The history of public lands conservation in the United States is steeped in a legacy of white supremacy, systemic racism, and the silencing and displacement of Indigenous communities and people of color.
The creation of Yellowstone as the world’s first national park in 1872 is typically highlighted as a crowning achievement in the preservation of the “untouched American wilderness” and a milestone in the protection of public lands for “all to enjoy.” This depiction of the American landscape as a vast and empty space, supposedly untouched by civilization and awaiting someone with the vision necessary to set it aside for the future, erases the 12,000-year history of Indigenous peoples who conserved the land for cultivation and spiritual practices long before the arrival of European colonizers and the founding of the United States.
The establishment of the Department of the Interior (DOI) in 1849 as a government entity responsible for the management not only of public parks, but of the relations between the United States and American Indian and Alaska Native communities (AI/AN), facilitated the forced removal and genocide of thousands of tribal nations off their ancestral lands. It has led to the public vision we have today of the national parks system as untouched, unpopulated areas fit primarily for white Americans to enjoy.
The early conservationists in the United States are well-known for their dedication to the preservation of natural spaces and appreciation for wildlife. Many of them are also known, though less well so, for their ties to white supremacist ideology. Madison Grant, a naturalist and big game hunter, authored The Passing of the Great Race in 1918, which has become a notorious eugenics manual arguing against the “alloying of races” and for “the obliteration of the unfit.” Adolf Hitler who called the book his “bible” and used “the park concept” created by Grant as a framework for the Nazi death camps.
The book was also publicly praised by President Theodore Roosevelt, who described the work as “a capital book; in purpose, in vision, in grasp of the facts our people most need to realize.”
John Muir, founder of The Sierra Club and often nicknamed “father of the national parks,” worked for much of his adult life to preserve the Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Forest. He often used derogatory slurs in referring to African Americans and described Native Americans he met on his historic walk across the country as “dirty.” He was personally close with the founder of the American Eugenics Society, Henry Fairfield Osborn, which proclaimed all non-white people inherently inferior. In July of this year, the Sierra Club rejected its ties to John Muir and announced its aim to “reexamine our past and our substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy.”
American political environmentalism has a racist past. Unfortunately, the pervasiveness of outdoor spaces as a refuge for whiteness continues today. Of the 419 national park units managed by the National Park Service, only 112 sites focus on the stories and cultures of people of color, women, and other underrepresented communities — continuing the legacy of cultural erasure that began with the founding of the first national parks. The lack of representation in our parks and public lands may help explain why only one in five park visitors is a person of color.
The ongoing protests across the country sparked by the May 25, 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer have renewed conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of American society. There have been forceful calls from the public to reexamine “the story of America” and whose narratives it includes. This reexamination is crucial for environmental and conservation groups, and for the federal government.
DOI and its agencies can play a role in addressing this. By examining the white- and male-dominated roots of their foundation and their mission, and by updating their policies and procedures to increase the recruitment, hiring, and retention of traditionally underrepresented communities, they can begin to accurately represent the country they exist to serve.
How can we expect to engage people of color in the cause of environmentalism and conservation when our laws, policies and institutions were set up to exclude them from the beginning? We can do it by recognizing that exclusion, confronting it forthrightly, and ending it.