The Personal is Political: Conservation, Community, and Justice
One of my favourite conservation stories happened the day of the Wall Street Crash on October 29, 1929. That afternoon, Rosalie Edge stood up at the annual meeting of the National Association of Audubon Societies. She called out the room of directors and employees for staying silent on the ongoing overhunting of birds of prey, and challenged them to show the courage to stand up against powerful gun and hunting groups. Edge shook up the entire conservation world and became one of the most influential conservationists in North America. But Rosalie Edge didn’t only focus her activism on protecting birds. She was also involved in the suffragist movement in the United States, contributing to the passing of the 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that gave women the right to vote in 1920.
Rosalie Edge shows us that conservation and social justice issues have always been intertwined. The history of the conservation movement is a history of activism, dissent, and individuals standing up to power. Compartmentalizing efforts to fight for biodiversity and efforts to fight for justice might make it easier to focus on discreet conservation issues that fit our individual priorities, but it is a convenience we can not afford if we are serious about caring about the future of wildlife. It is also a form of conservation I am not interested in.
As I look to some of the things I want to think and talk about in 2023, I felt this was an important post to start the year. A way to set the tone and backdrop.
Political vs. Partisan
We often hear hunting and other conservation organizations call for management based on science. Many hunting organizations and advocates argue that wildlife management should be non-political. They say that decision-makers should be detached from the influence of politics, social values, and emotions in making conservation decisions.
But here is an important distinction: being political is not the same as being partisan. Political parties form around ideological identities and agendas. When someone shows partisanship on an issue, they reflect the opinions and goals of a particular political party. Suggesting that conservationists should operate independently from the pressures of political parties is not the same as suggesting they should be non-political. Freedom from partisanship is not the same as ignoring the political context of our decisions.
Conservation has always been political. No issue that requires policies and formal decision-making is free from the influence of the social-political context we all live in. Achieving meaningful conservation successes has always required moral thought leadership, political dissent, and passionate activism. As conservationists, we are not exempt from the influences of our social-political context.
Hunting and conservation organizations need to acknowledge that the issues they deal with are deeply entrenched in politics, social values, and emotions. It is simply inaccurate to pretend we can detach science from politics, or reason from emotion. For example, I hear hunting organizations oppose wolf reintroductions and point out that they follow hard, pure science. They accuse wolf advocates of being motivated by emotion over science. However, the entire history of efforts to exterminate predators on this continent through bounties and poisons was motivated by economics, politics, and emotional disdain for predators.
I think conservation should be free from partisan bickering. It is a disservice to both the land and our communities when politicians weaponize environmental and conservation issues to capitalize on party loyalties and divisions. Yet, keeping conservation out of partisan games does not mean we can deny our obligations as conservationists to deeply consider and engage with the social-political factors involved in conservation decisions. And make no mistake, neglecting to engage with political justice issues in an attempt to not be political, is a political position enabled by a sense of power and privilege.
“The Hellcat and the Hawks”
In the 1920s, hunting organizations harboured intense animosity for birds of prey, seeing species such as bald eagles as pests that threatened sport hunting for upland birds. To deal with these perceived pests, bounties on eagles and intense extermination campaigns led to tens of thousands of eagles being shot every year. In 1929, a pamphlet titled “A Crisis in Conservation” spurred Rosalie Edge’s conservation activism. The pamphlet “exposed the ties the nation’s network of Audubon Societies had to gun and ammunition makers and the consequent withholding of protection from species hunters considered pests or targets.”
In her biography of Rosalie Edge, Rosalie Edge, Hawk of Mercy: The Activist Who Saved Nature From the Conservationists, Dyana Z. Furmanksy says that Edge was “fed up with professional conservationists corrupted by trophy hunters, timber companies, ranchers, water developers, pesticide manufacturers and government bureaucrats.” So she took them on, head first.
