Exclusion in the Great Outdoors: Masculinity, Misogyny, Whiteness, and Racism in the Environmental Movement and at Philmont Scout Ranch
April, 2018 Honors Thesis
(this page contains only excerpts, find the full project here)
Philmont Scout Ranch is the largest youth camp in the world at 219 square miles in Cimarron, New Mexico, in the Sangre De Cristo range of the Rocky Mountains. Every year, approximately 22,000 Boy Scouts and Venture Scouts pass through Philmont on backpacking treks that vary in length from seven days and fifty miles to twenty-one days and two hundred miles. The ranch will hit its eighty year mark in the summer of 2018, and well over one million scouts will have backpacked at Philmont. Philmont has often been described as the Disneyland of scouting and backpacking. The ranch has been formative in many individuals’ understanding, appreciation, and participation in the outdoors. The program focuses on developing personal growth, youth leadership skills, outdoor education, wilderness ethics, physical prowess, and historical awareness of the area.
Philmont offers extraordinary experiences in the outdoors to scouts, in part through interaction with experienced Philmont staff. Each scout who comes to Philmont interacts with many people in staff positions. Every crew is assigned a ranger that teaches Philmont’s policies and instills the importance of leadership and wilderness ethics, as well as hard skills like campsite setup and hanging of bear bags. In the backcountry, there are over thirty staffed camps, where Philmont staff members interpret histories like logging, mining, trapping, homesteading, and railroading. Other backcountry camps teach outdoor sports like mountain biking, climbing, and shotgun shooting. The remaining backcountry programs teach wilderness skills like orienteering, wilderness medicine, and team building and communication.
Through all of these programs and instruction, scouts are given a hands-on, community oriented experience backpacking in nature. The landscape itself is striking, with peaks and valleys, canyons and rivers, mesas and plains that scouts can hike through and appreciate for multiple days in the backcountry. For the majority of scouts, Philmont is their first introduction to the sport of backpacking. It is often heralded as a safe environment for participants to begin to understand the outdoors and the natural environment.
Yet, as a part of the Boy Scouts of America, Philmont has some retrogressive policies, practices, and norms that highlight the uglier side of environmentalism. The movement was founded in a time when the natural environment was heralded as an escape from, and then a solution to, the problems of modernity. At the turn of the 20th century, America began to urbanize, and cities became more crowded. Consequently, racial and gendered activities, norms, and expectations shifted, especially for middle class white Americans. In this context of urbanized modernization, boys also spent more time in the home with mothers and nannies, and much of white America feared the spread of racial diversity. In this political climate, the Boy Scouts of America was instituted.
In this thesis I argue that environmentalism and the Boy Scouts of America sought to preserve an idea of America that remained rugged, masculine, and white, with the help of the great outdoors. Both movements remain popular today. Environmentalism is now considered a progressive movement, yet its current demographics demonstrate otherwise. Masculinity and whiteness are still predominant themes in the culture of outdoor enthusiasts, and the consequences of this reality are exclusion for anyone who does not fit into this ideal. Philmont has proven to be a strong example of the issues that continue to plague environmentalism and outdoor culture today.
Using an interdisciplinary and intersectional approach, this thesis aims to identify the root of environmentalism’s exclusion, its impacts, and how these exclusions are present at Philmont Scout Ranch specifically. To begin to identify the root of these issues, I examined prominent environmental literature using the themes of environmentalism and exclusion, as well as theories of race, gender, and nationalism. I interviewed twelve contemporary staff members in Philmont’s Ranger Department to link the literature to the current demographic of outdoor enthusiasts. Themes of whiteness and racism, masculinity and misogyny, and an implicit nationalism emerge over and over again in both the existing literature and in my research.
