Lessons in justice from three outdoor experiences

Like many, recent events have caused me, as a white person, to ask myself what I can and should do differently in my own personal and professional life to fight for justice.

I’m immersing myself in new readings and podcasts, turning out for protests and donating to new organizations, but I know here’s much more I can and should do to become a better ally and advocate for the cause of ending systemic racism.

One of the steps I’m taking is to re-examine some of the defining moments and places that shaped my identity through a new, broader lens that considers both my white privilege and a fuller understanding of history, including of my own life’s journey. As an outdoors enthusiast and someone that advocates within the world of conservation, this includes taking a fresh look at my time in the outdoors where I have sought adventure, solitude and spiritual renewal. These experiences fostered my passion for conservation and led to a career working in environmental advocacy, but looking back now, I also see more clearly the tremendous privilege I enjoyed as a white male and the ignorance I too often had of the real history of place.

Yellowstone National Park (1988)

During one of my college summers, I worked in Yellowstone National Park, bussing tables in the Grant Village restaurant. The hours were long and the pay was paltry, but the reward was being able to take nearly three days off each week to experience this mesmerizing landscape, its wildlife, geothermal features and more. I found that I could, even amidst one of our nation’s busiest parks, escape the throngs by heading just a few miles away from the roads into the backcountry .

Upper Falls, Yellowstone National Park (Flickr: Jerry and Pat Donaho)

As a kid from New Jersey with limited outdoor skills, that summer was an initial chance to learn the basics of outdoors survival, including what to cook, how to pack, and ways to stay safe on a multi-day backpacking trip. That summer changed the course of my life and deepened my interest in doing environmental work. But I can also now see what a privilege it was to simply be able to seek a job like that, having less financial pressure than so many others because my parents were paying my college tuition, because I didn’t have to consider my safety traveling across country, and because the suburban community I came from gave me advantages like an education, early job experiences and much else to even enable me to land the job in the first place. In considering now our responsibility within the environmental movement to attract, hire and retain more Black men and women, I’m convinced providing more opportunities for kids and teens of color to meaningfully connect to the natural world is one important step.

Another observation about that summer: I learned about Yellowstone’s conservation history, including its enacting legislation by Ulysses S. Grant, but not much about the Indigenous peoples who lived in and around the area for more than 10,000 years including the Cheyenne, Shoshone, Blackfeet, and the more than 20 other tribes that have ancestral connections to those lands they consider sacred.

One of my favorite day hikes that summer was Avalanche Peak, which retained enough snow that we could use plastic bags as makeshift sleds to careen down one of its high slopes. Across from its summit we could look across at Mount Doane, named for Lieutenant Gustavus Cheyney Doane — a captain in the U.S. Army Cavalry and explorer — who led the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition of Yellowstone and whose subsequent report led to the establishment of Yellowstone National Park. What I didn’t know then is that Doane played a leading role in the Marias Massacre — an attack on a non-hostile Blackfoot Indian encampment on the Marias River that killed as many as 200 Blackfeet people in northern Montana, predominantly sleeping women and children, and elderly men .

A view from Avalanche Peak, which offers a vantage point of Mount Doane, named for Lieutenant Gustavus Cheyney Doane, in Yellowstone National Park, 1988. (Adam Kolton)
A small note (left) on the Marias Massacre written up inThe New York Times, next to an artist’s depiction of the massacre via Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Today, increasingly informed by my opportunity to learn from the Indigenous peoples of Alaska, I understand how vital it is to ensure a fuller understanding of conservation history, to understand the impact the conservation movement has had on Indigenous peoples, and the importance of honoring and respecting the traditions and cultures of the Indigenous peoples who have stewarded these lands for centuries.

The Confluence of two Rivers (2000)

In 2000, I proposed to my wife of at Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia. After some modest hiking along the Appalachian Trial that was cut short by the threat of thunderstorms, I surprised her with a ring hidden in a binoculars case on the precise spot where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers came together. The symbolism was of two joining into one, yet in the years since, I have learned much more about white abolitionist crusader John Brown’s unsuccessful raid on the federal arsenal there and am drawing new inspiration from the place of our engagement .