Rosalie Edge saw that conservation required standing up against social and political power structures that threatened bird populations. She wrote letters, attended meetings, and campaigned tirelessly against what she saw as corruption in the conservation world and, according to Michelle Nijuis in her book Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, “discomfiting not only the directors of the Audubon association but most of the conservation establishment,” changed the landscape of the conservation movement.
Edge knew that conservation required political activism and dissent. In 1934, “after learning of a Pennsylvania tradition where thousands of birds of prey were killed for sport in the Appalachian Mountains, Ms. Edge purchased the property, stopped the hunt, and turned it into the world’s first preserve for birds of prey.” She named the new preserve Hawk Mountain, and it became an important study site for Rachel Carson as she prepared her groundbreaking book Silent Spring, which played a pivotal role in ending the indiscriminate use of DDT and other pesticides.
Colonialism and National Parks
The 1930s were certainly a tumultuous time across the world, including in events surrounding conservation discourse and movements. In both Canada and the United States, national parks and protected areas are a key vertebrae in the backbone of the North American conservation framework. From the first national parks in the United States and Canada – Yellowstone National Park in 1872 and Banff National Park in 1887 – we were collectively still grappling with the approach to conservation we wanted our parks to achieve in the 1930s.
Excluding Indigenous peoples from their territories across the country through the creation of national parks also furthered colonial agendas. Dr. John Sandlos, Professor of History at Memorial University of Newfoundland & Labrador, describes that in the early days of the North American conservation paradigm, Indigenous peoples “were routinely expelled from iconic landscapes such as Banff, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon National Parks, their former hunting territories turned to pleasuring grounds for middle- and upper-class tourists from the east.”
The same year that Rosalie Edge took a stand in the Audubon Society meeting, forest reserve land in Manitoba was formally set aside to create Riding Mountain National Park (officially created in 1933).
“In 1936 the reserve was abolished and all the residents forcibly removed to their main reserve near Elphinstone. As they hauled their belongings by wagon down the road leading from the shores of the lake they saw smoke rise above the trees as park wardens burned their houses and barns to the ground.”– John Sandlos, “Not Wanted in the Boundary: The Expulsion of the Keeseekoowenin Ojibway Band from Riding Mountain National Park”
In their own description of the history of Riding Mountain National Park, Parks Canada notes that, “[w]hile the establishment of Riding Mountain National Park created opportunities and benefits for many people in the surrounding communities, it also resulted in the expulsion of the Anishinabe from their homelands.” To be clear, the creation of the park did not passively “result in” expulsion of the Keeseekoowenin Ojibway First Nation from their homeland.
Rather, in 1936, park wardens forcibly expelled First Nations from the park and burned their homes. In addition to the removal of First Nations facilitating increased tourism in national parks, Dr. Sandlos notes that “senior officials and local agents in the Department of Indian Affairs supported the removal of the Keeseekoowenin Ojibway from a rich hunting and fishing ground because they thought such a move would bolster the department’s program of assimilating” Indigenous peoples. The flavour of conservation in the newly designated Riding Mountain National Park was one of colonial violence and parks agencies duplicated this approach across the continent.
A Fund for Wildlife
A year after park wardens expelled First Nations from their lands in Manitoba, lawmakers in the United States passed landmark conservation legislation in 1937. Officially called the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, the more popularly known Pittman-Robertson Act created a mechanism to generate ongoing funds to support restoration and improvement of wildlife habitat. The Act created a fund through an 11% federal excise tax on firearms, ammunition, and archery equipment and a 10% tax on handguns. The funds create the Wildlife Restoration Trust Fund and the Secretary of the Interior distributes the funds to states to use on wildlife conservation initiatives.
Keep in mind that the Act was created in the middle of the Great Depression. In the midst of global economic hardship, conservationists actively supported an additional tax to provide an ongoing source of revenue to support wildlife research and conservation. The Pittman-Robertson Act generated over one billion dollars each year in 2020 and 2021 alone. The Pittman-Robertson Act is so well celebrated that in 2022, when Republican Congressman Andrew Clyde and 53 of his myopic supporters introduced the Repealing Excise Tax on Unalienable Rights Now (RETURN) Act into Congress in an attempt to repeal the Pittman-Robertson Act, hunters and conservationists were quick to point out that even 85 years later, they still strongly supported the highly successful revenue generation mechanism.
