“This land was made for you and me.” Over the years, this Woodie Guthrie lyric has become an anthem of our nation’s land conservation community.
But the murder of George Floyd, on the heels of countless other tragic acts of violence perpetrated upon black people at the hands of civil authorities, have me questioning the unifying, optimistic sentiment. Is our nation’s land really meant for all? Our history proves otherwise.
When we in this community talk about land, we prescribe certain
values: clean water, clean air, access to recreation, etc. And while we
can agree that these values are universally critical in supporting
health and wellbeing for all, we must also acknowledge and respect the
possibility that history and current circumstances influence the way
others relate to the land. The times in which we are living require us
to dig deeper into the role land and land ownership have played in
creating the divides that are plaguing our nation today.
We in the land community have an obligation to open our minds to better understand the complex and, at times racist, history of land use.
From our origins, land ownership and related practices have been translated into power and used to oppress, to deny rights, and to segregate. Generations of black people were enslaved to work the fields, while native people were manipulated and forced to vacate their ancestral land.
Over the course of time, these racist tendencies prevailed. From denying voting rights to non-landowners to racially motivated redlining, our nation has used land practices and policies to diminish people’s rights and wield power over them.
These actions and many more have resulted in enduring systemic racism and economic disparity. Today, migrant farmworkers laboring on the land are denied security and tolerable working conditions, and culturally significant lands are being destroyed and stripped of precious resources. And even now, for reasons stemming from economic factors or proximity, entire black communities are denied the considerable benefits derived from parks and the outdoors.
We in the land community have an obligation to open our minds to better understand the complex and, at times racist, history of land use. In order to repair damage done by a system from which we have all benefited, we must commit to do more, to take on issues of environmental justice, particularly as they relate to clean water, clean air, and climate protection. And we must also work to create more green spaces, and ensure that they are safe and welcoming, particularly in heavily populated areas — so that more people can enjoy the physical and emotional benefits of nature.
In doing so, we can live up to the promise of the old folk song — creating a nation where the land can, and will, belong to all of us, together.
As always, thank you for your friendship, support, and partnership.
President and CEO