Fearless Conservation - Columbia Land Trust
Executive Director Glenn Lamb on racism, the outdoors, and conservation

My favorite run takes me through the Oaks Bottom Wildlife area in southeast Portland. I often hear frogs and songbirds. I’ve seen pileated woodpeckers and eagles and deer and coyote.

Such a run is a balm for my soul. Especially these days. I eagerly anticipate when my route turns off the road and down the narrow trail into the woods.

Entering the woods I sometimes think of the late Charles Jordan, former director of Portland Parks and an ardent conservationist. In the late 1990s, Charles gathered me and about ten other people for a series of meetings. His assignment for us was to determine why the conservation movement included so few people of color and to find ways to diversify the movement.

We identified barriers to access to outdoor school and subsequently missed stepping stones like coursework and internships and inside connections. We talked about ensuring that everyone should have access to outdoor school. We talked about creating focused internship opportunities. We understood the importance of relationships. Some progress has been made in these areas.

But this past weekend, after Christian Cooper, a black man with a passion for birding, was threatened in a wildlife area in Central Park, I was reminded of Charles telling me that as a black American kid in the south, the woods was a scary place—not because of the wildness of it, but because of the prospect of racist violence.

And earlier this year Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed as he ran for exercise, the same activity that is the daily balm in my life. This is of course not just a southern problem as demonstrated recently with the killings of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and George Floyd in Minneapolis. And the Northwest has its own deeply troubling history with racism, violence, and exclusion.

All of this brings new meaning to the Columbia Land Trust concept of fearless conservation. What can I really know about the fear that many face in simply venturing into the woods? The fear of having people see me outdoors and assuming the worst intentions based on my skin color.

So what to do? I return to Charles’s assignment.

It is easy for the problem to feel too big, too unapproachable. But like most challenges, the answers can indeed start with each of us and our relationships.

For me, it means yes, supporting Outdoor School for All. Yes, it means internship programs supporting historically marginalized youth. It means elevating voices that are often left out of (or talked over during) conversations about conservation. And it means standing up and supporting, in real-time, people threatened by racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia wherever we see it. Because if we, Columbia Land Trust and the conservation movement at large, remain silent, we are helping to perpetuate the racist systems and behaviors that permeate this country. We are part of the problem. We cannot realize a vision of a thriving natural world while people are not safe to simply enjoy, care for, and be nourished by nature—as well.  Mutual thriving is our goal.

You tell me: what does truly fearless conservation mean to you?

Because as long as people fear that the everyday act of venturing outside could be perceived as a threat and met with violence—as long as the outdoors are clearly not safe and inclusive spaces for everyone—we still have plenty of work to do.