Environmental Justice and Portland Audubon: Past, Present, and Future

by Stuart Wells, Executive Director, with contributions from Micah Meskel, Assistant Conservation Director-Urban, and Quinn Read, Conservation Director

Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, ability, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.

It’s not clear precisely when the environmental justice movement began in the United States, but it became nationally recognized after the selection of a small, predominantly Black community in North Carolina as the future location of a hazardous waste landfill in 1982. In response to this selection, the NAACP staged a significant protest, which led to BIPOC communities forming groups to provide a voice for communities targeted for hazardous waste sites and similar environmental injustices.

Oxbow Nature Education on bank of river
Oxbow Park, photo courtesy of Metro

Portland Audubon has a long history of working to advance conservation initiatives that incorporate key tenets of the environmental justice movement. This has been especially true for our pioneering urban conservation program, established 40-plus years ago at a time when most conservation organizations wrote off urban habitat and species conservation efforts as unworthy of time and attention. Visionary Portland Audubon staff like Mike Houck saw it differently, believing that focusing conservation efforts in close proximity to urban centers presented a unique opportunity to improve environmental conditions for wildlife and their human neighbors while engaging people in broader conservation education efforts.

This novel strategy of conserving and restoring urban natural resources provided the opportunity to connect conservation efforts with adjacent communities, remediating past environmental harms and engaging and empowering their residents to set forward a joint vision of complete, healthy neighborhoods into the future. The continued evolution of this work under Portland Audubon’s Urban Conservationists Mike Houck, Bob Sallinger, and Jim Labbe among others, improved and expanded on the urban conservation agenda, finding ways to intersect with efforts to increase affordable housing supply, improve livability, and reduce economic and racial disparities.

Our region has had no shortage of environmental injustices, many of which still exist. Examples include disparities in access to nature, exclusion of communities in environmental policy making, and more intense and oftentimes intentional exposure to pollution, all of which have been experienced at a higher rate by BIPOC, low-income, and otherwise marginalized communities. Portland Audubon’s urban agenda has in some ways been structured to work to remedy some of these injustices: our longstanding efforts to hold industry accountable for polluting the Willamette River and exposing its adjacent residents; developing policies to integrate nature into our built landscape with an eye toward reducing health disparities; and improving access to nature, especially for communities that have historically lacked local environmental amenities. It’s important to acknowledge that this work is difficult and complicated, and that while it has been impactful, we’ve also made mistakes. And we’ve learned from them, adjusted and evolved our strategies, shifted how we work with communities, and learned when to lead and when to step back and support others’ leadership.

A view of the north reach of the Willamette River

Below is a summary of some key past, present, and future campaigns that have a strong grounding in environmental justice and are worth celebrating, learning from, and improving upon to help make the Portland metro area the greenest and most equitable in the country. This list is not exhaustive, but it represents some of the most important campaigns led or supported by the Portland Audubon conservation team in collaboration with community partners and advocates like you.

  • Regional Greenspace Funding and Access to Nature
    Beginning in the early 1990s, Portland Audubon and allies began organizing around the creation of a system of protected greenspaces on the urban landscape. Three decades of continued organizing and campaigns has resulted in nearly $1 billion of public investment in Metro’s greenspace system, with a continued focus on equitable access for all of the region’s residents.
  • Coalition for a Livable Future (CLF)
    Cofounded by Portland Audubon in 1994, CLF’s mission was to bring diverse member groups together to integrate urban conservation with social justice and equity initiatives in collaborative campaigns. The coalition set the stage for many community-based progressive campaigns centered on building complete, equitable communities that incorporate access to nature as a key feature. Its signature project, the Regional Equity Atlas, is still widely referenced today.
  • Willamette River Superfund
    Over the last 20+ years, this flagship project has integrated environmental justice and conservation goals while holding polluters accountable to clean up the Willamette River. We partnered with Willamette Riverkeeper, the Portland Harbor Community Coalition, and the Yakama Nation and lifted up their key cleanup priorities alongside our own.
  • Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF)
    This program is currently finalizing a five-year plan to invest $750 million in community-led projects that reduce carbon emissions, create economic opportunity, and make the city more climate resilient and equitable. It was Oregon’s first-ever community of color–led environmental ballot measure, envisioned by a handful of leaders who organized a core coalition, including Portland Audubon, that ultimately helped pass it into law.
  • Statewide Environmental Justice Initiatives
    Incoming conservation director Quinn Read is a member of the state’s Environmental Justice Council and will be part of developing an Oregon-specific mapping tool to help state agencies assess how communities are impacted by environmental justice benefits or burdens.

As we welcome Quinn, I think about how our slogan—Together for Nature—truly embodies our past, present, and future and provides direction for our mission and long-term transformational work that integrates equity, inclusion, and conservation. This work is especially important now because we have reached a critical point in terms of environmental damage and social and environmental justice reckoning. Stay tuned for more information about how you can help.