American Environmentalist Writers
In the outdoor recreation industry and culture, there are four names that are referenced over and over again: Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Edward Abbey. These men are heavily quoted and inexorably linked to the enjoyment and protection of wilderness. The writing they produced has been credited with pushing forward policy to protect wild spaces and wilderness, and they have produced and reproduced a love of these wild spaces in generations gone by, and generations to come. Their respective works are widely read and deeply influential in the realm of both environmentalism and American literature as a whole. However, alongside these benefits, these authors bring with them their biases and their ideologies that can be counterproductive and harmful to entire parts of the American population that attempt to participate in the culture of celebrating wilderness and the recreational enjoyment of nature. Ideologies of rugged individualism, masculinity, misogyny, and white supremacy continue to permeate outdoor cultures and societies.
Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire
Edward Abbey (1927-1989) is famous for his novels Desert Solitaire and Monkey Wrench Gang, written during his season at Arches National Park in Utah. Notorious for not caring about being sensitive to people’s identities, racism and misogyny often intertwine themselves in the threads of his beliefs and opinions. For example, he has been quoted saying, “I certainly do not wish to live in a society dominated by blacks or Mexicans, or Orientals. Look at Africa, Mexico and Asia,” tying into environmentalism’s themes of white nationalism and ideologies of stewardship and manifest destiny (Kosek, 2004, p. 142). Throughout his narrative, he rejects modernity, yet supports the construction of the “white man’s burden” that was built from it. He rejects society and separates himself from it, yet his supremacy supports a nationalism that invades, uproots, and dehumanizes cultures because of their “lack” of society. Reminiscent of early 20th century right-wing, political discourse, Abbey argued, “It might be wise for us, as American citizens, to consider calling a halt to the mass influx of even more millions of hungry, ignorant, unskilled and culturally-morally- genetically impoverished people…” (Kosek, 2004, p. 142). This anti-immigration doctrine is the foundation of environmentalism as it was born out of a desire for racial “purity” (ibid.).
Desert Solitaire readily lends itself to thorough analysis of Abbey’s favored masculinity and narcissism that reinforces the environmental movement’s exclusion. At the commencement of the novel, he claims ownership of Utah: “In the center of the world, God’s navel, Abbey’s country, the red wasteland” (Abbey, 1968, p. 4). He warns us of his tendencies to offend in the introduction as well: “I quite agree that much of the book will seem coarse, rude, bad-tempered, violently prejudiced, unconstructive - even frankly antisocial in its point of view… there is a way of being wrong which is also sometimes necessarily right” (1968, p. x-xi). He argues, though, that his bad habits of exclusion and supremacy are “necessarily right,” validating this thesis’s argument that these attitudes are inseparable from outdoor culture and environmental rhetoric as it stands today. The rugged masculinity established as necessary in the origins of American environmentalism is a philosophy Abbey heavily subscribes to. He claims:
I am here … to confront, immediately and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us… To meet God or Medusa face to face, even if it means risking everything human in myself. I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a non-human world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. (Abbey, 1968, p. 7)
Abbey believes that incredible physical challenge and isolation are the defining and redeeming traits of himself and those he admires, fellow outdoorsmen. This mentality is not only incredibly dangerous, but it creates a heavily filter, excluding anyone who does not adhere to these extremes. This reflects in Abbey’s preoccupation with life-threatening events. Again, death and danger remain central to this rhetoric of proving oneself in the outdoor arena. After a near death experience where Abby gets marooned on a cliff face, he writes, “It was one of the happiest nights of my life” (Abbey, 1968, p. 258). He relishes in being “twenty miles or more from the nearest fellow human” during his stay in Arches National Park, reframing his misanthropy as a side-effect of a deep love of nature (Abbey, 1968, p. 16).
He states multiple times throughout the novel that he would rather die falling off a horse or being stranded in the desert than die in a hospital from old age (Abbey, 1968, p. 103). This belief holds true even after assisting in a search and carry for the body of an old man who perishes near Moab while lost on a hike: “He had good luck - I envy him the manner of his going: to die alone, on rock under sun at the brink of the unknown, like a wolf, like a great bird, seems to me very good fortune indeed” (Abbey, 1968, p. 267). He romanticizes this tragedy in an effort to shock his readers into seeing him as unique and set apart from the masses, who would be horrified by this story. This shock factor establishes a new norm in environmental writing that only excuses Abbey from his toxic masculinity and white supremacy in his unapologetic nature. This idealized death narrative also reveals an intense sense of pride in refusing to be weakened by age and comfort, but instead struck down by nature which would be a worthy death for a rugged, masculine figure.
