Learning About the Cultural Politics of Race and Nature

There are two things that interest me: the relation of people to each other and the relation of people to land.” –Aldo Leopold My assignment for this past week has been to read social science literature on causes of park (non)use by minorities in order to get an idea of what issues we can tackle here at the visitor center and SEKI. The readings reminded me of the quote above, which I first heard while sitting in my Intro to Environmental Science and Policy class that I took my very first semester of college. We learned that Aldo Leopold redefined the concept of “wilderness” and influenced the emerging conservation movement to have a more ecocentric component. Ecocentrism is an ecological political philosophy that centers on the notion that all living beings and their respective environments have an intrinsic value of their own. Wilderness was no longer just seen as a place where the existence of living things was for the benefit of human kind but as a place that had a value of its own worth protecting. It is without a doubt that the relationship between humans and the natural world has been a complex one for as long as our species has existed. Early humans relied on instinct and adaptability in order to successfully navigate their ever-changing environments as they migrated all across the globe. As settling occurred and civilizations began to grow, humans had already established a relationship with the land’s living and non-living components. For much of our history, the link between humans and nature has been driven by survival through the hunting of animals and growing of crops on the land. It wasn’t until the mid 19th century when this relationship shifted, especially in Western countries that had undergone the Industrial Revolution, to focus on preserving natural resources for future generations as such resources were being depleted at rapid rates. This emerging conservation movement eventually reached the United States and by the end of the 19th century the idea of national parks was already in existence. Although this movement led to the creation of protected areas of “Americas wilderness”, not every American had the same accessibility to visit these parks. The very same concept of “wilderness” that Aldo Leopold came to redefine can be said to have Western and elitist roots, especially since the great majority of people involved with the growing environmental movement in the US were males of European descent. Those that were able to afford traveling to a national park were of a white, middle class background that stayed for long periods of time in remote park lodges. Around this same time period when white Americans were traveling westward to experience the pristine beauty of the Sierra Nevada, African Americans were being oppressed in the Jim Crow South and Mexican Americans were being lynched in the southwest. Even though many decades have passed, I challenge Aldo Leopold’s quote by stating that “the relation of people to land” is not the same across different racial and ethnic groups still to this day. Many theories and ideas have been proposed in order to explain why a large percentage of minorities do not visit national parks. One of the theories that stood out the most to me was the “discrimination theory”, which states that minorities do not visit national parks due to fear of being discriminated against by any of the white visitors and staff. My experiences as a Mexican-American female in a predominantly white institution where Latinxs/Hispanics represent 7% of the student population undoubtedly influenced the way I carry myself in these spaces. Countless of times I have felt like “I didn’t belong,” a feeling that is shared amongst those that are one of the few that look different from a multitude that is homogeneous. Therefore, I can understand why a Latinx may feel apprehensive in visiting national parks that for so long have been perceived as white spaces. For a really long time, I never really thought of a national park as a place where a person would be afraid to experience prejudice. After all, nature does not discriminate and everyone is equal under the laws of Mother Nature. Unfortunately, institutionalized discrimination throughout our nation’s history has seriously impacted many ethnic groups and created disparities across various aspects of American society, including national parks. Reading literature on this topic was a reminder that the work that we are all doing in this internship program is important. I hope to create an environment that will not only have more bilingual volunteers for the River Rover program here at SEKI, but will be a small step towards dismantling the idea that the parks are only for a select group.

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