Toppling John Muir from Sierra Club is not enough

To overcome a violent history of exclusion, the nation's "green ecosystem" will need to do more than acknowledge past sins.

Half Dome from Glacier Point

Visitors view Half Dome from Glacier Point at Yosemite National Park, Calif. Campers have long flocked to campgrounds in the area for views of Half Dome. (Dino Vournas,AP)

The last time I visited Yosemite National Park, I stood atop Glacier Point and gaped at the views of Half Dome, Yosemite Falls and the other geological baubles of Yosemite Valley. Lost in the almost hallucinatory beauty, I imagined myself in conversation with John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, who stood there themselves in 1903.

It would not have gone very well.

We’d of course have stumbled over the colloquialisms of the time, what with Muir having written of people of color like myself as “lazy” and “dirty” and Roosevelt having referred to white people as “the forward race” and nonwhites as “intellectually inferior.”

What certainly would have sent us over the rails at Overhanging Rock would have been the two white men of high privilege broaching the subject of preserving pristine places, such as those we were surveying, as respites from urban stressors. I’d have instantly decoded the dog whistle of “stressors” as referring to the people of color beginning to assemble in U.S. urban centers. And, knowing what I do now, I’d have objected to their planting the seeds of a white supremacist, green ecosystem of recreation, conservation and environmentalism that persists in this country even today.

On all of the above, Michael Brune may have found the two of us aligned when he recently posted a missive, “Pulling Down Our Monuments,” on the website of the Sierra Club, the massive, 128-year-old environmental organization for which he serves as executive director. Muir happens to be a founder of the Sierra Club. He also is the primary sacrifice (the club’s “most monumental figure”) offered up by Brune as he scrambles to cover for his organization during an extraordinary period of upheaval over race and social justice in the United States.

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir at Glacier Point, black and white
Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir stand on Glacier Point in Yosemite Valley, California, in 1903. (U.S. Library of Congress)

As the “Father of National Parks” and chief advocate of preserving the white eco-hegemony-sustaining notion of wilderness, Muir’s prodigious writings have been debated for decades, even more fiercely in recent years within the Sierra Club itself. It’s suspicious that Brune would choose this time — even employing social-justice contact-tracing methods to link Muir to white-race conservationist Henry Fairfield Osborn — to cleanse his organization of the stench of racism. It smacks of opportunism.

Instead of providing cover, the toppling of Muir further pulls back the curtain on the tone-deaf and patronizing culture that pervades a green ecosystem dominated by giant, branded collections of white, pseudo-social-justice warriors. I have been trying to navigate that landscape for seven years, along with a growing fleet of other activists and organizations of color trying to breach the formidable wall of exclusion that surrounds it. I’ve witnessed the perpetuation of the myth that people of color are not outdoors by our own choice, a lie used to justify why we aren’t represented in the marketing materials, workforce or even customer base or membership of white-led organizations and companies.

The Sierra Club’s cancellation of its founder feels like the start of the last, desperate gasps of the status quo in American conservation, environmentalism and recreation.

Bigger reckonings are on the way.

Sierra Club’s Big Green sibling, the National Audubon Society, is nearly as old and similar in budgetary reach. It also has a historic figure — its namesake, the artist and naturalist John James Audubon — who is as towering a presence in the outdoors and as troubling, albeit confusing, in matters of race. On one hand, Audubon was an enslaver who opposed the intermingling of races; on the other, there is thought that he was biracial, born to a Black Creole woman in Haiti, and literally is buried in Harlem in New York City.

The National Audubon Society has not reconciled its association with a man who, like Muir, embraced racist ideas and activities. Nor has it leaned on its namesake’s apparent Blackness to better inform and guide its clumsy race-related forays. On the same day that George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, for instance, a white woman weaponized race by calling the police on an innocent Black birdwatcher, Christian Cooper, who is on the board of Audubon’s New York chapter. The national organization’s response to the “Central Park Karen” incident was to issue a statement quoting — absurdly — a white female executive talking about the Black experience.

The racial disconnect at Big Green organizations has definite trickle-down effects because most are hitched to national networks of local affiliates. I’ve served on the state Audubon board for four years, initially invited to “help diversify” the body. We have the only Black director (Joey Manson at Seward Park) of 41 Audubon Centers around the country, but rarely act like it. When our board once had a joint meeting with the local Nature Conservancy board, I noted with disappointment that I was the only nonwhite person in attendance. Everyone in the room looked around, stunned. I’ve had fellow board members speak dismissively to my face about diversity.

Green organizations have incentives to cloak their otherwise obvious whiteness. Foremost is protection of their dominance in a smallish, zero-sum fundraising game. The National Audubon Society had a $117 million budget in 2019. In that same year, the Sierra Club reported $133 million in revenue and $223 million in total assets. The relative financial might consolidates their power within the sector, and the cycle of white dominance becomes self-fulfilling.

