This Land Is “Our Land”: Nationalism & Exclusion in Outdoor Recreation

Timberline lodge surrounded by snow with parked cars and ski tracks.

For the 2020 campaign season, the non-profit Protect Our Winters (POW) attempted to build a bipartisan coalition of environmentally conscious voters. To do so, they chose to embrace the American flag. Professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones founded POW in 2007, and although it embraces a broad range of environmental issues, it has one overarching goal: to protect outdoor, especially winter, recreation.

POW’s organizational model combines the cultural influence of professional outdoor athletes (ambassadors) and the economic power of the outdoor industry (the brand alliance). Money raised from the industry, grants, and individual donors fund climate research; the ambassadors flood social media with support for POW’s campaigns (like professional climber Tommy Caldwell’s post below); and POW sends lobbyists to Congress and statehouses to push for climate legislation.

Man jumps high in the air holding an American flag. Instagram post calling for environmental nationalism.

A Nationalist Call to Arms

This past year POW initiated a new campaign project that embraced a nationalist call to arms. The non-profit did market research determining that fifty million Americans spend the majority of their leisure time outdoors. They christened this group “the Outdoor State.” The American flag was meant to be a pragmatic way to bridge the gap between liberal and conservative outdoor recreationists. Jones told Outside Magazine that “it bothered [him] that the flag had become this divisive symbol. It would be awesome to take that back.” And taking it back, Jones reasoned, could create room for conservative outdoor recreationists to embrace public land protection.

Their 2020 strategic plan suggests that this model allows the organization to “punch above its weight,” and the mission statement argues that the world, the country, and outdoor recreation need big change, fast. This involves putting aside idealism for pragmatism.

Jones practices what he preaches, posting images of himself on social media with the U.S. flag. The campaign invigorated ambassadors who share Jones’s convictions while discouraging others who believe it undermines climate justice. But regardless of where individual athletes stand, POW’s environmental patriotism, and its correlating nationalism, are not new. These have been long-standing fixtures of America’s environmental movement. And this nationalist history does not always reflect well on environmentalists and outdoor recreationists.

Promoting Public Lands

POW is not alone in its turn to patriotism. In September of 2020, Patagonia, an early driver of green capitalism and corporate activism, released a free documentary on YouTube called Public Trust: The Fight for America’s Public Lands. It is a powerful piece. The film follows journalist Hal Herring as he investigates three current battles over public lands. Herring travels from Bears Ears National Monument north to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and back south to the Boundary Waters National Canoe Wilderness Area. Along the way he interviews Indigenous activists fighting to protect their cultural heritage, ranchers who graze cattle on federal land, and recreationists and sportsmen who live and breathe the outdoors.

Through Herring’s guidance, the film shows how these disparate groups have overlapping concerns. In the process, the film valorizes the idea that public lands are “our lands” and that all Americans are public land “owners.” The idea is that Americans must come together to protect our collective heritage and collective property. And it suggests (and POW agrees) that saving public lands correlates to fighting climate change.

The film (like POW) offers the possibility for a diverse coalition that eschews identity politics in favor of patriotism. At the end of the film, Herring makes a plea to all Americans to come out against Trump-era politics and big business and to embrace environment as an American ideal. He warns that to big business “your relationship to the natural world, to hunting, to fishing, to landscapes that have been in our blood since caveman days has no value.” But, he continues, everyone should have “an equal chance to experience American dirt, American air, American mountains, our own land.”

Nationalist environmental rhetoric is by definition not for all.

Despite Public Trust’s rave reviews, there is reason for skepticism. It would have been difficult to present a coalition if the film looked at issues like Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort’s use of reclaimed sewage water to make snow on the sacred San Francisco Peaks mountain range or the conflicts between climbers and members of various Indigenous nations at Devils Tower. Contrary to Herring’s statement, people’s relationship to the natural environment is big business. And it is important to remember that Patagonia, the film’s funder, is one of those companies. Neither Patagonia’s film nor POW’s “brand alliance” is purely altruistic. POW is far from evil and Patagonia takes its environmentalism and social justice initiatives seriously, but the nationalism that the film promotes, and that POW turned into a single-issue campaign, has a long and troubled history. 

The Patriotic Roots of Public Land Policy

The preservation of public lands began in 1872 when President Ulysses S. Grant signed legislation establishing Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in world history. As historian William Cronon noted in his essay “The Trouble with Wilderness,” early U.S. public land advocates understood people as the antithesis of untouched or natural beauty. Since sublime lands were unpeopled lands, those in power reasoned that the Ute, Shoshone, and other tribes who traditionally hunted and wintered in the new park needed to be removed. As Karl Jacoby argues, the federal government wanted people to visit these spaces, but they wanted to curate the experience. They felt their citizens should experience the rugged wilderness of the American frontier, and their curation of such a wilderness erased Indigenous presence on the land. 

In an essay on Yellowstone published roughly twenty years after its founding, John Muir celebrated the park’s “exciting wonders,” including the “wildest geysers” and “thousands of boiling springs.” But new laws that categorized Indigenous camps as squatters and Indigenous hunters as poachers effectively reserved the lands for white Americans. Approximately thirty years later, Theodore Roosevelt embraced public lands as a uniquely American ideal. For him, preserving wilderness meant preserving a distinctly American identity. As a result, he set aside 230 million acres of public lands. In a speech delivered at the Grand Canyon in 1903, on the rightful land of the Havasupai, President Roosevelt declared,

The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American if he can travel at all should see.

But, like Yellowstone, if “man could only mar” the canyon, then all people, including its long time Indigenous residents, had to go.

