Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Racism, The Forest Service, and Environmental History

Oh boy. Via Andrea:

The US Forest Service issued and then retracted a Labor Day warning advising hikers to “beware of campers in national forests drinking Tecate beer, eating tortillas and playing Spanish music” because “they could be armed marijuana growers.” A high-ranking Forest Service official in Colorado also identified people speaking Spanish and eating Spam or Tuna as “warning signs of possible drug trafficking.”

We might want to chock this up to a single Forest Service employee. I'm sure that someone (if not more than just one) lost their job over this. But while especially egregious, this incident reinforces long term racism revolving around who gets to use the environment. Who belongs in nature? The idea that seeing non-white people in the forest is somehow a threat comes straight out of a racist playbook in the environmental movement that's been around in one form or another for the last 120 years or so. Today, nature is for play. Work in nature is considered a bad thing. People who work in nature are raping the land or whatever. Never mind that Latinos form a huge percentage of reforestation and fire fighting crews. Since brown people are not supposed to have time to play, they must be growing drugs if they are in the forest. Now, it is somewhat rare to see non-white people in the forest. This is related to the fact that whites have more money and leisure time that they choose to spend in the forest.

Environmentalism and play in nature is associated with elite white people. Moreover, it has been for a long time. Since at least the 1880s, non-whites in the outdoors have been viewed with suspicion. Early environmentalists tried to separate working-class people from nature as much as possible, particularly those from non-desirable ethnic or racial groups. They cracked down on Italians because of their poaching (i.e., subsistence hunting so their families could eat) of songbirds and deer. Native American hunting was particularly looked down upon as wasteful, even though these same environmentalists romanticized Native Americans in their search for a more active and robust lifestyle. African-American hunters in the South were also seen as a menace who did not respect hunting laws and poached game that sporting whites should be allowed to kill. Early environmentalists like Theodore Roosevelt and Madison Grant (writer of the notorious eugenic book The Passing of the Great Race) saw race and nature as closely connected; game animals needed preservation in order to provide something for wealthy whites to kill. That killing was central to preserving the Anglo-Saxon masculinity that had supposedly been central to the nation's rise during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The United States Forest Service exists in no small part off land stolen from people of color. For example, the entirety of northern New Mexico forests exist of land stolen from New Mexican Hispanos who inherited that land through land grants that American courts refused to recognize despite promises they would do in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican War in 1848. In the 1960s, Hispanos fought back, leading to the 1967 raid by Reies Lopez Tijerina and his followers upon the courthouse in Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico to free people imprisoned for fighting to take back the stolen lands. Much other land of course once belonged to Native Americans and they certainly weren't welcome to use it in traditional ways after the arrival of the USFS.

These connections between race and nature have changed over time of course. In the late 1960s and 1970s, whites who continued to dominate all things conservation found room in nature for Native Americans through a new chapter in the history of whites romanticizing them. In this case, the anti-pollution Crying Indian ads are the most famous artifact. Native Americans took advantage of this in all sorts of ways, but when they didn't act toward nature in the ways that white environmentalists wanted (like developing their land or using their fishing rights), they were basically accused by whites as not being real Indians. This latest chapter in environmentalism that continues today hasn't found any room for other non-whites, thus their existence in the forests must mean they are doing something illegal.

Finally, tuna eater=Mexican? I did not know this. Nothing like a new stereotype... Also, I like Tecate, tortillas, and Mexican music. Does this mean that I am growing drugs? If so, why aren't I making any money?