My host Dr. Kelli McMahan seemed to vibrate with enthusiasm. As she drove me from my hotel in Waco, Texas through the campus of Baylor University we watched an endless parade of young people in pursuit of knowledge and higher education.
“There is nothing more exciting than life on a college campus,” she said.
With obvious delight she smiled and shuttered with the tingling sensation of the very thought. Taking in the scene I couldn’t agree more as we rolled past white marble and red brick buildings teaming with impressionable students totting backpacks, peddling bicycles and kicking skateboards on their way to class. The image reminded me with fond memories of my own undergraduate career and that wonderful sense of optimism that still fuels so much of the passion that compels the course of my life to this day.
At the latest stop on a national book tour I found myself again inspired to continue the work of environmental advocacy through journalism and storytelling. Both at Baylor and a few days earlier at Colorado College in Colorado Springs I luxuriated in the presence of aspiring minds and the opportunity to test the presumptions of my beliefs in how we might work to protect and preserved our national heritage of wildlife conservation. At CC and Baylor I gave several talks on my work in diversity and inclusion as a means of contentious public land management. At the core of my belief is the understanding that the best way to protect the natural world is to make it welcoming and accessible to as many people as possible. I believe that we must especially work to invite and engage those who, due to cultural or socio-economic restrictions, are least likely to experience the outdoors.
Following one of my talks at Baylor a young lady in the audience asked, “Are you worried that some of your work will be undone by the new administration?”
With as much optimism as I could muster I tried to assure her and the other students that the new president would not likely overturn the many advances we have made in the preservation of our natural resources. I impressed upon them, however, the importance of continuing the effort to hold our elected officials accountable to their obligations of protecting the environment. Little did I realize though that my accertions were naive. A few hours earlier in Washington D.C. Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz presented to the House of Representative a piece of legislation called H.R. 861 “to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency”.
Filed on a Friday afternoon while much of the country was distracted by a variety of different interests, including the excitement of the Super Bowl that Sunday, I suspect that our Republican-led Congress hoped no one would notice. We can certainly debate the wisdom of terminating the EPA and deregulating systems of natural resource and public health management that have served the American people so well for almost half a century. But that conversation must include the collective participation of the nation as a whole. If we are indeed going to protect the natural environment for future generations we must make sure that we invite and encourage to participate as many people as possible to share their opinions and beliefs. A diverse and inclusive discussion on these topics is critical to our wellbeing as citizens in this country as well as a species on this planet.
Though little of my work to date directly involves the EPA I thoroughly support the principles of its mission. The thought of removing a bi-partisan federal agency charged “to protect human health and the environment” is difficult even to conceive. The purpose of my work in journalism is to engage a broad conversation on the importance of getting everyone involved in environmental protection. To betray a personal bias though I believe that the preservation of nature should be our highest priority as human beings. Our role as stewards of the land is to protect at all costs the biotic communities of soil, water, plants and animals because it is simply the right thing to do.
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” ~ Aldo Leopold
The division between those who choose to spend time in nature as stewards of the land and those who don’t often falls along racial lines, but not necessarily so. Inequities of access and rates of participation in the outdoors among all people I believe are due more to the formative years of a person’s upbringing. The presence of role models in their community that define positive values and personal priorities of the natural world are too often missing from the lives of many young people. I believe that if we can provide compelling narratives of adventure, exploration and stewardship in nature that includes characters that are representative of the population as whole we can inspire these students to consider the outdoors for both recreation and/or a professional career.
During my visit the Butler Center at Colorado College hosted a very thoughtful and engaging panel discussion. Through this organization that explores issues of equity and diversity in the campus community we talked about the many obstacles that prevent people of color from creating an enduring relationship with nature. Professor Claire Oberon Garcia and Associate Professor Jamal Ratchford challenged their students and me to think critically about the impacts of privilege and racial discrimination on the choices we make in how we spend our leisure time or pursue vocational training.
Dr. Garcia in particular made the point that we cannot presume that those who choose not to spend time in “the Great Outdoors”, as defined by popular culture and the media, don’t spend time outside. A person’s association with the natural world must not be limited exclusively to visits to our national parks or rigorous pursuits like rock climbing, backpacking, rafting or mountain biking. Urban green spaces and community gardens are no less valid expressions of environmental stewardship. They too should be acknowledged and encouraged so that everyone may come to realize they also have a place in nature. And as citizens of the biotic community we all share an obligation, an imperative to protect the environment.
As I continue through the next phase of my work in this field I sincerely look forward to more conversations like these with students. It is only through the thoughtful exchange of ideas that we can discover how we might best work together toward our common goals of environmental protection. Now that the federal agency charged to achieve that objective is at risk it is imperative that each of us to share our passionate desire to protect the natural world. Because we all require fresh air, clean water, nutritious food and open space in order to survive I believe that the American people must stand together to do what is right.
“We are the ancestors of the future and what we do now will have an impact.” ~Luisah Teish
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