speak,” Valentine said. “That’s what we can do for these, in this case, 650 kids this season. We can make it relevant for them. We can establish that connection to skiing and snowboarding. And will all of them become lifelong skiers or riders? No, but hopefully many of them will look for and take advantage of opportunities to ski once they reach adulthood.”

Additionally, beyond participation, Tafoya said that Vail Resorts is hoping that its youth participants can look further ahead.

“We’re really building it for a long-term vision of how are we providing access into higher education in these type of spaces, how are we providing access into jobs and careers at the resorts right away,” he said. “Another piece of this program that we’re providing is career education at our days as well, to introduce them to a variety of different opportunities at those resorts that they could work at if they wanted to.”

Adult Access

While expanding youth access is an important part of its Epic for Everyone program, there are two other facets of it: adaptive access and continued access. With Adaptive Access, Vail Resorts also works with local organizations — like Foresight Ski Guides, Small Champions and Vail Veterans in Eagle County — to provide lift tickets, equipment and services to get more individuals on the mountain.

Continued access deals with what Tafoya referred to as “the cliff of engagement.”

“Addressing equity in the sport comes from two angles: We need to support the pipeline of getting people into the sport, getting them access. But then when a lot of these folks graduate high school or they hit the age with the nonprofits that they’re not supported anymore,” Tafoya said. “There’s also a population of folks who were adults that have never been exposed to the sport, and so we’re trying to capture that.”

Part of this includes engaging with its existing partners. For SOS, this includes providing passes to alumni of the program to encourage continued engagement with the sport.

For the National Brotherhood of Skiers, Tafoya said it is helping provide lessons to adult chaperones when the youth participants visit a mountain. Additionally, Tafoya said that there are 30 adult chaperones from the National Brotherhood of Skiers that are going through an instructor program, including getting their PSIA certification, to become certified instructors.

This represents an approach of “trying to attack the problem of equity in the sport from both the top and the bottom down approach, supporting Black instructors in the industry and so that way these youth participants have representation,” Tafoya said.

Diversity matters

Increasing access to sports like mountain biking and skiing only serves to improve the experience for all who participate.
The Cycle Effect/Courtesy Photo

When looking at the value of this work, there are two common responses as to why creating diversity is important for outdoor recreation.

First, there’s the “fun” aspect.

“In every situation, whether it’s a corporate setting, whether it’s a local community neighborhood, whether it’s a ski resort, to me, there is benefit and value to diversity because it increases the depth of the experience,” Valentine said. “If you have the opportunity to ski and ride with a diverse population of people, it can lead to a richer overall experience for everybody, because you get to meet people from different backgrounds, people who have grown up in different areas.”

Donelson experienced this firsthand when The Cycle Effect expanded its programming in Eagle County a few years ago to include a group of Latina moms. At the start, Donelson knew no Spanish, and many of the riders knew no English.

“I had so much fun watching how this group does mountain biking different than the group that I’m in does mountain biking to the point where I’m learning Spanish, motivated by that,” he said. “The more diverse groups we have out there, in my opinion, it’s more fun. It’s way more fun to be out there with people that you’re learning new things from.”

And secondly, there’s the business case. Simply put, the more people participate, the more money there is to be made.

The 2022 State of the Outdoor Market report stated that if the current industry levels of diversity continue, the outdoor recreation participant base could drop by 10%, or by 164 million participants. This, it added “could lead to significant revenue loss for businesses in the outdoor market.”

Creating a culture of inclusion

Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement participants go for a hike at Piney Lake.
Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement/Courtesy Photo

As these nonprofits, organizations and corporations seek to build diversity and equity in outdoor recreation, it’s really up to all involved in the outdoors to create that inclusivity and make it a welcoming environment for all.

“There are some communities that embrace or welcome us. There are some that tolerate us, and there are some that you can tell would just as soon not have us there,” Valentine said of his experiences on traveling with National Brotherhood of Skiers groups and summits.

This feeling of being welcome, Valentine added, goes beyond what the resort companies like Vail Resorts or Alterra Mountai Company are doing. It’s up to the community’s business community and leaders to recognize “that not all of your visitors, not all of your skiers and riders, to your resort are white,” he said.

“There are lots of people of color with disposable or discretionary income who do ski and we do ride. So anything that you can do to make it more welcoming at the local community level will pay benefits, pay dividends,” Valentine said. “It’s also educating the local communities about the changing demographics of skiers and snowboarders and making them aware that there are benefits to them, to making the sport more inclusive, making their local resort more inclusive.”

For Vail Resorts, this means recruiting its guests to build an inclusive environment.

“As a company, we can do everything we can to push equity, providing access to our communities, but we need our guests to be on board as well,” Tafoya said. “We need the general people that are coming out and skiing for weekends to really take ownership of making sure the sport in the industry is inclusive. It’s on every skier, it’s on every snowboarder, it’s on everybody that’s experienced in recreating outdoors to really buy in and try to make it a welcoming experience for everyone.”

Creating this inclusive atmosphere, however, also comes with looking at the overall culture of outdoor sports as well.  

“The gaper perspective, the ‘Jerry of the Day’ (callouts) are not helping in fostering a sense of belonging,” Ehrlich said. “It’s really funny for all of us to talk about it, but it creates a lot of fear for people who are already on the outside, culturally, of these activities who are just getting started because they see that there is a call-out culture as a part of snow sports.”

To build a more inclusive environment, the outdoor industry, and its existing participants, still have a lot to learn.

Donelson said this was one of the greatest lessons that he learned when starting The Cycle Effect.

“When we built this organization 10 years ago, we thought, we have this great product, everybody will show up,” he said, adding that they quickly saw that in order for their intended audience to show up, they also needed to understand the community’s priorities in order to actually serve their needs.

“There are changes that need to be made to be more inviting and we have to understand that just an invitation doesn’t do it,” Donelson said. “I think that the industry and the bike world have built the bike world for the people that are in it, which is amazing, I love that world. But in order to get more people into it, we really have to listen more to what the priorities are of this group and then find a way to be in the middle, a happy medium.”

A group of kids with the National Brotherhood of Skiers learn to ski.
National Brotherhood of Skiers/Courtesy Photo

For Vail Resorts, building its diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts to where they are today has relied on listening and learning, something it will also need to continue doing as it builds these efforts further.

“That’s probably the biggest way that we’re learning is listening to the people that we’re serving and listening to the communities,” Tafoya said. “We can look at stats, we can look at numbers, and we do, but we get so much more out of listening to NBS’s leadership and NBS’s participants and getting that feedback directly from them.”

For the company, it comes down to learning what its communities need, how they can best be supported “and then being flexible on that,” Tafoya said. “That’s why our giving approach looks a little different in each community.”

And while there’s still a lot of work to be done in continuing to break down barriers to access the outdoors, there’s certainly hope.

“We have a unique opportunity within, the discipline of skiing and snowboarding; it can serve as the common denominator and can serve as what connects us all,” Valentine said. “I’m an introvert, I’m not one who’s likely to go up to a stranger and start up a conversation. But when I’m on a chairlift sitting next to somebody that I’ve never met before, I can always say, ‘So, where are you from? Or is this your home resort? Or is this your first day skiing here?’ You have that connection in common. You have that kind of entry point because, at the end of the day, we’re all there to ski or ride.”

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