The environmental field is no less steeped in white supremacy than any other field currently being held up for inspection—indeed, the very foundation of environmentalism is rooted in white supremacy, and the rampant racism and discrimination in the writing and actions of early environmental leaders are well documented.1 Yet, acknowledgment of the troubled racial history of environmental organizations is slow coming. Most environmental organizations prefer to ignore inconvenient aspects of their history, disregard disturbing revelations, and respond with deafening silence.
But the summer of 2020 was a watershed moment. It changed how some major environmental nonprofits deal with racism and their past. Amid the Black Lives Matter protests over the killing of George Floyd and other Black men and women, the presidents and chief executive officers of some prominent environmental organizations sheepishly acknowledged the troubling racist past of their institutions.2
Reckoning with the Past . . . and the Present
Over summer and early fall of 2020, there was a sudden flurry of apologies from environmental organizations forced by internal battles—energized by the overall societal eruption—to step up and acknowledge their full history, and exercise transparency vis-à-vis their current practices.
On June 19 (Juneteenth), 2020, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Bronx Zoo apologized for and acknowledged their “bigoted actions and attitudes in the early 1900s toward non-whites—especially African Americans, Native Americans and immigrants,” including such reprehensible treatment as displaying a young Central African man, Mbye Otabenga, in a Bronx Zoo exhibit in 1904.3 WCS also apologized for their ties to eugenicists Madison Grant and Henry Fairfield Osborn, both of whom espoused “eugenics-based, pseudoscientific racism.”4 Cristián Samper, president and CEO of the Society, wrote in a letter to staff, “We deeply regret that many people and generations have been hurt by these actions.”5
The Sierra Club followed suit, posting “Pulling Down Our Monuments” on its website on July 22.6 In the article, Michael Brune—the organization’s executive director—wrote, “As defenders of Black life pull down Confederate monuments across the country, we must also take this moment to reexamine 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.”7
Brune acknowledged that “The most monumental figure in the Sierra Club’s past is John Muir…. And Muir was not immune to the racism peddled by many in the early conservation movement. He made derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes.”8 He noted that “Muir’s words and actions carry an especially heavy weight. They continue to hurt and alienate Indigenous people and people of color who come into contact with the Sierra Club.”9 Brune also named other early members and leaders of the Sierra Club—Joseph LeConte and David Starr Jordan, for example, who “were vocal advocates for white supremacy and its pseudo-scientific arm, eugenics.”10 He discussed exclusionary practices that protected and maintained whiteness in the club: “Membership could only be granted through sponsorship from existing members, some of whom screened out any applicants of color.”11 And he admitted that, currently, some of the club’s members want the organization to “stay in our lane” and “stop talking about issues of race, equity, and privilege.”12
Later, A. Tianna Scozzaro, director of the Sierra Club’s Gender Equity and Environment Program, also wrote an article. In it, she argued that the “history of eugenics has a deeply troubling relationship with the environmental movement. Race, population eugenics, and ‘natural order’ were highly problematic features and values of the movement’s—and the Sierra Club’s—beginning.”13
On July 31, Audubon Magazine published “The Myth of John James Audubon,” as part of an effort to “chart a course toward racial equity.”14 The author, Gregory Nobles, identified Audubon, from whom the National Audubon Society took its name, as a slaveholder.15 He noted that many people are unaware of this fact but that those who are aware “tend to ignore and excuse” the icon.16 Apologists claim that Audubon was “a man of his time”—but, as Nobles points out, not everyone owned slaves or favored slavery during Audubon’s lifetime; some opposed slavery vigorously.17 In a letter penned to his wife in 1834, a dismayed and frustrated Audubon complained that Britain had “acted imprudently” and “precipitously” in granting emancipation to West Indian slaves.18
On September 15, Save the Redwoods League (SRL), an organization with well-known eugenicists among its founders, also acknowledged its racist origins,19 with Sam Hodder, the organization’s president and chief outdoors enthusiast, publishing “Reckoning with the League Founders’ Eugenics Past.”20 Hodder noted, “As we elevate diversity, equity, and inclusion at the League, we must acknowledge our full history.”21 He also stated, “Our founders were leaders in the discriminatory and oppressive pseudoscience of eugenics in the early 20th century—around the very same time they dedicated themselves to protecting the redwood forest.”22 Hodder also discussed the white supremacist and eugenicist ideas of Madison Grant, one of the League’s cofounders.23
(Other SRL founders, Charles Goethe, for one, were also prominent eugenicists. Goethe wrote prolifically about Blacks, Mexican-Americans, Japanese-Americans, and Jews in degrading terms.)24