The second major expansion of public lands, and a moment of rapid growth for the outdoor recreation industry, occurred in the 1930s. The Civilian Conservation Corps, a work relief program devised during the Great Depression, filled public parks and forests with recreational infrastructure. The lodges they built, and the Alpine ski runs and hiking trails they cut became popular places for outdoor enthusiasts. However, the culture, industry, and infrastructure of outdoor recreation that emerged around Conservation Corps initiatives was far from inclusive. The majority of hotels, private clubs, and boarding houses surrounding public trails advertised themselves as “restricted,” a code word, which indicated that Black and Jewish guests were not welcome. While not always legislated as such, public lands, once again, were reserved for white outdoorsmen and women.

Continued Exclusions and Removals

Exclusions and removals of sorts continued through World War II and into the 1960s. Approximately sixty years after Roosevelt’s speech, President Lyndon Johnson delivered a similar sentiment in his “Message on Natural Beauty.” Johnson argued that “a growing population is swallowing up areas of natural beauty with its demands for living space and is placing increased demand on our overburdened areas of recreation and pleasure.” The supposed Malthusian crisis, he suggested, demanded a new conservation ethic. Not only must Americans preserve their natural heritage, they had to restore what had been destroyed. However, restoring natural beauty also meant removing people from ruined lands.

A black and white photo of a civilian conservation crew using hand tools to build a trail
Members of the Civilian Conservation Corps build Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park. Photo by National Park Service, circa 1930s.

While these issues are often seen in connection with the American West, the impacts of Johnson’s policy rippled out nationwide. For instance, in Warren County, New Jersey (along the Delaware River) the Army Corps of Engineers removed working-class and working-poor residents, bulldozing their houses to create a national recreation area, conveniently only two hours from New York City and Philadelphia. 

Both Roosevelt and Johnson were outdoor enthusiasts who saw the preservation of public lands as more important than the people it affected. And many (though not all) of those who frequented early ski hills, Conservation Corps lodges, and other recreational infrastructure were unapologetic nativists who felt that Jewish, Black, and Native American people were undeserving of public lands.

Although quieter, this practice has continued, often in ways that are quickly forgotten. For example, in the late 1990s, residents in Aspen, Colorado, increasingly blamed immigrant labor in the valley for increased air pollution and a growing population that they feared would ruin their pristine valley nestled into the White River National Forest. For a town whose culture is based in large part on outdoor recreation, the problem was paramount. In 1999, the environmentally conscious town of Aspen passed a resolution petitioning the U.S. government to develop stricter immigration laws. 

Aspen’s resolution stated, among other things, that “population growth generated by mass immigration to the United States causes increasing pressure on our environment and forces local governments and communities to spend taxpayer dollars.” Sociologists Lisa Sun-Hee Park and David Naguib Pellow argue that the resolution was once again thinly veiled Malthusianism. The underlying message was that only so many people could have access to Aspen’s isolated valley before it was ruined—and that access should be reserved for American citizens and their children, not for Latin American immigrants. 

Moving on from Environmental Nationalism

None of this is meant to suggest that the desire to create legislation or a voting base around environmental concerns is necessarily racist and anti-immigrant. Both POW and Patagonia have explicit platforms where they discuss the need for environmental and climate justice. And not all people who embrace environmentalism, patriotism, and nationalism are nativists like those who supported Aspen’s resolution in the 1990s or skied out of “restricted” lodges, boarding houses, and hotels in the 1930s.

It is time for outdoor recreationists and environmentalists to move on from nationalist rhetoric.

Yet there is a common language used across time by recreationists. Theodore Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, the Aspen resolution, and Hal Herring all invoke the heritage of American lands, reminding people that “our lands” are for “our children.” For Roosevelt, Indigenous people were not included in “our.” For Johnson, white working-class and working-poor families did not count. And for many Aspenites in the 1990s, who were passionate recreationists, immigrants ruined public lands. When POW presents the flag and when Patagonia highlights the importance of “our land,” it raises the question of who is truly considered a part of the nation and who is expendable for the sake of maintaining public lands and saving the climate. 

It is important to remember that for all the violence that has occurred due to the preservation of public lands, that does not mean the federal government should stop preserving them. Furthermore, POW and Patagonia do valuable work. Patagonia has funded and supported environmental action for over forty years, POW funds important climate research, and the community promotes civic engagement—as a member of the Outdoor Nation, my social media was swarmed by athletes’ photos and motivational videos like one by famous photographer Jimmy Chin urging Americans to go out and vote.

Still, Chin’s video and the Public Trust documentary ignore the violent history of what he quite literally calls our “common ground,” as though past wrongs can be righted through passionate statements about “our land” and with images of diverse athletes holding American flags. Chin’s video reinforces outdated ideas of the melting pot. Although he includes a single comment about how many Black Americans were brought forcibly to the United States, violent histories are washed over, suggesting that regardless of the past, everyone now has an equal claim to the land.

Nationalist rhetoric is by definition not for all. History suggests that certain classes and races of people are excluded, or at least must be removed, before they are welcomed back in (as we see with Public Trust‘s segments on Bears Ears and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge). The rhetoric of environmental patriotism is only a stone’s throw away from the type of environmental-nativist politics that has driven an unjust environmentalism for much of the past 150 years. If POW, Patagonia, and the outdoors activists who endorse them are seriously going to take on the historical foundations of environmental and climate injustice, it will take more than diverse spokespeople and discourses of inclusion. It is time for outdoor recreationists and environmentalists to move on from a stale and soiled nationalist rhetoric and take the risk of imagining a new way forward. 

Featured Image: Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood. Photo by Eric Prado, 2017.

Jesse Ritner is a graduate student studying the history of skiing and the environment. He is a passionate skier, hiker, and increasingly a climber. He studies at the University of Texas, Austin and is the 2020 American Meteorological Society Graduate Student Research Fellow. Twitter. Contact.