Political activism created and safeguarded the Pittman-Robertson Act.
Shared Times, Different Issues
From meeting rooms in New York to forests in Manitoba to congressional halls in Washington, D.C., decisions and policies affecting land and conservation have involved Treaties (some upheld, many broken), colonialism, wildlife research and restoration, forcible displacement, and a range of juxtaposed themes that characterize the history of North American conservation. These examples illustrate the intertwined history of environmental and social-political complexities and demonstrate that cultural paradigms deeply impact conservation policies.
Only a couple of years after Rosalie Edge challenged the room full of men at the National Association of Audubon Societies meeting in New York, a movement emerged against the rise of fascism in Europe. In Germany in 1931, a group of social democrats, trade unionists, and other liberal groups came together as the Iron Front. The Iron Front took a fierce stand against totalitarian movements of all kinds and opposed Nazism as Hitler’s power grew in Germany during the 1932 elections. The Iron Front’s logo became the “Three Arrows,” which came to be recognized and used as a widespread symbol against fascism, communism, and to represent the strength of the working class.
Connections between political movements to oppose fascism in Europe and the North American conservation movement might not be immediately apparent. However, everything we do is influenced by the wider context within which we live. Our actions, beliefs, and movements do not exist in a contextual vacuum. Rather, the larger social and political events of our time influence the way we see the world, shape our ideas, and sculpt the lens through which we understand the significance of issues and the possibilities and opportunities available to us to take action. In North America, when lawmakers and governments wove colonialism through every fabric of governance in our countries, conservation paradigms and policies also reflected and institutionalized that ideology.
What can we learn from the shared history of colonial conservation policies in North America and the rise of movements to oppose fascism in Europe? How can this parallel history help inform an approach to conservation in the 21st century?
If we want justice in other areas of our society, we also need to deal with justice in our conservation movements. Conversely, if we want successful conservation movements that do not perpetuate colonial injustices, we need to actively remove colonial ideologies from conservation actions and reshape them to reflect the values we want.
Conservation, Community, and Justice
I have spent a lot of time thinking about what conservation action means to me.
Conservation requires effective policies and in democracies, social values always shape policies. If we want conservation policies that maintain biodiversity and healthy landscapes, we need to engage people and advocate for policy change.
I have always seen conservation as a type of social and political activism in addition to a form of environmentalism. Some of the most influential ideas that I’ve applied to my conservation thinking and work come from feminist, Indigenous, and anti-colonial theories and practice. I don’t believe that a form of conservation that includes forcible displacement of communities, systemic exclusion based on class or race, one that enforces misogyny and sexist stereotypes, or that sees humans and nature as incompatible is the type of conservation that will succeed.
In fact, the concept of a “pristine” or “untouched” ecosystem is a romantic ideal that has never existed in the way early conservation movements and colonial ideologies used to justify their policies. Globally, successful conservation initiatives involve local communities and their priorities, needs, and knowledge. In fact, research has found that human societies have been “shaping and sustaining diverse cultural natures” across 75-95% of global terrestrial areas for over 12,000 years. Areas of the planet under Indigenous management have some of the highest biodiversity on the planet, and “empowering the environmental stewardship of Indigenous peoples and local communities will be critical to conserving biodiversity across the planet.”
Therefore, good and effective conservation must meaningfully include and empower people; this can not happen in circumstances of exclusion and injustice.
As I thought about these things, I wanted a way to demonstrate that the human and ecological dimensions of conservation and justice are integrated issues and that doing good conservation work means we can no longer afford to compartmentalize them. I worked with a friend who runs the nature-based graphic design company Huegel Design Co. to come up with an icon to communicate the values I want to represent in my conservation advocacy and work.
We designed an adaptation of the Three Arrows logo composed of three quill pens to represent and communicate three core values that are always present in the work I do: conservation, community, and justice.
