Nature: Is Preservation for the Privileged?

Authored by: Jeffrey Ho.

I spent my childhood surrounded by nature – climbing trees, swimming in lakes, and searching for animals (but never trying to catch them) – and I’ll never forget the first time I visited the western United States. When I first saw the Grand Canyon and rode along the Colorado River, it was beyond breathtaking. Seeing the towering cliffs and majestic landscape confirmed for me what I had already known: I loved the natural world, and we had to protect these amazing places. Every year after that, I traveled to a different part of the world and fell in love with the outdoors and outdoor sports.

Working for a conservation nonprofit like The Nature Conservancy has been an amazing experience. My time with The Nature Conservancy has taught me so much about the environmental nonprofit world and how it works–from raising money from potential wealthy donors, to lobbying key legislators on Capitol Hill, to establishing the framework and structure for the conservation of important natural areas. Yet most importantly, my experience has taught me to think more about my role in everything. The truth is that my time with The Nature Conservancy and DukeEngage, paradoxically, has led me to question the environmental movement more than ever, particularly as it relates to concepts of privilege.
One issue that has stuck out to me particularly was learning about a recent push to protect the Owyhee Canyonlands, a beautiful natural area in eastern Oregon that was the subject of intense controversy in the state. Upon learning more about the issue, I realized why Owyhee was such a controversial issue. The residents in the nearby surrounding region, who had lived as ranchers near the canyons for generations, strongly opposed the conservation plans because they feared doing so would threaten their jobs and way of life. On the other hand, conservationists in support of the protection plans, a group that I once identified strongly with, argue that as one of the few remaining natural areas in the world, Owyhee needs to be protected from the encroachment of technology and development.
This is a difficult question to grapple with: why should the wealthy, urban Portlanders, who visit these natural locations for vacation and to have fun, have a greater say in the areas than the individuals who actually live, work, and die there? It’s no surprise that the environmental movement has received wide criticism for its elitism, and historically, the movement has been dominated by the privileged members of society with significant barriers to minority and low-income participation.
Not to be misunderstood, I am still an avid supporter of environmental stewardship and believe that it is our responsibility to protect our planet. And of course, the truth, as the environmental justice movement points out, is that the vast majority of environmental problems disproportionately hurt the less privileged, be it through air or water contamination, rising sea levels, the loss of natural resources, etc. Nonetheless, I think I have come to recognize that it is incredibly important for the environmental movement to work from the ground up. Environmental policy should not be determined by the wealthy elite in their ivory towers, but rather by everyone on the planet, especially those on the ground who live and breathe nature every day.
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