Throughout the novel, misogyny is well-paired with Abbey’s rugged masculinity and individualism, reinforcing the idea that the spaces and parks he inhabits and writes in are not spaces for women. When rafting in Glenn Canyon, he muses about modernity’s pitfalls, repetitions, and conveniences. This thought process is fully reflected upon women, who symbolize and represent dull modernity and convenience. He writes, “What incredible shit we put up with most of our lives… same old wife every night,” removing the humanity in women, as well as any potential agency for them to participate in these spaces (Abbey, 1968, p. 193). This occurs again only a few pages later when he muses the possibility of living on the river the rest of his life. “True there are no women here (a blessing in disguise?)” he wonders, reminding his reader that women are only meant for [men’s] pleasure, and apart from that are burdens and distractions (Abbey, 1968, p. 199). Both through rugged masculinity and constant reminders of a woman’s true place, Abbey thoroughly reinforces his belief that women do not belong in wild spaces. Desert Solitaire is widely read by those that love being outside, but his prejudices and exclusions are rarely discussed, or even acknowledged, even though they are blatant. Without this critique, themes of misogyny and racism will remain undercurrents and even core concepts in the environmental movement and in the societies of people who explore national parks and participate in outdoor recreation.
Despite Abbey’s seemingly unmatched misogyny in the novel, he still manages to produce racist musings that should (but unfortunately do not) shock the contemporary environmentalists that comprise Desert Solitaire’s audience. At first, these beliefs emerge in the context of people that Abbey encounters and works with. He discusses his fellow cowboy, NAME, and describes how the man’s Spanish identity leads him to be mistaken for Latino. This launches Abbey into a rant about his friend’s situation: “He responds to prejudice by cultivating a prejudice of his own against those whom he feels are even lower in the American hierarchy than he is: against the Indians, the Mexicans, the N*groes. He knows where the bottom is” (1968, p. 106-07). While this may seem to be a discussion of the racial landscape of the time, Abbey’s inclusion of this anecdote demonstrates more support for the status quo than a dismissal of it. He is comfortable in his position as separate from this hierarchy, even though he is not in fact separate.
Edward Abbey devotes an entire chapter to his unsolicited opinion of Native Americans, setting this demographic aside as one he felt most obligated to comment on in an environmental novel. This inclusion reveals how thematic Native Americans are to the foundation of environmental culture and recreation. He begins this commentary by speculating over the meanings of petroglyphs in southern Utah, incorporating heavy orientalism and mysticism: “Demonic shapes, they might have meant protection and benevolence to their creators and a threat to strangers” (Abbey, 1968, p. 127). He directly others the Native people by speculating the meaning of petroglyphs in a way that paints them as sinister and backward.
While this assumed speculation and generalization may seem relatively benign, it entails an entitlement which allows Abbey to make much more damaging propositions about Native Americans later in the chapter. He uses his platform as a well-read author and actor in the environmental movement to further abuse Native Americans and put forth violent ideas that are borderline genocidal. Abbey begins this argument by making neo-Malthusian claims about the origin of poverty in reservations: “To be poor is bad enough; to be poor and multiplying is worse,” which he later proposes could be solved by forced sterilization and compulsory birth control (1968, p. 129, 135). Despite his apparently genocidal leanings, the author ignores the history of oppression and continues to postulate that population growth is “the chief cause” of the “Navajos’ troubles” (Abbey, 1968, p. 131).
