In 1872, a geologist named Ferdinand V. Hayden settled on what many would later call America’s “best idea”. Returning from an expedition to the headwaters of the Yellowstone River, Hayden recommended “setting aside the area as a pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Unfortunately for Hayden, there were, of course, already people benefiting from and enjoying that particularly beautiful piece of land. Part of his suggested “setting aside” of land involved the violent exclusion of half a dozen native American tribes and a reneged promise of future hunting rights made to the Shoshone tribe, the region’s primary year-round inhabitants.
As the first national park, Yellowstone set precedents for environmental conservation that persist to this day. The valuing of habitat and wildlife over people, the willful disregard for the impact of environmental advocacy on local inhabitants—these are all elements of conservation initiatives many communities experience today. With its leading organizations still shaped by the problematic legacies of founders such as Audubon, Muir, and Roosevelt, conservation remains inextricably linked to both the United States’ colonial past and its persistent white supremacist tendencies.
How might the search to build a more just and equitable world re-orient the work of environmental conservation? As the nation woke up in 2020 to ongoing and blatant racial injustices in our country, many conservation organizations began or doubled down on their commitments to far better align the work of environmental and social advocacy.
What do we mean by environmental justice and equity?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines Environmental Justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” Equity is the desired outcome of environmental justice. Environmental justice, in other words, is a process that centers equity as its goal.
As many conservation organizations work to ensure equity in their missions, they may broaden their normal policy agendas to include initiatives like affordable housing and infrastructure; they may seek out more diverse partnerships with organizations led by black, indigenous, and people of color; they may, among other things, alter their fundraising and hiring practices.
In this episode, I interview Faye Matthews, my friend and colleague at the National Wildlife Federation. Faye is the legal policy advisor and senior partnership manager for the Federation’s Gulf Program, and she’s based in New Orleans, Louisiana. Faye is an attorney, an HBCU alumnus, a New Orleans native, and works with various stakeholders to advance the dialogue around climate resilience in coastal Louisiana and around the Gulf. We discuss the concepts of environmental justice and equity, especially in the Gulf Coast, and the role of conservation organizations. Faye also reflects on her path to a career in environmental policy as a young black woman from the south.