The local chapter’s decision comes amid a reckoning with hard truths about America’s environmental idols.
Madison Audubon announced plans on Feb. 16 to change its name in an effort to foster inclusion and repair harm done by the racist legacy of famed ornithologist John James Audubon.
The move was in the works ahead of a March 12 announcement from the National Audubon Society that, after more than a year of consideration, it would retain its name. The organization, named for a man considered to be the father of American birding, was founded in 1905, 54 years after his death. Audubon disseminated his illustrations of birds through the seminal work Birds Of America, printed as a series across 13 years, ending in 1838.
In recent years, it’s become more common knowledge that Audubon bought, enslaved, and sold people, and desecrated graves of Native Americans to collect their skulls, according to information Madison Audubon shared on a page on its website explaining the name change. He also fabricated bird species for financial and social gain.
Madison Audubon’s decision to find a new name—a process that will unfold in coming months with input from its board of directors, membership, and the community—is in line with the organization’s values of respect for nature and diversity, equity and inclusion, the group said in a release. Madison Audubon was founded as the Madison Bird Club in 1935, and then adopted the Audubon name upon becoming an official chapter in 1949.
“It’s the kind of change that we really do need,” says Jeff Galligan, Madison Audubon Society executive board secretary and founder of BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin. “You can talk all you want, but you’ve got to put up some action too, and even take the risk, because it can be a risky thing to go into that kind of topic, especially in this country.”
Madison Audubon is joining chapters in cities like Seattle, Chicago, Portland, and Washington, D.C. in breaking from the Audubon name. The Leesburg, Virginia, Audubon Naturalist Society successfully changed its name to Nature Forward in the fall of 2022.
The local organization may work with other chapters to find a name that can be adopted fully or in part by a larger group of chapters. If that process isn’t in alignment with the local group’s values, they’ll independently identify a new name within the year, Madison Audubon Executive Director Matt Reetz says.
Madison Audubon’s role in local conservation and education includes classroom education, a free virtual summer camp, and teaching materials for educators and parents. The organization also holds bird- and nature-related community events and classes. Since 2014, they’ve partnered with Madison’s Operation Fresh Start to help disconnected youth learn skills to enter the conservation workforce. The group is also a nationally accredited land trust that purchases and restores land in 10 counties in Southern Wisconsin which are open to the public.
As part of its affiliation with National Audubon, the Madison group gets limited financial support like grant opportunities and a small share of dues from members who live in its service area, though it’s less than 1% of the local chapter’s annual budget, Reetz says. The national organization also works with chapters on policy issues that involve legislators from areas covered by certain chapters.
“Whether we continue the affiliation is a board-level decision and they haven’t yet had time to consider it,” Reetz says.
The move toward safer natural spaces for BIPOC people has been a slow progression.
Galligan co-founded BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin in the summer of 2021. In the wake of George Floyd and Ahmad Arbery’s murders, as well as a white woman dishonestly calling the police on Black birder Christian Cooper in New York City’s Central Park in 2020, Galligan was inspired to form a community of color in the outdoors.
“[The outdoors has] not been a space for people that are not white, traditionally. And I wanted to find a place where people felt safe and comfortable exploring the outdoors, even if they have no prior experience,” Galligan says.
BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin has monthly events. The group added a Milwaukee chapter in October 2021.
At the same time, other environmental organizations have been examining their heroes’ pasts. The Sierra Club’s executive director published a July 2020 article calling into question the racist behavior of founding father John Muir. In early 2021, J. Drew Lanham, a conservation ornithologist, faculty at Clemson University, and a former board member of the National Audubon Society, wrote an article in the Spring 2021 issue of Audubon magazine titled “What Do We Do About John James Audubon?”
In the article, Lantham reveals Audubon was the child of a French ship captain father and a French or Haitian Creole mother who passed as white. He recounts a story published by Audubon about meeting a family of runaway slaves who’d been sold apart from each other and then reassembled. They offered him food and shelter. The next day, Audubon returned them to their original master.
The history of racism in outdoor spaces extends beyond Audubon. Lynchings generally occurred in natural spaces. Socioeconomic status and access to transportation have historically prevented BIPOC people from accessing the outdoors. Redlining has prevented many BIPOC homeowners access to land ownership near green spaces. U.S. beaches, parks and lakes were segregated until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Today, nature areas, like parks and forests, are often in rural places with populations that don’t exactly champion racial equity. Being in nature spaces can leave BIPOC people vulnerable to attacks by racists. The establishment of America’s national park system was also intertwined from the start with the genocide and displacement of Indigenous people.
The U.S. Forest Service reports that Black or African-American people—13% of the population—made up only 1 percent of National Forest visits in 2010, according to the most recent data. Hispanics or Latinos, who are nearly 17 percent of the population, accounted for less than 7 percent of visitors.
But Indigenous people’s connection to public lands is changing at the federal level.In fact, the U.S.’s first Native American Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Deb Haaland, a member of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo, and the first Native American head of the National Park Service, Chuck Saams, an enrolled member, Cayuse and Walla Walla, of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, were both appointed in 2021. In September 2022, the National Park Service, released new guidance for co-stewardship of some national park lands and waters by Indigenous groups.
The anti-racist reckoning surrounding white male nature and conservation folk heroes like Audubon and Muir is indicative of a society-wide shift.
“There’s the potential to really usher in a new age of environmentalism that is severing those ties with white supremacy,” says Elizabeth Hennessy, a professor of history and environmental studies at UW-Madison. “And it was really recognizing the work of people of color, who have been activists and scientists who are working in this field and have been for a really long time.”
Hennessy hopes BIPOC people will have space to take a more public leadership role in national organizations. “There’s certainly growing pains to go through to get to that place,” she says.
“The name change really signifies a willingness to at least acknowledge the wrongs of the past and the people that have committed them,” Galligan says. Doing so truly welcomes BIPOC people rather than expecting them to make the first move, he says. “I think it’ll attract a lot of new people, a lot of diverse people, a lot of younger people. The demographics of membership might change a little because of this, and that’s a good thing.”