Some organizations remain mum on the eugenics, white supremacy, racism, and discrimination in their history. The Boone and Crockett Club remains firmly tethered to its past, featuring, without acknowledgment or commentary, Theodore Roosevelt, Madison Grant, and Gifford Pinchot—influential political figures, white supremacists, and eugenicists—on its website.25 (Other well-known eugenicists, such as Henry Fairfield Osborn, were also members of the Boone and Crockett Club.)26 And the American Bison Society, which numbered eugenicists and white supremacists like Madison Grant and Theodore Roosevelt among its founders and members, has also remained silent.27
Cloistered, Gendered, and Racially Homogenous
The ethos of these founding clubs, leagues, and societies spilled over into early nineteenth century outdoor recreation and environmental organizations. As a result of the field’s root culture, environmental advocates founded and organized institutions on exclusionary principles that resulted in cloistered, gendered, and racially homogenous organizations for the better part of two centuries.
Early on, only wealthy white males could join or participate in these institutions. At the end of the nineteenth century, rich white women pried open the doors to join the membership and leadership of environmental nonprofits. However, the participation of elite white women in environmental nonprofits did little or nothing to stem the flow of sexist, classist, racist, and eugenicist ideas that shaped the founding of some of the early environmental organizations.28
The white working class, who often worked as servants, guides, and porters, were barred from membership. By the early twentieth century, “working-class whites objected to their lack of input into environmental affairs and the inequitable policies . . . [and] created their own outdoor organizations.”29 These “outdoor enthusiasts and environmentalists owned slaves and hired free people of color . . . [as] servants, guides, porters, cooks, and launderers.”30 Though men and women of color began joining segregated outdoor clubs in the early 1900s, they “were not allowed to participate fully in many environmental organizations until the latter part of the twentieth century.”31
In 1981, historian Stephen Fox noted, “Few questioned the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the environmental sector until the 1960s, when academics and activists pointed to the overwhelming whiteness of the environmental movement and its workforce.”32 In the face of this criticism, environmental leaders argued that increasing the racial diversity of their staff, boards, and/or membership was incompatible with their environmental mission.
The idea of enhancing racial diversity also caused conflict within some organizations. For example, although David Brower, the Sierra Club’s first executive director, declared in 1959 that membership was open to people of “the four recognized colors,” the matter was far from settled for some time after.33 Some Sierra Club members viewed Black members with skepticism, describing them as “trying to push themselves into the club” and not having any “interest in the conservation goals of the club,” and even that Blacks were trying to infiltrate.34 The question of their participation in the organization resulted in many complaints, screaming matches, reports of intimidation, and a proposal for a “loyalty oath” to the “American Way of Life.”35
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The result? Japanese American George Shinno and his son Jon were admitted to the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club in the 1950s.36 And, although members who feared Blacks strategized to keep them out of the chapter in 1958, a Black schoolteacher, Elizabeth Porter, was admitted to the Angeles Chapter in 1959; the Angeles Chapter later admitted two other Black members, Mr. and Mrs. Kelsey, in 1959 or 1960.37
The debate over Black participation in the Sierra Club lasted into the 1970s.38 An attorney and former director of the club, Bestor Robinson, summed up the struggle by saying “this is not an integration club; this is a conservation club.”39 Many club members shared Robinson’s perspective that conservation was separate from social justice issues, that racial inclusion was a social justice or civil rights issue, and that it did not belong in the Sierra Club. Because club members did not see any connections between social justice and the environment, they did not believe that increasing racial diversity in the organization was an initiative the institution should undertake. Club members voted against resolutions to admit people of color into the organization’s membership.40 In 1971, as it struggled to make connections between race and environment, the Sierra Club polled its members and asked if the club should “concern itself with the conservation problems of such special groups as the urban poor and ethnic minorities.” Forty percent of the members were opposed to the organization getting involved in such issues; only 15 percent were supportive of engaging in matters concerning people of color and economically disadvantaged people.41
Instead of building racially diverse organizations, environmental leaders, thinkers, and social critics searched for explanations to help justify the lack of diversity in environmental nonprofits. For example, Fox wrote in 1981 that “Blacks scorned conservation as an elitist diversion from the more pressing tasks at hand.”42 The idea that Blacks are averse to conservation and the environment is a popular and enduring misconception as well as a convenient excuse that is used to justify exclusion.
