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Sierra Club Denounces Founder John Muir For Racism


A historic icon of the American environmental movement is in the spotlight. John Muir founded the Sierra Club in 1892 in San Francisco. The group's current leader says the ongoing civil rights protests leading to the dismantling of Confederate monuments is causing the Sierra Club to reexamine its own racist history. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports the group is pledging to remove some of its own John Muir statues.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: John Muir has long been revered by environmentalists. The California naturalist's biblical love of wild places led to a legacy of federal wilderness protections, including Yosemite National Park. But Muir was also well-known for making derogatory comments about Blacks and Native people, and the modern conservation movement has wrestled for years with these transgressions. In a letter to the Sierra Club's members today, current director Michael Brune said this moment is a time to reexamine the club's own substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy. Brune says the group will reconsider the views of some of its founders that led to the modern movement being so white today.

MICHAEL BRUNE: When it comes to John Muir, we're looking to advance the conversation about Muir's legacy to look at him in a more comprehensive and inclusive way that acknowledges his limitations and shortcomings.

SIEGLER: The Sierra Club says it's considering removing some monuments to its founders. Brune is also pledging that the group will reorganize to ensure that a majority of its leadership is comprised of people of color. And he hopes to spend $5 million on diversifying their staff and training. The announcement was welcomed by Mustafa Santiago Ali of the National Wildlife Federation.

MUSTAFA SANTIAGO ALI: You know, it's long overdue. We have to address the sins of the past.

SIEGLER: He's one of the few people of color who is actually in a leadership position in a major environmental group. That major sin of the past?

ALI: Many of those folks felt that those spaces, those natural spaces, those sacred spaces were meant for white men.

SIEGLER: Ali says the modern-day environmental movement's lack of diversity and its writ large ignoring of communities of color has had major consequences. One example - industrial facilities are often put in underserved neighborhoods, and pollution from them is drifting into national parks, like those John Muir fought to establish. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DINING ROOMS' "YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.