Back in 2014, I wrote about visiting Grey Towers. I cannot believe I have been writing this blog for more than 6 years! And how times have changed. In that post I mentioned Gifford Pinchot, former governor of Pennsylvania, first chief of the US Forest Service, sometimes called father of the Conservation Movement.
Grey Towers, a National Historic Site, was Gifford Pinchot’s family home. While it was beautiful and full of history, there was a story lacking in the interpretation both in the house museum and in the gardens.
I am sharing some of that additional story here, because I think it is time that we all, whether on a national platform or through a blog that reaches a handful of people on its best day, need to start telling the complete stories of our history. If we do not know the complete story we can at least start telling MORE of the story.
It is true that Gifford Pinchot was a PA Governor and the first chief of the US Forest Service and has been called the father of conservation. That he did groundbreaking work to preserve open spaces for the public cannot be denied.
It is also true that Gifford Pinchot “was a delegate to the first and second International Eugenics Congress, in 1912 and 1921, and a member of the advisory council of the American Eugenics Society, from 1925 to 1935“. If you, like me, when I first heard this word, are unsure what exactly eugenics is – here is the definition from the Merriam Webster Dictionary: “the practice or advocacy of controlled selective breeding of human populations (as by sterilization) to improve the population’s genetic composition.”
According to an article by Charles Wohlforth in Orion Magazine, Gifford Pinchot, in the company of other social elites including another person known for his role in conservation, President Roosevelt, felt he could apply the science used in selecting the best trees to grow in an area for a specific purpose to selecting the best humans for the creation of a superior race. The natural spaces he worked to protect were protected for the benefit of this superior race. He was so thoroughly sure of this he recruited other eugenicists to write articles on the potential for a 3 volume report to the Conservation Commission in 1909, which was submitted to Congress for consideration by President Roosevelt. Roosevelt called this document “one of the most fundamentally important documents ever laid before the American people.” (Orion Magazine, https://orionmagazine.org/article/conservation-and-eugenics/)
Additionally, Pinchot was part of the newly formed Boone and Crockett Club. This was a select group of 100 white men “of good breeding” who were hunters and wanted to protect open space for their sporting and for the protection of superior game for them to hunt. These men, including politicians, industrialists and others, assembled by Teddy Roosevelt, are also considered some of the fathers of conservation. Many were also believers in eugenics. In fact, some members believed conservation and eugenics were synonymous. The Boone and Crockett Club still exists today, as a conservation organization promoting themselves as pioneers of conservation, touting their founders and their conservation values. Nowhere in their history do they mention the connection between their conservation efforts and the founder’s connections to eugenics. The club and its members are noted for their involvement in creation of conservation ethics and open space as we know it today including the creation of the National Forest Service, National Park System, and the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Today the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, created by Gifford’s son in his honor, exists with a mission to “strengthen forest conservation thought, policy, and action by developing innovative, practical, and broadly-supported solutions to conservation challenges and opportunities. We accomplish this through nonpartisan research, education, and technical assistance on key issues influencing the future of conservation and sustainable natural resource management.” Pinchot’s “practical idealism”, when it comes to forest management, is mentioned in their history. But his belief in and work towards a superior race of people is mentioned no place. Is this not a part of the history of this organization as much as the fact that John F. Kennedy spoke at the dedication?
This is part of the problem. This type of omission is what leaves so many of us white people wondering how we ended up functioning in a racist system or doubting we are in a racist system at all. We do not see the racism in the system because we were not there when the system was created. For us, it just has always been the norm, and no one told us about the full historical origins of these systems. Conservation, open space and national parks exist because of a bunch of wealthy white men who believed there is a superior race? Imagine what access to these open spaces would have meant to people of color, people with disabilities and people with little means given the origins.
These are the foundational blocks our current systems are built upon and continue to be built upon. This is systemic racism. This is what we need to learn more about. We need to focus on understanding the roots of the systems we have come to rely on, to love, to expect, to value and appreciate and take advantage of. We need to understand them. Deconstructing them down to the bedrock and rebuilding them in a way that does not start from a place of hate or “less-than” or superiority but from a perspective of equality and justice. We need to rebuild the foundation. We can only do this by asking ourselves when we visit open spaces and natural places “what aren’t you telling me?”
Parks, National Historic Sites, Public Gardens, Arboreta must do a better job of telling the entire story. We cannot continue to whitewash the truth about our spaces and places.
Have you, like me, wondered why you do not see more people of color on hiking trails, in the campgrounds and in kayaks? As I explore so many of my favorite places – gardens, parks, anyplace outside, I do find myself wondering why nearly every person I pass is white. Why is there so little diversity on our trails. Why can I hike for days without seeing a black person? (In this article, travel blogger, Joshua Walker, writes about the history of National Park access for black people)
Now I understand that from the beginning our national park service, our conservation values and our access to open spaces as a nation did not include people of color or people considered “other.” I understand now that the traditions so many of us grew up with – exploring the great outdoors and going for a walk in the woods – were not something accessible to so many people generations ago.
I will do more in my writing as I continue to explore the outdoors, gardens, parks, trails and learn more about the plants I love. I will work to find as much of the story as I can and tell it. I will seek out stories and listenI will review the stories I have told, look for holes and fill them where I can. I will amplify the work done by people of color. I will use my words to help make the change I want to see in this world.
Read More About the Racism Built into the Foundation of Conservation and Public Open Space Creation, Protection and Access:
Listen: Black Folks and Nature
Environmentalisms Racist History; The New Yorker
Conservation and Eugenics; Orion Magazine
How a Notorious Racist Inspired America’s National Parks; Mother Jones
Allen, G.E. “Culling the Herd”: Eugenics and the Conservation Movement in the United States, 1900–1940. J Hist Biol 46, 31–72 (2013).
Here are some organizations working to empower black people to get into nature and are fighting for equal access to open spaces for all. They are also sharing stories of lived experiences we all can learn from.