The chapter continually swerves back and forth across the line between being outright racist and critiquing the effects of racism, usually keeping one foot on each side. He absolves himself from being a part of the racist system by addressing it without taking a stance. Abbey describes Native Americans, whom he consistently refers to as “Navajos” as “the N*groes of the Southwest–red black men” (1968, p. 127). He is careful to avoid describing this comparison in terms of a racialized analysis of merit or an objective analysis of oppression, leaving us to want to assume he means the latter and give him the benefit of the doubt. His word choice, however, reveals the true intent behind this statement: his use of the racial slur shows his racist supremacy. Abbey’s racism is further muddied when he argues that the survival of the Native Americans is challenged not so much by Americans’ active efforts to assimilate and erase Native peoples’ history, but instead by a “poorly developed acquisitive instinct,” meaning that they cannot adjust to the mindset of capitalism (1968, p. 134). While still being inherently racist and riddled with supremacy, Abbey’s intention in this statement is two-fold, as it is an active critique of capitalism as well as reinforcing his perception of what he deems the inferiority of people of color.
Towards the end of the novel, Abbey shows a brief instance of self-awareness. This comes in a moment when he is in the Grand Canyon, near Havasu falls and meeting members of the Havasupai Tribe. He claims to prefer being alone in the presence of this different culture: “I’m not sure that I care for the idea of strangers examining my daily habits and folkways, studying my language, inspecting my costume, questioning me about my religion, classifying my artifacts, investigating my sexual rites and evaluating my chances for cultural survival” (Abbey, 1968, p. 248). Though posed as a joke, this ironic moment seems to be lost on Abbey, who does not recognize his racism as that, and who views himself as a progressive figure in capitalist America, making his earlier opinions all the more treacherous. In this joke, the folly of white liberalism is brought to light. White liberals and specifically environmentalists, are often so deeply unconscious of the fact that they perpetuate privilege and oppression that they pontificate about solutions to problems they have never experienced and actually exacerbate themselves. Though Abbey sees himself as a progressive, he is not fully aware of the ways in which environmentalism’s roots in white supremacy remain constant, and how much these roots inform his beliefs.
Edward Abbey reinforces themes of rugged individualism, misogyny, and white supremacy in his most popular work Desert Solitaire. This novel is widely read by environmentalists and outdoor enthusiasts today, alongside the works of Thoreau, Muir, and Leopold, which are also rife with discussions of masculinity, whiteness, and doing nature “right.” Though all four men are regarded as historical figures of progression, their works are dangerously retrospective and exclusionary at best.
Between June of 2016 and March of 2018, I interviewed twelve individuals who served at least two years in the Ranger Department at Philmont Scout Ranch. The people I interviewed have served on Philmont staff as recently as 2016 at a minimal. I wanted to get a sense of the ranch as it is now, not as it has been, so that I could get a better picture of ranch culture in 2017 and not in the 20th century. Philmont is staffed overwhelmingly by young people, and for this reason, the status quo and norms are ever-changing, no matter how slowly. Below, I analyze historical themes of environmentalism already discussed in the current cultural setting of the ranch. Eleven out of the twelve I interviewed have been in ranger leadership positions at Philmont. I chose to interview leadership because members of ranger leadership are in positions where they are encouraged to reflect on changes in the ranch and aspects of the ranger position they think can be improved. Similarly, male staff that I interviewed are more likely to have heard of discrimination and other gendered issues second hand through those they train, if they are less inclined to experience them themselves. I interviewed twelve people, and there are approximately thirty members of ranger leadership any given year, and 300 rangers. Philmont staff, including ranger leadership, consists of about 25% women, and I interviewed six women and six men, over-representing women in my research to better focus on issues of gender inequality, misogyny, and marginalization. I chose to interview an even number of women and men, as gender is an important aspect of my thesis and I aimed to have a wider perspective on the issue than if I had not been as intentional about this balance. I only interviewed one person of color, as they are only two nonwhite members of ranger leadership, and this unfortunately represents the racial demographics of the rest of the department and Philmont as a whole well.
My interviews were semi-structured and investigated themes of identity, character, symbology, history, and culture at Philmont. I interviewed staff both in person at Philmont Scout Ranch and elsewhere in the off-season via video call and two email interviews. Human subject research approval was secured through the University of Colorado’s Institutional Review Board. Participation was voluntary and verbal consent was obtained before starting the questioning process. All interviewees were told that they could withdraw from the interviewing process at any time, even retrospectively, if they chose to no longer participate in my thesis research. I also asked all participants whether or not they wanted to remain anonymous or be given pseudonyms, but no participants deemed this necessary. I have decided to use only participants’ first names, as these have all been unique, and my data has been encoded accordingly in my files. The recorded interviews ranged from 25 minutes to two hours. All of the rangers I interviewed are either in formal undergraduate education, or have already completed it. These individuals also represent a wide range in political beliefs, though the majority of them are more liberal than the general Philmont staff population.