Let the Chips Fall Where They May
Given the above, it should come as no surprise that environmental nonprofits have had difficulty embracing and instituting diversity, equity, and inclusion in their mission and practices in the twenty-first century.
Retention of people of color in senior and executive positions is proving to be a challenge in a number of environmental organizations. Attention to the racist roots and practices of environmentalism over the past few years, however, is finally shining a spotlight on organizational leadership.
In June 2019, women employed at The Nature Conservancy (TNC) alleged that sexual harassment and wage discrimination were commonplace at the nonprofit, prompting the resignation of TNC’s CEO Mark Tercek.43
Other diversity, equity, and inclusion issues were also a factor.44 (Employees of Conservation International had filed similar complaints back in 2018, as had a staff member of the National Wildlife Federation [NWF], who sued her former supervisor and NWF in 2010.)45
In May 2019, women birders, members, and staff at the National Audubon Society had also reported sexual harassment while birding or on the job.46 And, in November 2020, National Audubon Society staff claimed that organization leaders discriminated against employees and tried to intimidate them.47
In fall 2020, David Yarnold, then-CEO of the National Audubon Society, had published “Revealing the Past to Create the Future” in Audubon Magazine, in which he wrote, “Over the last few months, we’ve committed
to making Audubon an antiracist institution.”48 Yarnold noted, “Audubon’s founding stories center on the groups of women who came together to end the slaughter of birds for their feathers (mostly for fancy hats), but we have glossed over the actions of the American icon whose name we bear, as well as the racist aspects of our organization’s history.”49
Yarnold’s statement was written shortly after the departure of a top diversity and inclusion staff member, six months after the departure of the organization’s diversity and inclusion vice president, due to a toxic environment of intimidation and coercion.50
Yarnold resigned, suddenly, in April 2021, amid widespread staff dissatisfaction regarding the organization’s efforts to address diversity-related complaints.51 Both Tercek and Yarnold had praised and vowed to support the Green 2.0 diversity and transparency campaign.52
These are clarion bells sounding the demise of white supremacy in environmentalism. We have entered a new era that goes beyond diversity, equity, and inclusion to justice and transformation. It is time to act to institute meaningful, deep-rooted change. Reckoning of the past and transparency moving forward is how we will identify and root out the systemic problems causing and perpetuating injustice.
Funding for this research was obtained from The JPB Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and The Nathan Cummings Foundation.
- Compelling evidence of racism and discrimination is also provided in Dorceta E. Taylor, The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).
- Eliott McLaughlin, “How George Floyd’s death ignited a racial reckoning that shows no signs of slowing down,” CNN, August 9, 2020, cnn.com/2020/08/09/us/george-floyd-protests-different-why/index.html.
- “Reckoning with Our Past, Present, and Future,” Wildlife Conservation Society, July 29, 2020, org/reckoning-with-our-past-present-and-future-at-wcs.
- Cristián Samper, “Letter Issued to WCS Staff in the US and Globally on June 19, 2020,” Wildlife Conservation Fund, c532f75abb9c1c021b8c-e46e473f8aadb72cf2a8ea564b4e6a76.ssl.cf5.rackcdn.com/2020/06/22/6cic5tz96y_Letter_Issued_to_WCS_Staff.pdf.
- Michael Brune, “Pulling Down Our Monuments,” Sierra Club, July 22, 2020, org/michael-brune/2020/07/john-muir-early-history-sierra-club.
- Brune, “Pulling Down Our Monuments”; and Justin Nobel, “The Miseducation of John Muir: A close examination of the wilderness icon’s early travels reveal a deep love for trees, and some ugly feelings about people,” Atlas Obscura, July 26, 2016, atlasobscura.com/articles/the-miseducation-of-john-muir.
