Wilderness and Civil Rights

Northern Passages wishes you all a very happy and healthy new year. 

2014 was a significant year in its own right, but it is also noteworthy as the 50th anniversary of 1964.  That was the year in which both the Wilderness Act and the Civil Rights Act became law.  As a 10-year old growing up in Canada, I have to admit that at the time I was more focused on it being the year in which the Beatles first arrived in North America.  I would like to think that I now have a slightly more mature perspective on these events.

Rue Mapp, the founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, and Dr. Carolyn Finney, a professor at the University of California, have written about the relationship, or lack thereof, between the two signature legislative acts of 1964.  I had the pleasure of hearing Ms. Mapp speak about this at a Wilderness 50 celebration around the time of the actual anniversary of the statute in September.  Her remarks echoed  an article she had previously written for Orion magazine's blog,.

Here is an excerpt from (and a link to) that blog post, titled Wilderness at 50:  Our Wild and Civil Rights. 

"It appears that the Wilderness and Civil Rights Acts did not share a public platform during the 1960s, and some believe an opportunity was missed that could have altered the course of both movements. ...

"In her book, Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, she [Dr. Finney] plots the interwoven chronology of events that led to the Civil Rights and Wilderness Acts. Dr. Finney believes that, though linked to the civil-rights movement in time, the wilderness preservation movement (and the environmental movement, more broadly) missed a golden opportunity to address race that could have built greater harmony between people and nature, especially for African Americans.  'The conservation movement has traditionally prided itself on a concept of nature as pure,' she says, 'which for some, can also be translated to mean whiteness.'  She contends that had environmentalists considered more deeply the human experience in nature, the conservation movement might have been better equipped to engage with issues related to diversity and inclusion.


"Fifty years on, we know the work is far from finished—but we can pause to celebrate wild lands and the movement to protect them while also respecting the still-sharp memories and historic tensions between people and nature.  With a vision of healing, Outdoor Afro and many other organizations are helping people reinvent connections to natural places both near and far through a variety of peer-led activities.  One experience at a time, we can replace old fears and reservations about the wilderness with joy, curiosity, and wonder.

"While the Wilderness Act and the Civil Rights Act might not have been conceived together, we have a chance today to make their real connections come alive."

As noted in my recent post on A Modern Land Ethic, the environmental movement today needs to address important social justice issues ranging from the rights of indigenous peoples who have lived for eons in what we somewhat blithely call wilderness, to the disparate impacts of climate change and mitigation strategies around the world, to the accessibility of wilderness for people of all races, ethnicities and financial means within American society.  During the coming year, the Northern Passages blog will explore some of these issues as they relate to a contemporary conservation ethic. 

Best wishes for 2015.  Stay wild!