Results: Masculinity and its Impacts
While interviewing rangers, the dominant theme that emerged while asking about the values of Philmont was the aspect of physical challenge. Rachel introduces a term for the physical challenge aspect of Philmont, as well as the theme of pushing yourself emotionally during physical challenge: type two fun. She offers the following definition: “When a situation is extremely challenging, and you may feel like exhausted or even a little bit scared, like if there’s a lightning storm around, but despite all of those challenges, you’re really enjoying yourself, and not just despite but sometimes because of those challenges you’re really enjoying yourself” (Rachel, 2017). Type two fun at Philmont is easier than many places, as the infrastructure and communication at the ranch creates a safer atmosphere than many other backcountry areas. In this way, one can push their physical limits beyond what they would while hiking on their own elsewhere. This phenomena is called type two fun to distinguish it from type one fun, which is just simply fun with no added misery, and type three fun which is not fun at all until one is out of the situation and thinking about it in hindsight. Many rangers take advantage of this safety net and participate in “some pretty long hikes, and some pretty dumb hikes” that they might not do if there were not backcountry camps and scouts within two miles of any direction (Mary, 2016). Philmont acts as more of a testing ground to do risky and dangerous physical challenges because the rangers know they can get away with more with a lower risk.
With many staff members pushing their physical limits, a culture of competition in the physical realm emerges, alongside the earlier discussed professional realm. This often ties back to those themes of rugged individualism that arose in environmental literature. Philmont’s interpretive history only contributes to this theme, as staff members interpret the lives of people gone by who lived hard, dangerous lives in the mountain, which staff often glorify. These histories, though singularly represented, help to complete a picture of rugged individualism that every staff member must reckon with. Maggie describes her own understanding of the issue:
With rugged individualism at Philmont, and in general… they’ll commodify and gender nature itself, like conquering the land. Philmont is in the Southwest and there’s a huge history of rugged individualism and manifest destiny, and the types of histories we’ve chosen to highlight, we talk about the cowboys and the trappers and the loggers and the miners and the railroad workers and we like glorify them as these really cool dudes who wanted to see the world and conquer this isolated land, which ignores American Indians who were living on the land. (Maggie, 2017)
My interviewees admitted that, at times, this rugged individualism is shaped by factors external to themselves, like trying to shape the way others view them. At other times, the physical challenge becomes a space for personal growth. “I enjoy being able to say that I did things… but I think it’s more the things I get out of the physical challenge, the experiences, that I go back for” (Maggie, 2017). Jake reiterated this idea: “Philmont is kind of a testing ground. I think for me the important thing was to prove to myself that I could do it. If I could finish Philmont, if I could go an extra mile up that mountain after getting us lost three times already, that I could do anything” (2017). The confidence achieved from pushing one’s natural limits is a valuable resource to handle other, unrelated challenges in life, like interviewing for a job, or writing an honors thesis.
This theme of rugged individualism disguised as personal growth is heavily associated with the mountainous, western landscape. “The West forces both man and woman to bring out the rugged individualism within themselves… like in the Westerns, you see men and women fending for themselves” (Will, 2017). Again, Philmont’s historic programs come back into focus with this glorification of the West, and this link to rugged individualism, even though the representations that highlight these themes are not fully accurate. The logging camps have been one of the more masculinist representations the camp produces, “We tell these narratives down at Pueblano of the great logging men that chopped down these trees, and the mountain men that trapped, when in reality if you didn’t have the families, these operations would not exist. The archeological evidence at Wilson Mesa and Ring Town tells us these histories that are much more domestic than we are willing to let on, entire atmospheres that we entirely neglect” (Jake, 2017). The romanticized rugged and masculinist history Philmont projects is not, therefore, accurate in the slightest.