- Brune, “Pulling Down Our Monuments.”
- James Harris, “A Brief History: 1911–1986—The Sierra Club in Southern California, 1911–1986 (From the 1986 Angeles Chapter Diamond Jubilee Souvenir Booklet),” Sierra Club Angeles Chapter, accessed July 19, 2021, sierraclub.org/about/chapter_history/brief_history_1911_1986.
- Brune, “Pulling Down Our Monuments.”
- A. Tianna Scozzaro, “Forced Sterilization Is a Tool of Violence, Oppression, and White Supremacy,” Sierra Club, September 18, 2020, sierraclub.org/articles/2020/09/forced-sterilization-tool-violence-oppression-and-white-supremacy. And see Kali Holloway, “ICE Forced Sterilizations Claim Revives America’s Sick Eugenics Tradition,” The Daily Beast, September 16, 2020, thedailybeast.com/ice-forced-sterilizations-claim-revives-americas-sick-eugenics-tradition.
- Gregory Nobles, “The Myth of John James Audubon,” Audubon Magazine, July 31, 2020, org/news/the-myth-john-james-audubon. And see Taylor, The Rise of the American Conservation Movement; and Dorceta E. Taylor, “Dorceta Taylor on Environmental Justice: The future of environmental justice is true equality,” Sierra, December 22, 2020, sierraclub.org/sierra/2021-1-january-february/feature/dorceta-e-taylor-environmental-justice.
- Nobles, “The Myth of John James.”
- Taylor, The Rise of the American Conservation Movement; and Susan Schrepfer, The Fight to Save the Redwoods: A History of Environmental Reform, 1917–1978 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001).
- Sam Hodder, “Reckoning with the League Founders’ Eugenics Past,” Save The Redwoods League, September 15, 2020, org/blog/reckoning-with-the-league-founders-eugenics-past/.
- Daniel Kevles, “Eugenics and Human Rights,” BMJ 319, no. 7207 (August 14, 1999): 435–38.
- Hodder, “Reckoning with the League Founders’ Eugenics.”
- Garland E. Allen, “‘Culling the Herd’: Eugenics and the Conservation Movement in the United States, 1900–1940,” Journal of the History of Biology 46, 1 (March 13, 2012): 31–72.
- See “B&C Conservation Heroes,” Boone and Crockett Club, accessed July 19, 2021, boone-crockett.org/bc-conservation-heroes; “History of the Boone and Crockett Club: Pioneers of Conservation, Our Legacy for Generations,” Boone and Crockett Club, accessed August 5, 2021, boone-crockett.org/history-boone-and-crockett-club; and Sarah Nason, “Madison Grant and the Eugenics History of Biodiversity Conservation,” Rapid Ecology (blog), November 7, 2018, rapidecology.com/2018/11/07/madison-grant-and-the-eugenics-history-of-biodiversity-conservation/.
- “B&C Conservation Heroes,” Boone and Crockett Club.
- “All About Bison,” American Bison Society, accessed July 19, 2021, com/bison-in-history/american-bison-society/.
- Taylor, The Rise of the American Conservation Movement; Richard W. Judd, Common Lands, Common People: The Origins of Conservation in Northern New England (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997); John F. Reiger, American Sportsmen and the Origins of Conservation, 3rd ed. (Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press, 2000); Michael P. Cohen, The History of the Sierra Club: 1892–1970 (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988); Anna Bramwell, Ecology in the 20th Century: A History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989); and Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991).
- Dorceta E. Taylor, “Race, Diversity, and Transparency in Environmental Organizations,” American Sociological Association Footnotes 49, no. 3 (Summer 2021). And see Judd, Common Lands, Common People; Louis S. Warren, The Hunter’s Game: Poachers and Conservationists in Twentieth-Century America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997); “A Hounding Prosecution ,” Forest and Stream 66, no. 14 (April 7, 1906): 547; Stephen Fox, The American Conservation Movement: John Muir and His Legacy (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986; first published as John Muir and His Legacy: The American Conservation Movement, Boston: Little, Brown, 1981); and James B. Trefethen, An American Crusade for Wildlife (New York: Winchester Press, 1975).
