Reckoning with the racist legacy of Wisconsin’s conservation heroes

What our trite celebrations of Earth Day tend to erase.
A misty photo of the mountains is overlaid with text of a modified quote, in imitation of inspirational-quote memes: "'The mountains are calling and I must go [be really racist]' —John Muir." Text in the bottom left-hand corner reads "EnviroQuote.com."
Source photo by Simon Berger via Unsplash. Image description: A misty photo of the mountains is overlaid with text of a modified quote, in imitation of inspirational-quote memes: “‘The mountains are calling and I must go [be really racist]’ —John Muir.” Text in the bottom left-hand corner reads “EnviroQuote.com.” 

What our trite celebrations of Earth Day tend to erase.

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

Every time I see a John Muir quote, I cringe. It was his birthday last week, the day before Earth Day. The quotes were everywhere—typewriter font on black and white photographs. 

April is Earth Month, a month spun around a day created by Gaylord Nelson, a Senator from the state of Wisconsin, in 1970. Wisconsin is proud of the role it played in the conservation movement. As a child of Madison, I learned about it in fourth grade state history and in family lore. 

Wisconsin progressives were deeply involved in the conservation movement of the late-19th and 20th centuries. Muir, who went on to found the Sierra Club, grew up near Portage and went to the University of Wisconsin. Aldo Leopold moved to Madison later in his career, eventually becoming research director of the UW-Madison Arboretum. To this day, we still talk about Muir and Leopold and their contemporaries like folk heroes in Madison. Golden boys who rewrote the rules of how people engage with the land.


But the conservation movement was deeply flawed—full of racist, eugenicist men whose goals were often to build a kind of wilderness that benefited them. This left a legacy of Native erasure and white supremacy in environmentalism that contributed to our current environmental and climate crises.

Both Leopold and Muir dehumanized Native people. “The only hunting I’ve done this month is for Indians,” Leopold wrote to his brother in 1909, while complaining that Native people were poaching, as Leopold hunted. Muir was even more egregious. He consistently disparaged Native people’s physical appearance, and wrote such things as: They “seemed to have no right place in the landscape.”

Both saw themselves as superior and Indigenous communities as a kind of blemish on the wilderness. This was a common refrain of White environmentalists at the time. Teddy Roosevelt’s close friend and conservation chief was a member of eugenics societies and Roosevelt himself voiced that, “I wish very much that the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding.”

Nobody puts any of those quotes into Canva for a cute little Instagram post. 

Now, none of this is breaking news. Indigenous people and environmental justice communities have been calling out the falseness of these conservation idols for over a century.

The true story of environmentalism in Wisconsin has always been led by Indigenous people. Long before settlers arrived, Native people cultivated the land. Today, Indigenous people in Wisconsin lead the way on climate adaptation as they fight to save forests and traditions much older than the conservation movement. It feels long overdue to stop posting John Muir quotes and ask Native people: What do you need? What does the land need? And then give it. Whether it’s landback or money or an extra set of hands.

I spend a lot of time thinking about my role as a White person from the suburbs of Madison writing about the environment. I try to place myself in the landscape as much as I can. I try to learn the histories of native ecosystems and build relationships with plants. But of course, none of that absolves the sin of my presence here. 

The degradation of the landscape in Wisconsin since the arrival of White Europeans is unfathomable. There were 2.1 million acres of Indigenous-managed prairie in Wisconsin when settlers arrived. Less than 10,000 acres remain today.

Building a better future doesn’t work if we aren’t honest about our past. Dane County, in particular, has positioned itself as a leader in municipal climate action. In order for the requisite realignment of humans as part of nature rather than separate from it to happen, we must acknowledge all that has been erased.

We have to stop thinking of ourselves as separate from the land—whether that’s as people with the power to bulldoze whole ecosystems or some paternalistic land ethic that appoints us protectors of non-human beings that know way more than we ever could. It’s time to step out of the way, and let conservation in Wisconsin fully return to its roots, while we still have an Earth to celebrate.

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