What We Lose When We Forget the History of Our Public Lands

Public lands let us experience wildness in spaces where nature and history converge. How do we make them more inclusive to all?
Image of marsh grasses and water on a sunny day.

Spring in the Lowcountry sounds like a flock of Bobolinks slinging their discordant songs around the tidal marsh. The handsome black birds are fresh off a two-thousand-mile odyssey that takes them from the South American Pampas to the ACE Basin—a jewel in the crown of South Carolina’s public lands. Here at the confluence of the Ashepoo, Cumbahee, and Edisto rivers, birders and their quarry feed greedily on the toils of management and conservation. Stilts and avocets sweep the shallow pools, while towhees and grosbeaks glide over flooded plains. As the day deepens and humidity swells, so do the lists of species sighted.

Two-hundred years ago, this restored field would have been just as green—but with a ripening rice crop instead of swaths of plume grass. Bobolinks numbered in the millions then; they’d pause on their northward journeys to refuel on plantations. In the Lowcountry the prized fuel was Carolina Gold Rice, cultivated by enslaved African Americans. It was their mastery of the tides, their trunk and gate systems, their skin-splitting labor that made money grow in the marsh. They spent their lives knee-deep in mud with disease, biting insects, venomous snakes, and slave drivers bearing down on them. Even children were put to task to frighten flocks away from crops with torches and noise makers. Hunters would then slaughter the “rice birds” by the thousands, sending them to the plantation owners’ linen-covered tables, the roasted carcasses piled high on Wedgewood china and fat with Carolina Gold.

The black birds flew and died freely two-hundred years ago, but the black people working among them didn’t. I think of this while birding on public plots that were acquired and preserved through subjugation. The black ducks and furtive black rails I see in the ACE Basin are there because of black hands; yet most of my fellow birders talk only of the labors of modern agencies, as if slavery never existed on the landscape. They don’t acknowledge how people were once forced into nature in these places. The same environments that we pass through and escape to were once full of pain.  

There's a quiet privilege to forgetting history. There’s also a sin in omitting it. We forge stronger ties to our public lands by knowing them from their inception. As a descendant of the enslaved, I claim the painful legacy of plantations as part of my present ownership. It’s essential to progress. Understanding whence we’ve come is key to understanding the possibilities that lie ahead. But it can’t be done until the stories of our refuges, parks, and protected areas are better shared and learned.

And so this is my question: If this land is your land and this land is my land, how do we expand public lands to be an even more inclusive ideal? Birders can be crucial actors in this movement. When guiding walks now, I spend time studying the human stories connected to the area. A trip to South Carolina’s coastal paradises often finds me leading groups that are typically all white. As we watch Tundra Swans and squadrons of waterfowl awaken in new light, I talk about what it takes for such a place to exist, historically and ecologically. In between the identification tips, a deeper conversation ensues, and as the swans take flight and the sun rises higher, a more lasting experience is built.

Much of the onus lies on federal, state, and local agencies, too. They should be flowing history and culture in with natural narratives on every landmark, sign post, interpretive display, and tour. They also need to engage individuals directly affected by past events: A disconnect could lead to the loss of critical support for public lands in the future.   

As public lands face new perils, there’s a dawning realization that history and ecology are both worth fighting for. On the Carolina coast, we’re seeing a shift in how Congaree National Park and the Audubon Center and Sanctuary at Beidler Forest are touted. The keepers of these beloved places are spreading the stories of the Maroons, self-liberated slaves who sought refuge and freedom in the swampy wilderness. Their efforts can stir a young generation of public-land users who consider human heritage as vital as birds and trees. National wildlife refuges have already become a backdrop for the call to equivalency. Nearly 40 years ago, peacefully protesting black landowners were evicted from Harris Neck in south Georgia. More recent times have brought a white, armed occupation at Malheur in eastern Oregon and a birder-inspired march at Santa Ana on the U.S.–Mexico border. These events speak to the disparities of public lands, who they’re really for, and how we must better manage them with intentional inclusion in mind.

It’s second nature for us birders to wonder about the feathered beings we watch. We marvel over their migrations and fret over their wellbeing. And so, the issues of natural care and conservation often elicit impassioned responses from us. But going forward, as we plumb uncertain possibilities for what our public lands may become, we just might have to put down the binoculars to see whether this land was truly made for you and me.