To maintain it, white-led green organizations exercise their sway against a growing number of embryonic, organizations of color in the form of thinly disguised paternalism — appropriating agendas and hijacking funding with the argument that they are more experienced and better resourced to address an issue. On the first day of Black History Month, in 2019, Camber Outdoors unveiled its CEO Outdoor Equity Pledge, with 50 powerhouse and self-signaling “woke” signatories such as REI and Patagonia. Camber touted this effort as “first of its kind.” Trouble was, a group of individuals and organizations of color had launched the similarly named Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge in July 2018. My nonprofit media entity, The Trail Posse, is an original steering committee member. Camber Outdoors declined to participate in our pledge.

“With great fanfare, they created the optic of a large group of white-led outdoor brands signaling a preference to follow a white-led organization on diversity instead of an alliance of organizations of color organized by a black woman, Teresa Baker of the African American National Park Event,” I wrote at the time.

The backlash took down both Deanne Buck, the Camber Outdoors executive director, and Jerry Stritzke, who resigned as the CEO of REI about the same time because of a “personal and consensual relationship … [with] the leader of another organization in the outdoor industry.” REI was the most robust supporter of Buck and Camber Outdoors, donating a reported $1.9 million to the nonprofit during Stritzke’s tenure.

But the lessons rarely penetrate. Though seen, at least through white eyes, as an industry leader in diversity, REI frequently has been awkward on race. During a briefing on its initiative to open a series of urban locations, I asked about plans to hire from surrounding neighborhoods. It had none. Part of the value REI was bringing to such locations was its “expertise,” I was told, the inference presumably being that urban-based hires would bring none.

REI also has been notorious about supporting organizations of color with gear, which many recipients consider a token gesture. Jolie Varela, who is Tule River Yokut and Paiute and founded the group Indigenous Women Hike, shined a public light on the policy, exposing a perfunctory offer of $200 for her part in an equity project. Varela, in an Instagram post, called REI’s support “disingenuous.” The company’s official account wrote, “We’re not looking for a public display here. We’re owning our mistakes and trying to do the right thing,” in a reply roundly condemned as overly defensive.

REI does not corner the market in condescension toward people of color, however. The Pacific Crest Trail Association, which supports the Canada-to-Mexico trail that runs through the spine of our state, was thoroughly chastened when it recently posted in a Facebook group, “And by the way, it's fine to argue against the existence of racism on trail if you're polite about it.” The outcry prompted the 43-year-old nonprofit to post a mea culpa that included admitting to “systemic organizational issues with PCTA — including our lack of diversity …”

Toppling John Muir solves none of this. Erasing him does not restore the wilderness and national park lands created by forcibly removing or massacring Indigenous people. It does not push back on the negative connotation with remote, outdoor spaces that has been instilled in nonwhite Americans, whether through lynching Black people in the woods, entrapping Latinx workers in the fields through the migrant-work cycle, or mass incarcerating Japanese Americans in desert lands during World War II. Removing Muir from our history does not reverse the gaslighting of people of color into buying into the myth that we are not outdoors, though clearly we are, even in urban centers, and largely were brought to this country, forcibly or lured, because of our relationship with, and ability to work, the earth.

Pushing away John Muir does not retrofit a white-supremacist-sustaining system built on elitist individualism and intentionally difficult, and therefore unequal, access. This is a systemic exclusion reinforced by the mismatch with the strong culture of extended families of color, the absence of safety for nonwhites in the privileged playgrounds, and a history in this country of redlining and other methods of systemic segregation.

Truth is, we have not been harassed as much on trails, mountaintops and shores as we have in the green ecosystem — conservation, environmentalism and recreation — that supports them. Many of us either have been enduring the hatred and oppression for decades, or holding it in our DNA for centuries — and often we cannot breathe and, mostly, no one notices when we are snuffed out or have checked out of this fight.

Organizations like the Sierra Club have histories of not exactly walking its own environmental talk. People of color should be excused for not buying into talk of what sounds like Muir reparations — promises of millions of dollars, plus other resources, to bolster the Sierra Club’s nonwhite workforce and anti-racism and environmental justice work. White people and their organizations have yet to grasp the yawning gap between announcing and doing — and the fact that doing something everyone already should have been doing is not a development fit for public proclamation.

If this all progresses the way we’re conditioned to expect, the Sierra Club, its white allies and co-conspirators will not meaningfully acknowledge their tone deafness and lack of effective response to race-related issues. Either individually or organizationally, their leaders and members will conflate discussion of race as “political,” instead of human. They will argue that the outdoors provides retreat from such stressors. Then we’re right back to 1903 and the convenient truth that, thanks in a large way to John Muir, these disassociating white masses will have plenty of backcountry in which to isolate themselves from contemplating the inequity of the infrastructure that supports it all.

About the Authors & Contributors

Glenn Nelson

Glenn Nelson

Glenn Nelson is a Japanese American columnist covering race and equity in the Pacific Northwest.