The racist roots of the American conservation movement helps explain why most visitors to National Parks are white
Stewart Sutton / Getty Images
By Ellen McGirt
July 25, 2018

I tacked on a couple of days to fly-fish after Fortune’s Brain Storm TECH in Aspen. It is an impossibly beautiful activity, a ribbon in the sky to catch some fish down below. I came to it late in life, and I wish I hadn’t. It is joy to me.

The purpose of fly-fishing is to trick trout by presenting an imitation of something that looks both real and delicious, and is precisely what they want to eat at that moment in time. Now, trout have only one job, and that’s to be the most excellent trout as they can be. And the bigger they are, they better they are at it. It’s humbling.

(Stay with me here, the race part is coming.)

Fly-fishing is a nerd’s game and an endless puzzle trying to figure out what the trout are taking and why, how the water temperature and air pressure is affecting their appetites, and if they’ll believe that the wind just blew this beautiful grasshopper into their food lane. What’s hatching? Do I need to tie on a mayfly nymph and let it hang below the surface to tempt that big brownie out from the depths of the Montana bridge where I know he lives because I’ve nearly caught him before and I try every year? That’s the game. Someday I will trick him and then I’ll do what I always do – I’ll let him go because it’s just such a privilege to be part of something bigger than myself.

You learn about knots and water flow and snowmelt and follow the mating habits of bugs like they’re Kardashians — and how climate change means bark beetles are surviving the warming winters, killing off unprecedented acres of Ponderosa pines across the West. Ponderosa pines smell like vanilla cake. Not just vanilla and not just cake, but vanilla cake. I love knowing that, and I love knowing that you practically have to hug them to smell it. But every year I go back to Montana, I see more dying off and know the world is changing and it makes me sad.

This cynical girl from Harlem, USA, didn’t grow up with anyone who fished this way. But it has changed my life more than I could have thought possible. It is a transformational experience to stand in a river and join an ecosystem already in progress.

But I almost missed it all.

Here’s the other thing about fly-fishing. In the now hundreds of days I’ve spent casting over the years, I’ve never met a person of color on or associated with the river. Not once. Not in a fly-shop. Not one guide, not a park ranger, nobody who works for a rafting company, nothing. Not even an expert on YouTube where I get most of my pointers.

On one level, this is normal to me. I’m used to being the only one or close to it, from family to school to my career. I accept the risks, even defy them, even while standing in a natural environment which is hostile specifically to me. While it’s survivable, being the only one is also lonely.

People of color are lonely by design. The work, then, must start with facing the foundational issues that created overpoliced, segregated communities with poor health outcomes, inadequate education systems leading to spotty talent pipelines.

Let’s stick with nature for a second. When you first wake up to the beauty of the American outdoors, the ghost of John Muir, the romantic naturalist and conservation advocate, is the first person you tend to meet. His spirit still animates the Sierra Club, which he founded in 1892.

But the National Park system, which turned one hundred in 2016, was also influenced by another person – a conservationist, zoologist and white supremacist named Madison Grant.

Grant wrote a book called The Passing of The Great Race, a breathtakingly racist treatise that was immensely popular when it was published in 1916. It armed generations of leaders with enough pseudoscience to justify segregation, eugenics, race war, workplace discrimination and the violent oppression of “inferior” races, particularly immigrants. Adolph Hitler cherished the slim volume, quoted from it in his speeches and allegedly wrote a letter to Grant calling it “his bible.”

The Yale and Columbia educated Grant traveled in high-tone circles, and his flattering notions of “Nordic” superiority was embraced by the Manhattan aristocracy, including the future president Teddy Roosevelt, who so loved Grant’s work that he wrote a letter that was turned into a blurb for the book.

Grant was the real deal. If you like the Bronx Zoo, you can thank him. If you like Yellowstone Park, tip your cap to Grant. And if you suspect that immigrants are sub-human criminals bringing disease and disorder, then the ghost of Grant may be whispering in your ear.

At the time of Grant’s greatest influence, Jim Crow was in full swing and along with it, the Great Migration, as desperate people moved North and West looking to escape the caste system of racial segregation. Grant and his cronies envisioned the National Parks as a respite for white men who needed to refresh their spirits in the face of this insidious urbanization; their refreshment came at the expense of indigenous people whose land was ripped away, destroying treaties along with their lives.

The National Park Service has been working to reckon with their own complicated past, and I acknowledge this work. Their diversity report is not good. The vast majority of their employees have always been white, as is the Park Foundation board. Park visitors are primarily white, and numerous surveys show that people of color feel unwelcome in these natural spaces – citing racist treatment from park police and rangers, feeling unwelcome and priced out of lodging, and in general, worried about being safe, protected and experiencing fair and equal service.

Part of the work has been a welcome debate about whether or not to fully acknowledge the influence of Grant, America’s racist uncle.

“The way we navigate that history is by not flinching,” Michael Brune, Sierra Club’s executive director told CityLab. “It is true that there were a lot of individuals who were white supremacists or eugenicists or who were making racist comments who were part of the beginning of the conservation movement, or who fought successfully to create national parks. So it’s important to understand our history as a movement, and, as a country, learn from it.”

Sure, easy to say when you’ve got sweet John Muir on your side, but I wholeheartedly agree.

Grant and his ilk are part of the reason why there isn’t a legacy of park rangers of color, or for that matter, conservationists, fly shop owners, hiking guides and people of every hue refreshing their spirits and enjoying the trout the Lord made. That nobody in subsequent leadership sought to excise his influence made it systemic. There’s your pipeline problem, and we need to talk about it.

And then go fishing. Tight lines, good people.

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