Wednesday, June 3, 2020

In Pursuit of Intersectional Environmentalism

Last week I tripped and fell into a three-day work week, with hikes on Monday and Friday to bookend my shifts. I wrote recently of my summer goal to explore Mt. St. Helens, the Dark Divide, and the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. In that quest, Claire and I met early Friday morning at the Goat Creek Trail within the Cowlitz Wildlife Area and greater Pinchot Forest.

We hiked to Cathedral Falls, a 248 foot waterfall with an incredible rock alcove and cathedral ceiling (thus named). The alcove is deep enough to provide ample room not only to traverse behind the falls, but for multiple full size cedars to grow in the shadow of the overhanging cliff.

It's spectacular to stand behind, almost as if within, such a forceful source of vital energy. One that transmutes into a quiet creek, sustaining the plants and animals that surround. God, I love waterfalls. Without a doubt, my favorite natural feature to hike to (and you know...I love a lot of features...from alpine lakes to ridges and peaks, fire lookouts and geologic formations).

Claire is my nature muse and always inspires me with her incredible collection of information, maps, and books. After our hike, trolling the internet for good resources on the South Cascades, I came across a few biographies of Gifford Pinchot. Thus began my unsuspecting charge into his problematic history...

Gifford Pinchot is typically taught to Environmental and History students alike as the Father of Conservation. Aside from his notoriety as the first Chief of the US Forest Service, his polarizing disagreements with John Muir on conservation verses preservation are well documented and debated (a very simple introduction here). Not as infamous though, are both men's racist ideologies.

[Disclaimer: This blog will barely graze the surface of a wealth of white washed history regarding troublesome white men in positions of power within environmental policy. Many of the government officials involved in the creation of our National Parks and forest lands were proud racists. I do not name or cover them all.]

In the past few years, Twitter and Instagram have been abuzz with push back against the prodigious quantity of John Muir platitudes and quotes on social media. Lesser known phrases from Muir's published works began to circulate, including brutal ethnocentric diatribes on the "uncleaniness of the Indians." Disturbingly, Muir wrote of his preference of four legged animals over Indigenous peoples. 

Though Muir's racism has become more public, Pinchot was no better. In 1921, more than 300 influential academics from around the world attended the Second International Congress of Eugenics. Pinchot was joined there by other delusional white men including Alexander Graham Bell and Leonard Darwin, the son of Charles Darwin. Later, Pinchot's written commission would include reference to the supposed sexual immorality of Native and Hawaiian peoples as explanation for their plight in modern society.

Not to excuse these idiots, who didn't live long enough to potentially realize the error of their racist philosophies, but their bigotry was certainly indicative of the times. Leading universities and museums promoted and disseminated the study of eugenics, not just a pseudo-science but an absolute crock of shit, with African inferiority as one of the core tenets. In fact, it wasn't until 25 years later when Hitler began sickening experiments in the name of eugenics that main stream, academic anthropology began to actively separate itself from this field of inquiry. But, I digress...

As Jedediah Purdy astutely wrote for The New Yorker, "The time they lived in is part of an explanation, but not an excuse. For each of these environmentalist icons, the meaning of nature and wilderness was constrained, even produced, by an idea of civilization."

That's just it. There are no adequate excuses, then or now. What these environmentalists believed and promoted is absolutely inexcusable. More people should know about their disregard for human life. Instead, consumers continue to purchase Muir books and T-shirts and Pinchot has a National Forest named after him. 

We're not going to cherry pick how we remember and represent these characters. When you know better, you do better. I stand in total opposition to the philosophies of these "Fathers" of conservation and preservation, and I refuse to excuse the bigotry that permeated their work. It's not enough to acknowledge the racist writing and actions of historical figures. We need to undo the damage to any extent possible. We need to course correct. But, we also need the truth to be known in order to affect real change. Standing in solidarity with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) requires being vocally and actively anti racist. Access to and safety in the outdoors is a human right. Inclusion is mandatory.

The Sierra Club posted some fantastic information this week about Intersectional Environmentalism. The term was coined and defined by a young black woman, Leah Thomas. She writes, "This is an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth and interconnected. It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront and does not minimize or silence social inequality. Intersectional Environmentalism advocates for justice for people and the planet."


Pinchot and Muir had major impacts on the creation of public lands but that didn't and doesn't exist in a vacuum. In rigorous pursuit of both inclusion and truth, we must tell the whole story of who they were. White privilege includes having the dominant view and voice representation in history. And as Erin Monahan of Terra Incognia Media writes, "Muir’s legacy is one of unearned glorification as is the case with any mediocre white man."

I urge you to share the (very beginner) list of resources below with your family member who loves hiking or backpacking but doesn't want to hear about the Black Lives Matter movement. Or your cousin who paints Muir quotes on pieces of driftwood for Etsy. If you consider yourself an outdoorist or environmentalist, it's your duty (and mine) to educate yourself on the troubled history of our public lands. I hope we can keep this goal in our hearts: to learn and do better, in order to advance racial justice in all spaces. Especially in that arena which matters most to us as outdoorists: nature.

"The Looting of America":

This hour-long podcast, an informative round table of indigenous voices, does an excellent job discussing the concept and media coverage of looting- especially on stolen and occupied land.

The 17 Principles of Environmental Justice:

Excellent Reading:



  1. I had no idea, but not surprised, really. How many others notable/quotable "heros" need to be flushed out? These biased/blighted "heros" need to have, at the very least, an asterisk by their name...if not now, when? Thanks for your research and connection of little known dots.

  2. Thanks for posting this info. I just want to let you know that I just check out your site and I find it very interesting and informative. I can't wait to read lots of your posts. rubbish removal

    1. Thank you so much for reading and leaving this note. I hope you stick around for more 🙏


Comments Welcome