This denial of history in favor of the constructed themes of masculinity has very real consequences for the ranch. Some of it takes more benign forms like competition in non-serious challenges, yet: “There’s a little bit of an issue with machismo and toxic masculinity with some of the ranger challenges. People can get way too competitive with them” (Joe, 2017). The ranger challenges have been outlined by past generations of rangers and are still practiced today, the most common being the ranger marathon, which entails hiking from the north-most camp (Dan Beard) to the south-most camp (Carson Meadows) in one day, carrying at least 35 pounds. The distance is approximately 47 miles, depending on which route is chosen. There are rules set in place to make this less dangerous and to mitigate the consequences felt by participants. Rangers must have at least two others with them on the trail when hiking the marathon, they must have a day off after the marathon so that they are not exhausted and injured for a crew, and they must carry a tent and sleeping gear, as well as a bear bag and rope, in case they have to stop before the end of the challenge. It is also heavily encouraged to write Dan Beard and Carson Meadows ahead of time so they know the person is planning on participating in the challenge, and to avoid telling crews what the person is doing if they encounter them along the way. There are more challenges as well, like Black Death, which consists of hiking four peaks of Tooth Ridge, or Super Black Death, which adds two more peaks to the beginning. There are a handful of other ranger challenges, most much more goofy, like the Mark Anderson challenge, which is the ranger marathon with a Class A scout uniform on.
Ranger challenges are intended to revive a sense of challenge and difficulty for staff at Philmont who have adjusted to hiking constantly and want to push themselves further. These challenges can be breeding grounds for unnecessarily competitive behavior, as Joe said. Yet this egotism is a more benign form of the consequences of Philmont’s residual focus on masculinity and virality in the outdoors. When machismo is valued, inherently or overtly, expectations for staff members to represent this ideal arise. My interviewees discussed how much enthusiasm and loudness of personality is valued as a ranger, but this fits a greater image of an ideal ranger that is fit, enthusiastic, masculine, and BSA approved. This heavily affects many female rangers’ experiences. Sam argues that “[Being a woman] makes crews a little bit less likely to trust you out here” (2017). Rachel has a more thorough example of this prejudice that one of the rangers she oversaw experienced one summer:
I think that sometimes guys are taken more seriously both by our coworkers and by participants… I was a supervisor for a female ranger who offered to be shadowed by other staff members who weren’t rangers and wanted to learn what it was like to be a ranger, and she had one crew where every time she would instruct the crew on what to do, and at this point she had a lot of experience, she had already instructed about 10 crews and when she would give instructions to this crew, they would always turn to the male staff member, who had no experience as a ranger, to confirm with him that he agreed with what she was saying before they would do it. They just want to turn to a man and get a man’s opinion before they act on her instruction. (Rachel, 2017)
Rachel’s ranger experienced a subtle undermining of her experience, skill, and position, in what was clearly a subconscious enacting of bias by the crew. This bias makes it difficult to do the job of the ranger, as participants do not take female rangers’ instructions as seriously. Some of my interviewees encountered crews who did not take their discipline seriously, like Sam: “Oh look there goes the female ranger getting pissed again” or Maggie: “I got a review from a crew that I was ‘really naggy’ or that I ‘enforced things naggingly’” (2017). Female authority is devalued at Philmont by some crews, and some staff, often creating a dangerous situation for the crew that will not take their ranger’s advice and for the ranger who may not feel safe with a crew that disrespects her authority.
However, some discrimination women at Philmont encounter is much more direct. Sam and Maggie’s ranger trainer in 2015 is an example of someone who actively diminished space for women at Philmont: “The one comment I’ve always remembered is when we were talking about how large Philmont is, 200 square miles of hiking, and he said that for Maggie and I there are 200 square miles of kitchen” (Sam, 2017). Though afterwards, their RT claimed that this was supposed to be a joke, it still reinforced the rhetoric of exclusion that Philmont women grow accustomed to. Coming from a place of power, Maggie and Sam’s supervisor made it clear to them at the beginning of their contracts that he would not see the work they did to be the same as their male counterparts, and that some part of him believed that they did not belong on the ranch.