- Taylor, “Race, Diversity, and Transparency in Environmental Organizations” And see Taylor, The Rise of the American Conservation Movement.
- Taylor, “Race, Diversity, and Transparency in Environmental Organizations.”
- And see Fox, The American Conservation Movement.
- Fox, The American Conservation Movement.
- Sierra Club History Committee, “Sierra Club Oral History Project: Southern Sierrans II,” California State University Oral History Program, Eric Redd interview with Tom Amneus, February 17, 1977, 15–16, angeles.sierraclub.org/sites/angeles.sierraclub.org/files/southern_sierrans2.pdf. And see Morgan Goodwin, “Discrimination and Integration at the Angeles Chapter,” Sierra Club Angeles Chapter blog, January 28, 2021, angeles.sierraclub.org/news/blog/2021/01/discrimination_and_integration_at_the_angeles_chapter.
- Sierra Club History Committee, “Sierra Club Oral History Project,” 19,
- Ibid., 11.
- Goodwin, “Discrimination and Integration at the Angeles.”
- Sierra Club History Committee, “Sierra Club Oral History.”
- Taylor, “Race, Diversity, and Transparency in Environmental.”
- Ibid.; and Fox, The American Conservation Movement.
- Jedediah Purdy, “Environmentalism’s Racist History,” The New Yorker, August 13, 2015, com/news/news-desk/environmentalisms-racist-history; and Mark Woods, Rethinking Wilderness (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2017).
- Fox, The American Conservation Movement,
- Rashaan Ayesh, “Nature Conservancy president resigns amid sexual harassment investigation,” Axios, June 1, 2019, axios.com/nature-conservancy-president-resigns-269a414f-04a6-4640-a0a9-1e3dd03c58e3.html; Zack Colman, “Nature Conservancy CEO Tercek exits as shake-up widens,” Politico, June 7, 2019, politico.com/story/2019/06/07/nature-conservancy-ceo-tercek-exits-as-shake-up-widens-1517846; Zach Colman, “2 executives depart Nature Conservancy after harassment probe,” Politico, May 29, 2019, www.politico.com/story/2019/05/29/the-nature-conservancy-harassment-probe-1488630; and Megan Jones and Jennifer Solomon, “Women are rising in the conservation movement, but still face #MeToo challenge,” Environmental Health News, June 21, 2019, ehn.org/women-are-rising-in-the-conservation-movement-but-still-face-metoo-challenge-2638931777.html.
- Ayesh, “Nature Conservancy president resigns amid sexual harassment investigation;” and Colman, “2 executives depart Nature Conservancy after harassment.”
- Genevieve Belmaker, “Calls for change in handling abuse allegations at top conservation group,” Mongabay, April 2, 2018, mongabay.com/2018/04/calls-for-change-in-handling-abuse-allegations-at-top-conservation-group/; and Pendleton v. National Wildlife Federation, Civil Action No. 5:10CV00009 (W.D. Va. March 26, 2010), casetext.com/case/ pendleton-v-national-wildlife-federation.
- Purbita Saha, “When Women Run the Bird World,” Audubon Magazine, May 3, 2019, org/news/when-women-run-bird-world.
- Zack Colman, “Audubon Society hit by claims of ‘intimidation and threats,’” Politico, November 12, 2020, com/news/2020/11/12/audubon-society-claims-intimidation-threats-436215.
- David Yarnold, “Revealing the Past to Create the Future,” Audubon Magazine, Fall 2020, accessed July 19, 2021, audubon.org/magazine/fall-2020/revealing-past-create-future.
- Colman, “Audubon Society hit by claims of ‘intimidation and threats.’”
- Zack Colman, “Audubon CEO resigns after complaints of toxic workplace,” Politico, April 20, 2021, com/news/2021/04/20/audubon-ceo-resigns-483569; and “National Audubon Society Announces CEO David Yarnold to Step Down,” Audubon news release, April 20, 2021, audubon.org/news/national-audubon-society-announces-ceo-david-yarnold-step-down.
- Colman, “Nature Conservancy CEO Tercek exits as shake-up widens”; and Colman, “Audubon CEO resigns after complaints of toxic.”