Decolonizing our public lands work
by Meriel Darzen | September 15, 2023
At our staff retreat in March, Crag’s legal team met to discuss and brainstorm how to decolonize our public lands work. Photo by Aditya Bhatia on Pexels
As one of Crag’s staff attorneys who works primarily on public lands issues, I continue to ask myself: how can we decolonize our public lands work? I think it’s a challenging and complex issue, but one that is important to grapple with. At our staff retreat in March, our legal team met to discuss and brainstorm how to meaningfully engage in this work.
Here are three fundamental principles that we keep coming back to:
At our staff retreat in March 2023, Crag’s legal team met to discuss and brainstorm how to decolonize our public lands work. Here’s a photo of some of the Crag team during our retreat.
First, we need to view humans as part of nature, rather than separate from it.
As Chief Seattle said,
This we know: the earth does not belong to man: man belongs to the earth . . . Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life: he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
“This we know: the earth does not belong to man: man belongs to the earth . . . Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life: he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”
– Chief Seattle
Source: Letter from Chief Seattle, patriarch of the Duwamish and Squamish Indians of Puget Sound to U.S. President Franklin Pierce (1855). Although the letter appears in numerous anthologies, the original has never been located.
With white settlers’ colonization of the United States, this biocentric philosophy was replaced with an anthropocentric one. But today we recognize that our environmentalism must be committed to not just protecting fish and trees. We must also strive to protect the communities who live, work, and play in these places.
Second, we must understand the colonialist roots of our public lands laws.
Today’s public lands management is grounded in laws passed decades or even centuries ago. These laws are primarily extractive and are rooted in principles of Western land ownership and dominance over nature.
At the same time, we must acknowledge that the modern conservation movement has a history of racism and misogyny that has harmed Black, indigenous, and other communities of color that lived, worked, and celebrated the very lands the conservationists sought to protect. As a result, when we work with conservation organizations and in our own approaches to land issues, we must acknowledge how many environmental “priorities and patterns of thought came from an argument among white people, some of them bigots and racial engineers, about the character and future of a country that they were sure was theirs and expected to keep,” as Sharon Buccino shared in her recent law review article.
Third, we need to slow down and disrupt the “savior” mentality.
And it’s not easy. When it feels like our public lands and wildlife are under “attack,” the desire to go charging forward to “save” those lands from the chainsaw can be strong. But this mindset is actually an echo of colonialism that infected the early conservationist movement. Instead, we need to use an intersectional environmental and environmental justice mindset.
Me and Oliver outside the Eugene federal courthouse after oral arguments this summer.
At Crag, that means we start by trying to be mindful about each situation and look more broadly at the voices that might not be heard by either the decision-makers or our clients and fellow advocacy communities. For example, we strive to bring indigenous voices to the forefront when it comes to decision-making about public lands. That can be challenging when we, as litigators, often do not get involved until the decisions are already made and our clients are ready to proceed to court. However, through continued trust-building with Tribal partners on the part of both Crag and our clients we are trying to adjust our approach to ensure that the benefits of environmental conservation and advocacy are shared equitably and centered around Tribal needs and values, as well as those of other marginalized communities.
Decolonizing public lands is a process of learning and unlearning.
It’s challenging work and we do not have all the answers. But as a rising tide lifts all boats, prioritizing equity in our legal work is our only path forward.
- To find out more about equity and public lands management, a resource we have appreciated is the Wilderness Society’s Public Lands Curriculum, available at: https://www.wilderness.org/articles/article/public-lands-united-states-curriculum
- Some of the ideas in this article came from the following, also great places to learn more:
- Sharon Buccino, “Our Children’s Future: Apply Intergenerational Equity to Public Land Management”, Colorado Natural Resources, Energy & Environmental Law Review Vol 33:3 (2020).
- Environmentalism’s Racist History: https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/environmentalisms-racist-history