Lillian also hit a wall of exclusion when discussing Philmont’s future with the Chief Ranger: “When I said I think we should reach out to girls and underprivileged scouts, like invite venture crews and advertise ourselves to scouts in non-wealthy areas, even Cimarron! I told him that I think we should make more of an effort to include anyone besides white males. He said that this wasn’t the place for that” (Lillian, 2018). When those in positions of authority in the department consistently remind female rangers of their position as “other” to the organization, their work becomes undervalued and potential positive change is stopped dead in its tracks.
Those who do not see women as equals in the field often also paint women as objects for the benefit of the male staff members’ enjoyment. “We’ve all suffered forms of sexual harassment, especially when working with adult males who often undervalue our work and judge us more harshly” (Maggie, 2017). Maggie connects sexual harassment at Philmont to the greater issue of misogyny on the ranch, and the use of sexual harassment to reinforce this undervaluing and to make women feel small and vulnerable.
Following the same pattern as the mistrust of female staffers, some forms of sexual harassment seem more subconscious. Rachel encountered issues with other staff members assuming her to be focussed on sex and romance more than her job: “There were always rumors that I was dating someone as a supervisor… one ranger told me that the guys at Pueblano said they thought we were dating because I was talking to him… it was immediately viewed as sexual, not capable of being seen as a friendship or professional” (2017). Rachel’s behavior is seen as more conspicuous and misread constantly, and any authority or professionalism she has is ignored, and swept under the rug.
There is also direct sexual harassment on the ranch and in the department as well, specifically stemming from two members of upper leadership, Kyle and Spencer, a different Spencer than the one I interviewed. Joe recounts one aspect of their offenses: “Any time they get a new group of rangers in they immediately play ‘smash or pass’ with them,” smash or pass being the practice of deciding which female staff members the rangers would hook up with given the opportunity, and which they would not (2017). This of course creates a microculture in the ranger department of rangers who are immediately sexualizing all of the female rangers. As supervisors, Kyle and Spencer are also creating a compromising situation for the female rangers in the department who by actively and verbally describing them sexually. Kyle and Spencer work with Academy Rangers, rangers who are hired only for approximately three weeks as a part of training in the military academies. Kyle and Spencer are their sole supervisors, so their damaging behavior sets the bar for how to act for these rangers and this standard is often unchallenged in the Academy Rangers’ time at Philmont.
Half of a page of the Ranger Fieldbook is dedicated to the specific harassment female rangers may face from crews, and how to address it. In the context of harassment from staff, the fieldbook gives the following advice: “If someone is ever disrespectful to you, another staff member, or a crew, inform Ranger Leadership immediately. Safety is our #1 priority at Philmont and emotional safety/security is a huge aspect of that. No one deserves to be mistreated and we will support you. All matters are handled in a fair, discreet, and appropriate manner” (Philmont, 2015, p. 82). It is not hard to notice what is lacking in this statement: how Philmont plans to actually address the issue. The statement “we will support you” is encouraging, yet vague and allows for a lot of gray areas. Similarly, “matters are handled in a fair, discreet, and appropriate manner” implies a definite possibility of matters being swept under the rug, in favor of being “discreet” and one must ask who determines what “appropriate” means.
This language is endemic of some of the themes of Philmont’s handling of controversial matters. The level of support one gets is very much determined by who they happen to bring their concerns to. As one interviewee shared, “People who question authority struggle at the Ranch. If you have legitimate reasons to have issue with something at the Ranch, often times you’re still met with apathy or a ‘No.’ You don’t make friends questioning authority and that can hurt your chances to be hired back at the Ranch” (Mike, 2018). This is something experienced by those who complain about harassment and general unfair treatment when leadership are the people being accused.
