Recently, the New York Times published an online article on the long-term consequences of the controversial decision to reintroduce grey wolves into Yellowstone National Park. A few wolves were first brought into the area from Canada in the 1990s. Since then, populations have risen past 1,600 — more than four times the original goal of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and enough to allow for the grey wolf to be taken off of the endangered species list in states as far west as Idaho. The project has been touted by environmentalists as one of the most successful environmental projects of the twentieth century; however, today the wolves are stirring dissent among ranchers on the outskirts of Yellowstone. At first I was tempted to dismiss their complaints as ignorant; however, reading about the significantly negative impact of the wolves on the lives of the ranchers caused me to think more deeply about what is perhaps the greatest challenge within the modern environmental movement: avoiding elitism.
As I discussed in my last column, Climate Change: Our Generation’s Biggest Injustice, climate change and destruction of the natural environment almost always affects working class and low-income communities long before it affects the middle and upper classes; however, in the effort to fight climate/environmental injustice there is a catch-22: frontline communities can be equally negatively impacted by the activism and policy changes environmental groups use to fight climate change and habitat destruction. The backlash against the wolves in Yellowstone National Park is a symptom of this paradox. It is true that wolves play a vital role in the ecosystems of the Northwest; however, the impact they have on the lives of ranchers in the area is also very real. There is a reason that the Yellowstone Wolves were killed off so quickly as settlers moved west: wolves prey on livestock. While this fact is not a valid reason for the extermination of an entire species, the plight of the ranchers in the area is an issue that was clearly overlooked in the decision to reintroduce the wolf. One rancher lamented the loss of $60,000 in livestock within just the first few years of the project. These ranchers around Yellowstone are examples of a frontline community negatively impacted by the decisions of environmentalists.
I am not arguing that we should abandon the pursuit of more ecologically-friendly decisions. Rather, I am arguing that environmental decisions, even ones that are seen as hugely successful by environmentalists, often come from a place of elitism. The people making and implementing these decisions will likely not personally experience any major ramifications. While climate change and ecosystem destruction are major crises, so is poverty. Environmental activism often alienates lower social classes by failing to ask them what their idea of a better world looks like or to include them in the process of making change happen.
In a recent conversation, Irma Muñoz, the leader of the social and environmental organization “Mujeres de la Tierra,” recounted the story of how her lower-middle class, predominantly black and latino community in Inglewood was alienated by the environmental organization LA Food and Water Watch. Inglewood sits right next to the largest urban oil field in the country, and a few years ago that oil field became the focus of LA Food and Water Watch’s efforts to end fracking in California. While ending fracking would be a major environmental accomplishment and would positively impact the health of the residents of Inglewood, LA Food and Water Watch botched the movement by failing to include these residents in their activism and decision-making. Instead of building relationships with residents, they posted flyers meant to instill fear. Coming from a place of elitism, they did not bother to find out that Inglewood was already holding community meetings to end fracking in their neighborhood. The movement failed, because of racial and economic segregation.
It is important to take away one message from these anecdotes. While coming years demand radical change in our treatment of the environment, we are useless without communication, collaboration and understanding among different social and economic groups. If this understanding had been present in the decision to reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone, perhaps ranchers would have received some sort of compensation. At the very least, perhaps collaboration would have eased the resentment that now permeates Northwestern ranching communities.