As US Racial Reckoning Escalates, Reformers Target Environmental Icons

A group of hikers with the Oakland-based environmental group Outdoor Afro.  (Courtesy of Outdoor Afro)

The death of George Floyd has triggered a top-to-bottom house cleaning of the racial skeletons in America's collective closet.

The broad push for racial justice has touched every aspect of American life and has caught up with a movement many people associate with progressiveness, not overt racism. Even the environmental icon, John Muir, a founding father of the nation’s national park system, isn’t beyond reproach.

Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, one of the largest and oldest conservation groups in the U.S., circulated a detailed post last week titled “Pulling Down Our Monuments.”

In the piece, Brune reckons with some of the racist statements and actions of the group’s founders, its early history of excluding people of color, and what he described as an ongoing resistance from current members who say the Sierra Club should “‘stay in our lane,’ and stop talking about issues of race, equity, and privilege.”

Sponsored

Brune wrote that as “defenders of Black life pull down Confederate monuments,” the conservation movement must also “take this moment to re-examine our past and our substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy.”

“It’s time to take down some of our own monuments, starting with some truth-telling about the Sierra Club’s early history,” he wrote.

The letter ignited an online conversation about the future of one of the nation's most powerful environmental organizations and about the state of the conservation movement, where a new generation of reform-minded advocates have sought to create change.

They point to the fact that visitation at national parks skews white. They’re pressing for investment in city and county parks in communities of color and for better representation in powerful organizations like the Sierra Club and in the natural places the groups protect.

One of these reformers is Rue Mapp, the founder of Oakland-based Outdoor Afro, which seeks to challenge what she calls the myth that Black Americans don't get out in nature.

She says many Black people like herself have not always felt welcome in groups like the Sierra Club, which she learned from experience when she started Outdoor Afro and partnered with the organization (although Brune remains a friend and a member of her organization’s board).

“That's a fundamental challenge that [Brune] must embrace in this moment; it is a culture of change,” she says. “It's like turning around a big ship on a dime, nearly impossible. But we can't deduct points for timing. And it's not too late for organizations like the Sierra Club to shift and reinvent themselves.”

She says the letter is a good step forward, but that its arrival is overdue. Now it’s on the group’s membership to embrace a new vision of conservation that acknowledges the experience of people of color.

Damon Nagami, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and an advocate for environmental justice in conservation, agrees that it’s a reckoning “long overdue.”

“I was very glad to see Sierra Club taking its history head-on,” he says. “But it’s undeniable that environmentalism and the conservation field is predominantly white.”

A Japanese American, Nagami says it’s been “difficult at times to navigate this space.” He says a similar conversation is happening within his own powerful environmental organization.

Troubling Past

Brune's post examines the history of John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club and a towering figure in conservation circles, especially in California, where he fought to preserve some of the most grand and beautiful places in the Sierra Nevada.

But the “patron saint of the American wilderness” was a complicated person, Brune wrote. Muir not only described Black people and Native Americans using offensive and racist language, he maintained friendships with Joseph LeConte, David Starr Jordan and Henry Fairfield Osborn, leaders in the eugenics movement, which sought to prove the genetic superiority of white people. (Brune does not indicate that Muir personally espoused eugenics.)

During its early years, Brune said, the Sierra Club was “basically a mountaineering club for middle- and upper-class white people who worked to preserve the wilderness they hiked through — wilderness that had begun to need protection only a few decades earlier, when white settlers violently displaced the Indigenous peoples who had lived on and taken care of the land for thousands of years.”

The group’s composition was maintained by an exclusive membership program until the 1960s.

“Membership could only be granted through sponsorship from existing members, some of whom screened out any applicants of color,” Brune wrote.

“The whiteness and privilege of our early membership fed into a very dangerous idea,” he wrote. “One that’s still circulating today. It’s the idea that exploring, enjoying, and protecting the outdoors can be separated from human affairs.”

The group’s membership and views have evolved. Recently, the Sierra Club led the Beyond Coal campaign, a successful effort to shutter hundreds of dirty and aging coal plants across the U.S. and Europe, with a focus on facilities surrounded by neighborhoods of color. The group's organizers have often partnered with local environmental justice groups.

Nevertheless, Brune’s letter went on to highlight what he calls “willful ignorance” in the environmental movement, adding that this complacency “allows some people to shut their eyes to the reality that the wild places we love are also the ancestral homelands of Native peoples, forced off their lands in the decades or centuries before they became national parks.”

“It allows them to overlook, too, the fact that only people insulated from systemic racism and brutality can afford to focus solely on preserving wilderness,” he wrote. “Black communities, Indigenous communities, and communities of color continue to endure the traumatic burden of fighting for their right to a healthy environment while simultaneously fighting for freedom from discrimination and police violence.”

Brune’s post landed in the middle of a raging debate about whether historical figures should be considered by contemporary social standards, or in the context of the views of their time.  Some argue that parks  named after John Muir should drop his name because of his racists comments, while others point to the fact that — as Brune notes — Muir’s views “evolved later in his life.”

Today, the John Muir Wilderness, the Muir Woods National Monument in Marin and many California schools are named after the mountaineer. Visitors to parks such as Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon will find trails with his name; his writing, which strove to describe the sacred aspects of the rugged wilderness, is quoted on postcards, in pamphlets and on websites. Theater groups routinely perform his story.

The board of John Muir Health, a health care system located in the East Bay, said it will “examine the history and legacy of the John Muir name” and consider “recommendations on this complex topic,” The Mercury News reported.

New Legislation Brings Hope of Change

Brune’s manifesto arrived in the same week that Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act, which is being celebrated by Mapp, Nagami and other people of color who work in conservation and hope it can chart a future for the nation’s parklands that is more inclusive.

GreenLatinos, a national nonprofit watchdog for conservation issues that affect the U.S. Latino community, said in a statement that the bill “allows for more equitable access to outdoor spaces for Latinx communities” and called it “one of the most important environmental legislations in this country’s history.”

President Donald Trump supports the legislation and has said he will sign it. The bill includes $900 million a year — double the current spending — for the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund, and an additional $1.9 billion per year on improvements at parks across the country.

“Many communities of color don't have access to parks or green space, so they don't get the many proven benefits — physical, emotional and psychological — of being out in nature,” said the NRDC’s Nagami. “This act helps by creating a permanent funding source for our state and local parks, among other things, so we can build and maintain green spaces in the park-poor communities that need them.”

The act is also seen as a long-needed investment in basic park infrastructure.

“It's literally like, how are we going to fix broken pipes and visitor centers and everything that needs updating,” says José González, founder of Latino Outdoors, a group that advocates for diversifying parks.

Sponsored

“With John Muir, it's the cultural infrastructure,” he says. “How do we define conservation now and knowing that the nation’s parks weren’t designed for people of color? Given this brokenness, how do we construct something different and ideally better?”