Laura and I, post-engagement, near Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. (Adam Kolton)

Brown was a complicated figure to be sure, but he believed it was his moral responsibility to fight slavery at any cost, at a time when many others were content to try and limit its spread to new territories and states .

John Brown, left, advocated the use of armed insurrection to overthrow the institution of slavery in the United States. In October 1859, Brown led a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (today West Virginia). (Flickr, right: Tracy Keller)

I wonder, can Laura and I now look at this special place as foundational in a renewed journey that includes standing, increasingly, against injustice?

Crow Pass, Chugach State Forest (1990s)

On one of my first trips to Alaska while working for the Alaska Wilderness League, I asked for day hike recommendations and ended up driving toward Girdwood and heading out on the Crow Pass trail that gradually gave way to beautiful alpine views. The scenery was captivating, and the experience was more than thrilling — but after hours of seeing no other hikers and lots of bear scat, I became fearful and turned around well before the destination I originally intended.

As time went on, I have learned how to better prepare for bear encounters., When a grizzly came too close for comfort during a backpacking trip in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge foothills, my hiking partner Beth and I seemingly followed the proper playbook. With pepper spray at the ready, we waved our arms to look bigger, took a couple slow steps back while still facing the bear, speaking loudly and avoiding panic, even as it moved deliberately toward us and elevated on its hind legs. The bear eventually left the scene after what felt like an eternity, but we were so badly shaken that we hiked all through the midnight sun illuminated night.

Being white, I can’t know or comprehend the degree to which Black Americans must prepare for the unknown as they step outside their doors or how they may justifiably be fearful because of their surroundings in ways I needn’t be — my life experience simply can’t replicate the anxiety of simply jogging through a predominantly white neighborhood with dark skin, or the fear that any incident involving police could result in injury, or worse. . But in looking back on my feelings of unease in the wild and recalling my racing heart as I stood face to face with a brown bear reared up on its hind legs, bracing for it to charge, I wonder if I had even a tiny glimpse into what it might be like to feel unsafe in your surroundings, doing so many of the things that I take for granted each day?

My white privilege has enabled me to travel through life — save for a few bear encounters — with relatively little fear and anxiety. I realize now that I have a responsibility to use this privilege to stand up for the safety and well-being of people of color from not just brutal acts of police violence, but to fight against the systemic racism and our own ingrained prejudices that result in them being looked at as out of place when they walk on the “wrong” street or trailhead.

Alaska Wilderness League’s Commitment to Justice

Our team at Alaska Wilderness League, like many of our friends and colleagues, is horrified by the recent brutal killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and Rayshard Brooks.

Alaska Wilderness League statement on the killing of George Floyd

As we work to safeguard wild Alaska, we’re committed to doing our partto fight for justice, to advance equity in the outdoors and to build a more diverse, inclusive and powerful conservation movement.

We recognize that means reexamining the foundational stories of our organization and of wilderness advocacy itself. It also means centering our Indigenous allies in more of our work. And it will require authentic engagement with people of color as we broaden our base of members and activists.

Last year, our Board of Directors adopted a “Commitment to Justice” as a first step in what we see as a longer journey that we hope will transform Alaska Wilderness League into a more powerful and increasingly effective organization.

There’s lots of hard work to do and we’re feeling a sense of urgency about it, especially after recent events. We know this is a difficult and emotional time for many, but it is also a moment for myself — and my peers — to explore the true history and meaning behind the special places we strive to protect, and use that education to deepen our resolve in the fight for justice.

If you’re a member, supporter or Alaska Wilderness League activist we encourage you to join us in this journey to build a more just, equitable and diverse organization and conservation movement. One small step you can take is to support some of our indigenous partners and other colleague organizations working at the intersection of environmental protection and justice and others that work to connect people of color to the natural world.

In Alaska:

Gwich’in Steering Committee

Native Movement


Soul River

Outdoor Afro

Hip Hop Caucus

Green Latinos