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No one is more important to the history of environmental conservation than John Muir — the “wilderness prophet,” “patron saint of the American wilderness” and “father of the national parks” who founded the nation’s oldest conservation organization, the Sierra Club. But on Wednesday, citing the current racial reckoning, the group announced it will end its blind reverence to a figure who was also racist.

 

As Confederate statues fall across the country, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in an early morning post on the group’s website, “it’s time to take down some of our own monuments, starting with some truth-telling about the Sierra Club’s early history.” Muir, who fought to preserve Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Forest, once referred to African Americans as lazy “Sambos,” a racist pejorative that many black people consider to be as offensive as the n-word. While recounting a legendary walk from the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico, Muir described Native Americans he encountered as “dirty.”

 

Muir’s friendships in the early 1900s were equally troubling, the Sierra Club said. Henry Fairfield Osborn, a close associate, led the New York Zoological Society and the board of trustees of the American Museum of Natural History and, following Muir’s death, helped establish the American Eugenics Society, which labeled nonwhite people, including Jews at the time, as inferior.

 

The Sierra Club isn’t the only organization that is shaking its foundations. Leaders of predominantly white, liberal and progressive groups throughout the field of conservation say they are taking a hard look within their organizations and don’t like what they see.

 

African American and other minority employees are pointing out the lack of diversity in green groups and the racial bias that persists in top and mid-level management.

 

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