In so many ways, Philmont can feel like a lawless landscape for those not in the dominant group, despite all of its rules, regulations and standards. When speaking up about these issues, one is often made to feel abrasive and uncooperative. I asked Rachel if she ever considered not pursuing the discussion anymore and she replied, “If I was easier, they would like me more, and I wouldn’t be such a stain on Philmont… but it would always be impacting me whether or not I wanted to admit it” (2017). Women can actively ignore the problem at Philmont, and some do, but they are all still impacted by the culture of the ranch.
Women are often brought to reckon these two aspects of their identities to negotiate the landscape of inequality at Philmont. Katie recounts the number of times she has heard “She’s not a girl she’s a ranger” and said that this led her to adopt the mentality that her “identity as a woman was not compatible with being out here… I had to drop that to be someone else” (2016). Internalized misogyny stemming from this enforced incompatibility of femininity and rugged individualism has historically prevented many female staffers from forming strong bonds and rejecting sexism together. Maggie says that “even the women will try to embody these traits [of rugged individualism and masculinity], like ‘I’m even more masculine or rugged than the guys and I should be valued for that’ and isolate other women like ‘Oh I’m not like them, I’m a real outdoors person, I’m not like other girls’” (2017). It takes very active resistance to the sexism at Philmont to reject the internalized misogyny and be accepting of other women at Philmont who represent different degrees of femininity.
Women are also definitely not the only victims of toxic masculinity on the ranch. Mike shared his experiences with me:
My femininity and body image did hinder me. Working for the Boy Scouts doesn’t really allow for much under the average level of masculinity. I do not really prescribe to the general idea of masculinity. That made making connections with certain types of people hard which in turn led to some rather uncomfortable situations in the woods. I was thought of as lesser for not being a “man.” I mean people who are less secure in their personality wouldn’t be able to handle the judgement. It’s rather toxic. I also have a really bad body image and have for many years. That really made it hard to enjoy the beauty around me because I felt inadequate when looking at my peers. I didn’t do certain things because I didn’t want to be the one who held people back. I wouldn’t pay attention to the nature around me on a hard hike because I was so in my head, telling myself about how I suck because I can’t do this easily. (Mike, 2018)
Mike struggles with Philmont’s strictly enforced gender norms on multiple scales, from personality and behavior to the very physical sense of one’s own body. In a culture that promotes being tough and physically capable, not only is the learning curve for hiking steep, but this toxic masculinity prevents staffers and participants alike from speaking up when they felt unsafe mentally or physically. This is the bottom-line issue sums up the damage of Philmont’s fixation on masculinity. People are at risk of being unsafe in the backcountry because of discrimination, harassment, and shame. Michael is more optimistic than many about the ranger department, and he believes that Philmont doesn’t “always value change, and it can be like an old boy’s club, but the ranger department does have more of a culture of growth and improvement” (2017). The more actively staffers speak up about their frustrations with the culture of exclusion, the more they are able to rewrite the rules and change the status quo. However, those that value this change and push for it must be allowed and encouraged to participate.
Philmont Scout Ranch has produced a unique, but also relevant case study to the examination of environmentalism as a culture. Through my research and interviews at the ranch, it became more and more clear that Philmont and the BSA fit well into the existing literature and critiques of environmentalism and outdoor culture. Philmont, through its roots in the BSA, has strong ties to a nationalistic sense of masculinity and colonial dominance through patterns of rugged individualism and the whitewashing of history. Through existing analyses of environmentalism and its origins, informed by a literary discussion of landmark environmental writers, Philmont acts as a contemporary example of environmentalism’s exclusion and supremacy. The policies and mentalities of Roosevelt-era America, as well as figures like Muir, remain threaded throughout modern day environmental thought, leaving little room for those outside of the ideal: white, middle class men. Those who do not fit this norm make space for themselves in environmentalism, through movements like environmental justice.
Environmentalism’s roots in white supremacy and misogyny have not been extracted, but instead are usually hidden or buried. The movement labels itself as progressive, inclusive, and counter to mainstream, modern American culture. However, the deeper one digs into the practices and literature of the movement, the more hegemonic and nationalistic it becomes. The landscape remains a representation of a “true” ideal of America, and only those demographics who fit the American mold are allowed to participate in and enjoy the culture surrounding it.