America’s white nationalists are once again embracing the great outdoors.
At first glance, it may seem out of character: Wholesome activities like hiking, foraging for berries, and camping seemingly stand in sharp contrast to lifestyles of the basement-dwelling, far-right livestreamers.
On one recent weekend, a number of young far-right extremists went camping in upstate New York. This “retreat” was the latest in a national event series that aims to foster real-world relationships within the very online, youth-oriented Christian nationalist movement—and with the land they vow to defend against anything they deem un-American and un-Christian, be it immigration, critical race theory, or transgender rights.
“We believe that Americanism has strayed far from its roots; primarily in connections to the land itself,” the event’s organizers write on their website. They promise to bring “America-first values to youth nationwide through an outdoor experience.”
While this may be a relatively new phenomenon within the modern far-right, white supremacy has deep roots in the U.S. wilderness and recreation movement, which long excluded people of color from its national parks and green spaces. And that history has made America’s national parks attractive destinations for white-rights activists trying to stake their claim to the land.
In the late 1800s, there were several “expeditions” to the region now known as Yellowstone National Park, which had been inhabited by Native Americans for at least 11,000 years. At least one of those expeditions, backed by a U.S. Army detachment, was behind an attack on the Piegan Blackfeet Tribe that left 173 Native Americans dead, including many elderly tribe members and children who were sick with smallpox.
In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a declaration that removed Yellowstone from public action, and preserved it as a recreational space for all to enjoy. The tribes who’d lived on that land for thousands of years were forced to leave by the government, and the Army was brought in to keep them out.
This approach set the tone for the early conservation movement and identification of National Parks, which were shaped by simmering racial anxieties among some white Americans at the beginning of the 20th century (following the Reconstruction Era, when Congress abolished slavery and extended equal rights to Black Americans), according to Miles Powell, who wrote a book about the racist roots of the American conservation movement. Powell wrote that around this time, some white Americans began viewing themselves as an “imperiled race,” and conservationists projected these anxieties onto what they saw as the rapidly vanishing natural landscape, which they wanted to keep “pure.”
These conservationists embraced restrictive immigration laws, scientific racism, and eugenics. Among them were John Muir, who founded the environmental nonprofit Sierra Club and was known for making derogatory anti-Black and anti-Indigenous statements. Madison Grant, who wrote a foundational text for the eugenics movement, was another.
America’s national parks were touted as places where all Americans could go to escape the stresses of modern life—though that really meant white Americans.
Jim Crow segregation policies, formalized in 1916, allowed for “whites-only areas” in national parks—up until segregation was abolished in 1964. This history has been blamed for the vast racial disparity in annual national park visitorship. National Park Service data from 2020 showed that 77 percent of visitors to the 419 parks were white; just 6 percent identified as Black (recent Census data shows that 60 percent of Americans are non-Hispanic whites, and 13 percent are Black). A sociologist who’d studied that disparity found that many of the Black Americans they talked to said they’d encountered racism while visiting a local state park, while others said they were afraid of feeling unwelcome.
The racist roots of national parks in America has made them an attraction to white supremacists over the years.
Pete Simi, associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Chapman University and co-author of the book “American Swastika: Inside White Power Movement’s Hidden Spaces of Hate,” conducted his first fieldwork hiking and camping with white supremacists in the late 1990s.
One of those trips was in Zion National Park, in southern Utah. The group he was embedded with “identified Zion as having special Aryan significance,” he told VICE News.
“They had talked about wanting to take it over, and hang a Nazi banner from the huge rock formations there,” said Simi. “In this case, the symbolic significance of nature was tied to purity, and nature was part of reclaiming the nation.”
National parks were regarded by the white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups Simi studied as not just free from environmental pollution but also remote, unclaimed spaces “free of contaminants”—meaning, non-white people. Conversely, urban areas or diverse parts of the country have often been regarded as “cesspools” or “shitholes,” said Simi—hubs of moral and social decay. (This language was famously repeated by then-President Donald Trump during a meeting in 2018, who referred to Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations as “shithole” countries.)
These very same ideas provided the framework for “ecofascism,” a racist theory that has surged in the far-right in the last decade that blames immigration for environmental woes. The architect of the modern anti-immigration movement in the U.S., John Tanton, was at the forefront of this fringe philosophy. White nationalist organizer Richard Spencer published a screed in August 2017 the day before the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, that contained references to ecofascism. “We have the potential to become nature’s steward or its destroyer,” wrote Spencer. “The natural world—and our experience of it—is an end in itself.”
The mass shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand, who attacked and killed 51 people at two mosques, and the shooter who targeted Latinos in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, left behind rambling essays with multiple, explicit allusions to ecofascist ideology. The El Paso shooter blamed immigrants for “urban sprawl” and the “decimation of the environment.”
The long-standing obsession with purity and contamination among white supremacists has also manifested in their lifestyles. White supremacist Robert Rundo and his international network of “active clubs” places great importance on “clean living” and physical fitness.
Leaked chats from the preppy white supremacist group Patriot Front—whose members and leaders were arrested recently in an alleged foiled plot to violently counter a Pride celebration in Couer d’Alene—revealed a pre-occupation with weight-watching, as well as abstinence from drinking, drugs, and porn. The recent upstate camping retreat also dovetails with another recent trend within the far-right: organic farming. In 2019, white supremacists began cropping up at farmers markets around the U.S.
Of course, obsessions with purity and clean living aren’t just an American white supremacist thing. Nazi Germany was deeply concerned about the longevity of the Aryan race, and so encouraged a healthy lifestyle and good diet. But eating a natural diet was also a core component of the Nazi slogan “blood and soil”—intended to foster nationalism by eating food grown on the land.
While the organizers of the “America First” wilderness outings don’t necessary identify as neo-Nazi or white supremacist (though their supporters may have ties to those ideologies), it’s clear that they hope those trips will solidify, at minimum, nationalist ties to the land.
“I always say, these events are Hitler Youth, without the Hitler,” one nationalist influencer remarked, ahead of a similar camping trip in Georgia last year.
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