Wild places sustain and define us; we, in turn, must protect them.
I’ve struggled over these past few weeks with whether or not publish a statement on behalf of Kentucky Heartwood in response to the historic Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations that are happening across the country. And I continue to struggle with it. I’ve found the statements issued by some organizations, businesses, and institutions to be powerful, insightful, and heartening calls to action, both personal and political. However, a great deal have also seemed – at least to me – to be little more than platitudes lacking in substance, dispensed out of concerns over marketing and retaining market share. But I am one to get cynical.
To be clear, Kentucky Heartwood, including our Board and Staff, oppose racism in any and all forms. And if you know me personally (or follow me on social media) you probably have a sense of my thoughts on structural racism and police violence. These issues are real, and they are unacceptable.
However, I do want to offer some personal thoughts and observations regarding structural racism and the conspicuous underrepresentation of people of color in conservation and outdoor recreation spaces. I have been involved in public lands protection for 20 years, and have been enjoying and exploring wild places for many years more. Among the hundreds of activists, attorneys, scientists, organizational staff, board members, and volunteers I’ve met in my capacity as a public lands advocate, very few have been people of color. And even fewer (one, maybe two?) have been Black. This hasn’t gone without notice among the groups that I’ve been involved with. Most public lands advocates that I have known (though certainly not all) are sincerely concerned about issues of racial and social justice. I’ve participated in more than a few conversations about the lack of representation by people of color in our organizations, as well as the conservation movement more broadly. Despite heartfelt and genuine concern, efforts – including my own – have rarely moved beyond conversations and the setting of intentions.
For years I excused this absence of people of color from our organizations, campaigns, and spaces as a regrettable but understandable reflection of the nature of activism. People tend to pour in the time and energy on issues that are closest to them. For too many people of color, and especially for those in the Black community, that often and unfairly means that people’s energy is taken up by the countless daily, tangible struggles rooted in historical and contemporary systems of racism. Put another way, it’s not fair to expect someone to care very much about logging on a national forest when they’re worried that their son might be shot by the police for pulling out his cell phone.
But this perspective accepts too much exclusion, both within our organizations and in the outdoor spaces that we work to protect. It ignores the gross unfairness of the fact that centuries of white supremacist violence and structural inequities continue to affect so many Black people’s relationships with, and access to, America’s wild outdoor spaces and public lands. My understanding of these issues is at best shallow. What I do know is that there are stories that need to be heard, both of history and lived experience.
I think sometimes about the race riot in Corbin in 1919, just 18 years before the establishment of the Cumberland National Forest (later to be renamed the Daniel Boone National Forest). A vibrant Black community of roughly 200 people was summarily rounded up, forced on to rail cars, and removed from the state to the words “By God we are going to run all Negroes out of this town tonight.” For those families who’s stories and memories include this violent episode, what does it mean to pass Corbin on the way to Cumberland Falls? Does it mean something different today than it did a generation ago? What about the ways that “sundown laws” kept Black families from traveling to visit State and National Parks, National Forests, and other public lands? What is the legacy of the Commonwealth of Kentucky barring Black people, by order of law, from nearly all State Parks until 1955 when the Supreme Court ruled the practice unconstitutional? What does it mean when going to a park or stopping for gas on your way home could mean arrest, or worse? How are the outdoor experiences of a young person of color, today, affected by the stories of their parents or grandparents?
And it would be so easy, perhaps even comfortable, to pretend that the exclusion of Black people from outdoor spaces is some relic of the past. But it’s not. In February of this year, 25 year-old Ahmaud Arbery was shot dead while going for a run by armed vigilantes who assumed that he’d committed a crime. He hadn’t. In May, Audubon Society Board Member and notable comic book author Chris Cooper had his life threatened while birding in New York’s Central Park when a white woman got upset because he asked her to follow the rules and leash her dog. Her response was to call the police, frantic, and telling the lie that a Black man was threatening her. He wasn’t. Or we could talk about North Carolina botanist (and musician and chef), Justin Robinson who was handcuffed while looking at plants in the woods. I know a lot of botanists. All are white. And I’m fairly certain that none have been put in handcuffs while looking at plants.
Or we can talk about the Confederate flags displayed prominently on homes and farms along the road sections of the 333-mile Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail. How can a person of color experience the trail as I can, and find the same peace and ease in walking those long miles with so many Kentuckians proudly flying a flag that says “I’d rather you be in chains”?
And even within Kentucky’s outdoor community, racism continues to bubble to the surface. Over the past month, one of the only prominent Black people in Kentucky’s conservation and outdoor recreation community, someone I consider a friend, has been repeatedly attacked through social media with vitriol and accusations of racism for speaking with measured words about… racism. Their repeated message is “Shut up.” Over and again, “Shut up. Your story is not welcome here.”
I don’t know the answers. And I won’t pretend to. But I’m pretty certain that, at least for white people like me, now a time to listen. And it is okay if the voices and stories being lifted challenge your understanding of the world, or even your understanding of your self. But what is not okay is to respond to this moment, to the cries of grief and anger over generations of state-sanctioned violence and exclusion, to the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Stephon Clark, Philando Castille, Tamir Rice, and so many others, by dismissing the very real and contemporary effects of structural racism in America. Such denials are lacking in veracity and belie the facts. They are simply not serious.
Our public lands belong to all of us. The experiences they give us should be accessible to all of us. And it will take all of us to protect them in this age of accelerating climate change and biodiversity collapse.
The status quo is not acceptable.
Black Lives Matter.