The Next 50: Pennsylvania’s Evolving Legacy

Over the last year, we’ve celebrated PEC’s 50th anniversary by looking back at our history and impact on Pennsylvania’s environment. As we enter a new year, that legacy will help guide us and serve as a reminder of the many tasks ahead. 

This is the final piece in our 50th anniversary series, which can be found here.

Nathan Boon, Senior Program Officer for the William Penn Foundation.

The intractable environmental problems can be solved. The prohibitively expensive can be financed. The self-interested can be moved to common cause. And regardless of the difficulty or expense, our environment is always worth it. Generations of environmental leaders have mobilized in their turn to accomplish the impossible, drawing inspiration from nature to ensure its preservation for those that would follow. These are the aspects of Pennsylvania’s conservation legacy that will guide the rising generation of environmental leaders through the next 50 years.

As a water resources professional, I am unsurprised to see water’s influence across the pantheon of Pennsylvania’s environmental leaders. Rachel Carson first drew inspiration from the ocean for the early work on shorebirds that would later lead to her game-changing call to action on pesticides. Franklin Kury writes of the formative experience that seeing his neighborhood creek turn black with sewage had in developing his own environmental ethic. Even Gifford Pinchot, patron saint of the forested landscape, drew on humanity’s most sacred obligation to characterize the role those lands play in providing for our waterways, characterizing the relationship between forests and rivers as one of parent to child: no parent—no child.

Each of these leaders, armed with the science of their times, galvanized the support needed to confront the environmental issues of their day. Indeed, each saw ample opportunity to have their mettle tested, as environmental degradation appears as much a pattern of our inheritance as Pennsylvania’s spirit of perseverance. For the last 50 years and the 50 prior, Pennsylvania has cycled through the consequences of unchecked consumption and unmitigated waste. Our commonwealth has seen its forests razed for timber, its mountains rendered for ore, its skies rain acid, and its rivers run black.

But I also wonder at the limitations imposed upon past leaders by the lack of available data—what may have constrained their vision of future possibilities? When James Henderson Duff led the Schuylkill River Restoration, did he imagine that waters black with coal dust would give way to waters black with sewage? Could Maurice Goddard, champion of our state parks, anticipate the consequences of extracting not timber but shale gas from those same landscapes? Did PEC’s founders appreciate that the Clean Water Act’s success in reining in municipal and industrial point sources would reveal the rise of comparable threats from sprawling development and industrialized agriculture?

Notions of affinity for the land and for outdoor recreation must reference and respond to our nation’s legacy of racism.

For the rising generation of environmental leaders, the quality of today’s science and data provides an unprecedented level of insight into our environmental future. What else can we do with this knowledge but act dramatically? The very nature of the current climate crisis compels those attaining positions of authority and influence to confront entrenched patterns of consumption with urgency and conviction. Let the New Deal of the 1930s give way to a Green Deal for the 2020s. May the billions invested through the Clean Water Act multiply tenfold for a shared climate agenda. And let the patriots and freedom fighters that would mobilize for civil rights find common cause in a new movement for climate justice.

The magnitude of the climate crisis is such that we truly cannot afford to act alone. The nature of our challenge transcends traditional and historical divisions, creating new opportunity and new urgency to embrace perspectives and resources that have been historically ignored by mainstream conservation and underrepresented within the environmental movement.

The last 50 years have seen the modern environmental movement increasingly embrace the reality that our success is shaped by women as much as by men. I look to the immediate future and commit my peers to ensuring that the same can be said for environmental leaders of every race and ethnicity. The climate crisis is an “all hands on deck” affair, and this movement cannot afford to ignore or dismiss allies who bring desperately needed resources and unique expertise.

Across the years, we observe environmental leaders defined as much by their love of the outdoors as by their abhorrence of its desecration. Moving forward, we must acknowledge the common values that traditional conservation interests share with the more racially diverse movements for environmental and social justice, our shared affinity and our shared outrage, and the differences and disparities in how those values manifest. Let us visit the principles of equity and consider: Who has high-quality access to the outdoors? Who is directly subjected to the harms of pollution?

Our rivers and forests must support a thriving culture of outdoor recreation for urban and rural communities of all races.

Throughout this last century, so many in the environmental movement, myself included, can trace their careers back to formative experiences with outdoor recreation. Be they physical, cultural, or environmental, where barriers to those experiences break down by race, they are intrinsically unjust and must be confronted. Our rivers and forests must support a thriving culture of outdoor recreation for urban and rural communities of all races. Notions of affinity for the land and for outdoor recreation must reference and respond to our nation’s legacy of racism, to the systematic divestment of black and brown families from their land, and to their history of exclusion from parks and swimming areas. It is the work of this generation to redress our living legacy of both environmental contamination and racial segregation.

Do we lovers of quiet places find ourselves outraged as much by the environmental degradation experienced at home as by the loss of far-off wild places? There is disparity in how Pennsylvanians experience these outrages to the environment, disparity that is too often dictated by race or income. This must inform our renewed efforts to build power and work in coalition. In 2020, the environmental movement cannot ignore the 20% of Pennsylvanians who identify as black or brown. How else can we imagine success for the next 50 years as this population is projected to double?


Ideas of what constitutes an authentic or worthy representation of nature must be revisited, as must our programs of investment in the essential work of protecting and restoring our environment. We must ask the hard questions. Who stands to benefit most from investments in open space preservation when a Pennsylvania-specific sample of national survey data reveals exactly zero non-white owners of farmland or large forest tracts in a state where non-white individuals comprise an entire fifth of the population? Conversely, who stands to benefit most from investments in restoring our most degraded landscapes when the majority of Pennsylvania’s registered brownfields and pollution permit violations are located in environmental justice communities defined by their racial diversity as much as by their economic disadvantage? Is the intractable issue of our day the legacy of fossil fuels, or is it the legacy of systemic racism? Principles of intersectional movement building would call this out as a false choice, as false as the choice between individual responsibility and corporate accountability.

We have an opportunity to align environmental mores with the most powerful and culturally resonant values of our times, in the context of the most urgent environmental crisis of our times. Our coalitions will be founded on principles of equity and justice as much as on our love for green space and flowing water. If we center our work on people, we know exactly who will speak for the trees—people, just as it has been all along, across generations of environmental leaders.

My generation gets criticized for its sense of entitlement, and it’s true, we are very demanding. We demand our right to equal opportunity, equal pay, equal treatment—and as Pennsylvanians, we further demand our right to clean air, pure water, and the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and aesthetic values of the environment! Of course, it isn’t enough to just demand these ideals. We have to work for them, and the work only goes faster the more hands we bring to the task.

Nathan Boon is a senior program officer for the William Penn Foundation in Philadelphia, where he supports science- and data-driven approaches to protect and restore the Delaware River Watershed. He has served on the board of directors of the American Water Resources Association, National Capital Region Section, and was a member of the American Public Health Association, Environment Section.