Racism, protest, and … conservation?

Racism, protest, and … conservation?

Protesters gather in the Town Square during a peaceful demonstration against racism and police brutality. Photo: Nikki Kaufman


At the Alliance, as humans and Americans, we have been distressed by the latest killings of unarmed Black Americans – like the brutal murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor – and inspired by the resulting protests sweeping the country. As conservationists, we’ve asked ourselves what we can and should do. Should we compartmentalize our “personal” concerns from our “work,” and stay in our lane? Or is that what Dr. King’s “white moderates” would do? Should we instead step into the uncomfortable space of breaking sector boundaries to speak out and say clearly: Black Lives Matter?

First, we don’t have the answers. We are clearly not experts in anti-racism work or police brutality, so we approach this with humility. We are a diverse staff (age, gender, race/ethnicity, and sexual orientation) and a less-diverse membership and board of directors in those categories (this isn’t a value judgement, just who we are). We have a range of experience with racism, sexism, classism, and the other -isms that drive wedges between people and lead to systemic injustice and privilege. We have friends and family members who have lived an even broader range.

Speaking personally, a client and friend of mine in New York was unjustly beaten by police. A friend in Seattle – a minister wearing his full clerical garb – was beaten by police while trying to keep the peace at a protest a few years ago. Another friend was shot with a rubber bullet while peacefully protesting this week. My cousin is afraid for her son growing up black in Florida with its historic and continuing racial violence. Racism hurts all of us. As Dr. King said, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and as the late Pope Paul VI said, if you want peace, work for justice.

What does this have to do with conservation and our mission?

Our mission at the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance is to protect the wildlife, wild places, and community character of Jackson Hole. In this once-remote mountain valley, we can feel isolated and insulated from what’s happening in the broader society and world. However, just as migrating wildlife know no state or local boundaries, the same is true for social change. As legendary conservationist John Muir said: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

Muir also said some very racist things about the Indigenous people in areas he wanted to see “protected.” So first and foremost, as conservationists today we must admit that our movement has a legacy of racism in our past – and we must actively work to undo that history.

Second, when we think about “our” public lands, we must acknowledge that we’re on the ancestral lands of Native Americans: the Shoshone, Bannock, and other people who were removed during the course of European/American settlement. Our “pristine wilderness” was the hunting, gathering, and fishing ground of many tribes over 11,000 years. This oft-ignored fact matters, and we must think about how our work intersects with the work of Native communities and leaders today.

Third, we must consider who gets to enjoy our wildlife, wild lands, and community amenities. We know that at least 1/3 of our community are Latinx people, and that many do not have equal access to our parks and amenities. We are inspired by the work of Coombs Outdoors, Grand Teton National Park and the Grand Teton National Park Foundation in breaking down those barriers to access, and we dream of a day when our whole community (and country) can enjoy the lands, wildlife, and community we’ve conserved.

Finally, as Ben Franklin said, “We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” If people of goodwill stay in their lanes – if conservationists don’t talk about racism, if racial justice advocates don’t talk about caring for the earth – then we will all lose. The dark side of human nature and American injustice will grind its knee into people on the margins, into wildlife, and into our planet: climate change, and increased exploitation and decreased protections of public lands, air, and water. Or if we work together across movements, we can build enough political power that we can all achieve our missions.

What are we going to do about this?

First, we’re going to be authentic. As I said earlier, we are not experts in this work. But we – our staff and board – are committed to learning and taking action. Our first step is to commit to doing work as a whole organization to learn about justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) and how it directly relates to our mission. We will dig into our general funds to bring in skilled experts and trainers to increase our understanding and capacity of JEDI.

We’ll bring this lens into our work, starting with our civic engagement program. Since 2016, we’ve been working with local youth and Latinx leaders to get out the vote of underrepresented people – and will do this again in the upcoming 2020 election.*

We’ll reach out to our local, regional, and national partners – whether in conservation or other sectors where people are trying to make the world a better, more just, place – and try to build relationships and bonds so we are stronger together.

And to answer our opening question: Yes, as a conservation organization, we are saying clearly that Black Lives Matter.

In the meantime, we ask you to share your experiences, thoughts, and feelings with us. As Alliance members, you are the body of our organization, and we need to know how you feel in these times of drastic social change.

Skye on behalf of our staff (Tisa, Dawn, Brooke, Clare, Karyn, Ryan) and board


How can you take action?

Becoming an ally is a very important step that you can take. This guide has a comprehensive list of actions you can start taking and is being updated daily. Please share it with your networks! And we also recommend these resources:


* Nonpartisan Get Out The Vote (GOTV) work is entirely legal for 501(c)3 nonprofits… and if you’re part of any other nonprofits please encourage them to GOTV too! We don’t endorse, support, or oppose any candidates, but we DO proudly encourage voting, especially among communities who have been historically underrepresented in the ballot box – or on the ballot.

Phone: (307) 733-9417
685 S. Cache St. PO Box 2728
Jackson, Wyoming 83001