Conservation with Integrity
My goal in using this icon is to make a clear statement that I always consider community and justice issues when I think, write, and speak about conservation. It is also a commitment to recognize the impacts of my words and actions on the social-political circumstances intertwined with conservation issues.
In thinking about the relationship between the values of conservation, community, and justice, I am inspired by feminist scholar bell hooks’s discussion of the concept of integrity. In her book The Will to Change, bell hooks looks at the concept of integrity through its literal meaning “to integrate,” or the opposite of compartmentalizing. hooks suggests that “compartmentalization is a way to avoid feeling pain.” To this, I add that compartmentalizing ideas and issues can be a way to avoid – subconsciously or deliberately – discomfort or facing things that are inconvenient to our cognitive organization. Therefore, as hooks says, “to practice integrity, then, is difficult; it hurts.”
To me, practicing integrity in conservation means de-compartmentalizing the social-political and ecological dimensions and impacts of our decisions. When we say “the personal is political is personal,” this is what we mean: our personal identities mean we relate to political structures in different ways, and what happens politically has implications for our local and personal circumstances. Good conservation must account for personal and political justice considerations.
In current conservation efforts, we must explicitly consider the impacts of conservation planning on Indigenous land rights, something the LandBack movement has called attention to for years. We need to examine the history of hunting and conservation that created systemic barriers for People of Colour and women, something organizations such as Hunters of Color and Brown Girl Outdoor World are working hard to address. We need to understand that the cultural history of hunting and outdoors activities have not been welcoming to the LGBTQ+ community, something that LGBT Outdoors is addressing through their work to increase access and visibility.
The three quills icon reminds me that when I fight for conservation issues, I can not conveniently compartmentalize my obligations to community and the political justice implications of what I want to achieve. It reminds me that when I advocate for particular conservation issues, I need to examine how they affect local communities and different groups of people, their rights, and their ability to be included meaningfully.
I see conservation as activism and as something that requires political dissent.
Conservationists from Alexander von Humboldt to Rosalie Edge have been considered heretics, fools, and nuisances to political power. They have also given us what would come to be recognized as some of the most important ideas and contributions to conservation. Rosalie Edge cared deeply about birds. But it was her experience with political activism in fighting for women achieving the right to vote that taught her how to make change. On Rosalie Edge’s legacy, Dyana Furmansky tells us that “Edge, more than any other person of her day shaped the first generation of environmental activists…”
I guess one of the final questions is: Why does this matter? Does it make any difference to do conservation with an explicit consideration of social and political justice?
The things we choose to see affects the work we do and the nature of the outcomes we achieve. We can choose to create a contrived and compartmentalized idea of conservation that pretends conservation is only concerned with biological and ecological factors. But historical evidence doesn’t support this understanding of conservation. The history of conservation is a story of people fighting for justice – for themselves and the landscape. To ignore people and the political justice implications of conservation is to choose to not see.
In his book An Immense World, Ed Yong examines the incredible diversity of senses in the animal kingdom and how animals use their senses to navigate the world and interact with each other. In his discussion of eyesight, he notes that pollinator species can see in a colour spectrum that is specially adapted to see the vibrant colours of the flowers they pollinate. However, the beautiful match between insect eyesight and flower colours did not happen the way we might assume.
Yong tells us that the specially suited eyesight of bees and other insects evolved “hundreds of millions of years before the first flowers appeared, so the latter must have evolved to suit the former. Flowers evolved colors that ideally tickle insect eyes.”
So, insects saw the world in a certain way and looked for things around them that fit their vision. Yong continues, explaining that “over time, the simple act of seeing recolors the world. Guided by evolution, eyes are living paintbrushes…Beauty is not only in the eye of the beholder. It arises because of that eye.”
As insects saw the world through a particular lens, the world changed.
What we look for, see, and pay attention to changes the world. If we choose to see the full spectrum of conservation issues and implications, we can create a conservation movement that ensures justice for both human communities and the landscape.