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Opinion: We must be anti-racist as we protect public lands

A question I’ve been hearing a lot lately in conservation and outdoor spaces – and beyond – is, what do land and resource conservation or the outdoors have to do with racism?  To that, I say the answer has always been, and continues to be, everything. 

Let’s be real. America was built on racism. Our social, economic and political systems were founded within toxic frameworks of violence, subjugation and oppression that persist today. That includes conservation and outdoor spaces.

It is my view, as a white man, business owner, outdoor enthusiast and an outspoken conservation activist, that the more reflective question we should be asking is, who are we protecting the environment and public lands for? 

Phil Hüffeldt

If the answer truly is – as it should be – for everyone, then it’s time for us to put in the hard, and uncomfortable work needed to fight racism and reconstruct white spaces as pluralistic spaces for all. 

That starts with white people acknowledging that a vast majority of our outdoor and conservation spaces are white creations, that the land we recreate on was stolen from Indigenous peoples, and that the conservation movement must do more to actively combat racism and promote a culture of inclusion.

It continues with us confronting our white privilege, relinquishing some of our power and providing space for people of color to participate in decision-making and power-brokering for the benefit of all.  

As white people, we must do everything we can to move forward, and not backwards, on this. We cannot allow ourselves and our white friends, colleagues and neighbors to remain complicit with silence and inaction.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Even if it may seem easier to “just enjoy the outdoors and simply not be racist,” we cannot ignore the pain and exhaustion people of color feel, and have felt, being forced to explain their presence and fight for their existence in these white spaces.

Here are some ways I’m taking action to build an anti-racist conservation and outdoors movement and invite you to join me:

  1. Listen to people of color as they share their outdoor experiences and reflect on how you can use your privilege to construct an outdoor experience for all people. 
  1. Support companies and organizations working to eliminate barriers to outdoor participation and advance racial justice, environmental justice and equity in these spheres by sharing your time, talent and resources.
  1. Reflect on behaviors and language that perpetuate racism and implicit bias; recognize that your white experiences cannot and should not be equated to the “normal” state of being. For example, treat and talk to people of color how you would white people on the trail or at the office and vice versa.
  1. Educate yourself on the racist history of the conservation movement, paying particular attention to the ancestral lands you live, work and recreate on. 
  1. Be informed before you buy: for example, don’t support companies that appropriate Indigenous cultures
  1. Engage in meaningful conversations about anti-racism and encourage learning among white peers and our children rather than putting the burden of knowledge and action on people of color.

To be clear, these recommendations are not meant to be an exhaustive “anti-racist checklist.” Rather, they are a few concrete ways for white people to begin to pave a path toward more inclusive and equitable conservation and outdoor spaces. 

Also, I recognize that, as a white people, we must listen to and elevate voices of color on issues of race, and in general. That’s why I encourage you to read Leah Thomas’ piece, “Why Every Environmentalist Should Be Anti-Racist,” and continue to seek others’ perspectives on your journey toward racial justice and equity.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

We aren’t going to fix racism overnight, in a few weeks, this year or maybe even in this decade. We can, however, start to build this path and hike through it together so that all people may begin to truly enjoy an environment and public lands representative of them, their experiences and their communities.

By doing so, we form a coalition of all people working to protect what we love: outdoor spaces where everyone feels welcomed, respected and valued.


Phil Hüffeldt is the founder of Wool Hat Creative, a member of the Colorado Outdoor Business Alliance, and an outdoor enthusiast and activist in Denver.


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