Stories in Washington

BIPOC Outdoors: Earth Day on Yellow Island

By Leah Palmer, TNC Writer/Editor

A man wears cold-weather clothing and stands outside in front of a body of water.
Underrepresentation BIPOC communities have limited access to nature due to systemic barriers. © Alma Williams
A group of people wearing cold-weather clothing pose for a group photo outdoors.
Earth Day Outing Members of Outdoor Asian, Outdoor Afro, and Latino Outdoors visit Yellow Island this Earth Day. © Quena Batres; illustration by Erica Simek Sloniker/TNC
Leah Palmer stands on a rocky shore and smiles for the camera.
Exploring Nature Leah Palmer explores the intertidal on Yellow Island. © Quaniqua Williams

Earth Day Reflections

I was invited by my colleague, Quena Batres, volunteer and community engagement manager, to join three outdoor groups on a journey to Yellow Island, an 11-acre island in Washington’s San Juan Islands. Members of Outdoor Asian (OA), Outdoor Afro (OA) and Latino Outdoors (LO) made up a group of 27 gathered on Earth Day 2023. People arrived in Anacortes, Washington, carrying brightly colored backpacks, binoculars, cameras, wading boots, lunch sacks with extra food to share, hats for warmth and sleepy smiles on a crisp and cloudy morning. Before our journey, Quena oriented the group and asked each person to share their name and a one-word check-in describing how they felt.

Joyful. Sleepy. Coffee. Curious. Dope. Excited. My word was first because this was my first adventure in Washington since moving from Oklahoma City to Seattle three days before. For the rest of the outing, I was playfully known as the girl who just moved.


Why Are POC Less Likely to Explore Public Lands?

These Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) explorers were honored to be present—perhaps because people of color are largely underrepresented in national parks, forests and wildlife preserves. According to The National Health Foundation, white people make up 70% of all visitors to public lands. Some believe this is because BIPOC do not enjoy the outdoors, which is an unfortunate stereotype. Visitor Quaniqua Williams said, “I held the assumption that Black folks do not spend much time outside. That assumption was debunked. Volunteering on Yellow Island began to shift my perspective about being outside.”

A beach is covered with logs and tree debris, with an ocean in the background.
Yellow Island Yellow Island is an 11-acre island in Washington’s San Juan Islands. © Monea Kerr

BIPOC communities have limited access to nature due to systemic barriers: lack of land ownership, historically segregated neighborhoods, threats of violence on the trail, expensive outdoor gear and more. These factors work against people of color enjoying nature in the same way white people often do.

Quena Batres’ work at TNC cultivates equitable access to nature and belonging. She says this is important, “especially for people of color, who can often feel isolated and excluded from many spaces, including in the outdoors.” Quena describes being motivated to host people of color on TNC lands, “where we gather participants to share a day outside, connecting with one another and connecting to place.”

Her leadership at The Nature Conservancy not only honored Earth Day but also shows a commitment to restoring balance between nature and all people. “There were many participants who had never visited the San Juan Islands, so being able to help connect them to more natural spaces in Washington to further build on their connection to place was a really great component of this trip,” Batres reflects. Chris Young, Washington chapter manager of Outdoor Asian, says his chapter desires more conversations about “the dominant historical narrative [of access to nature] through a critical lens.” And others echo the sentiment. Quaniqua Williams says, “It was a gift to be exploring the tidal pools with Chris Mantegna [marine biologist] and other POC.”

A collage of four Polaroid photos showing people enjoying nature.
Volunteers Participants planted native foods, cleaned up microplastics on the shore or explored the marine life on the intertidal. © Monea Kerr and Alma Williams; collage by Erica Simek Sloniker

A Day on Yellow Island

After introductions, the group boarded the “Blackfish” as we made our way through the San Juans, which pop out of the Salish Sea—like curved backs covered with lush green pine trees and spotted with shimmery orange madrone bark. But Yellow Island feels quite different from the others. Its spit is black and rocky, scattered by driftwood and bright, lush grasses. Yellow Island lacks the thick tree coverage of neighboring islands—an indication this land has been cultivated, nourished, thinned by fire, resulting in vibrant wildflowers each spring.

View looking across water at a small island with several trees on it.
Yellow Island The island was acquired by The Nature Conservancy in 1979 to preserve its delicate and diverse ecosystem. © Cameron Karsten

Yellow Island was acquired by The Nature Conservancy in 1979 to preserve its delicate and diverse ecosystem. The island is currently stewarded by Matt Axling, TNC’s Yellow Island preserve steward, with various Coast Salish co-stewards. One such person, Sam Barr, accompanied our adventure and provided critical history of the island, whose original caretakers were women and girls. The original land-keepers treated the island like an expansive garden, with food and medicine growing all around. Monea Kerr, Washington Sea Grant Marc Hershman fellow at TNC, enjoyed “learning about the camas plant, its traditional uses and the gardening of the land that has gone on for millennia.”

Matt Axling led our group through the island, pointing out the biodiversity around us. Yet, Yellow Island is also a testament for the impacts of climate change on Earth. Matt explained, “We have a quantitative ecologist [Ailene Ettinger] who just looked at all this data going back 40 years. In general, the plants you see blooming are blooming a little bit earlier than they were 40 years ago. This reinforces the idea that things are changing in our world quite a bit.”

Several people hike through wildflowers.
Exploring Nature Volunteers hike in the landscape of Yellow Island Preserve in the San Juan islands of Puget Sound. © Cameron Karsten

Perhaps the greatest gift was that each person was welcomed into land stewardship that day—with options to plant native foods, clean up microplastics on the shore or explore the marine life on the intertidal. Tending the land was intimate and grounding. I experienced skin-to-skin connection with a starfish, sampled rockweed and childishly navigated tidepools to discover tiny crabs and snails. One woman in our group, Chris Mantegna, is a marine biologist with a wealth of knowledge about Pacific shores. Chris gave us permission to play, declaring, “The Ocean is dope!” just before leading a small pack to look closely for mossy chiton, her favorite marine creature. Alma Williams, Outdoor Afro coach, said she enjoyed learning about the marine ecosystems. “I saw sea stars that I had never known existed. It was also a true treat to be led on the tidepool walk by a Black marine biologist.”

A collage of four Polaroid photos showing people exploring tidepools.
Scenes from the Day BIPOC outdoor groups visit Yellow Island, exploring it's marine life in the intertidal. © Alma Williams, Outdoor Afro Coach; collage by Erica Simek Sloniker

Meanwhile, others explored inland. Sam Young, Washington Chapter manager at Outdoor Asian, reflects, “It was so exciting to connect with folks over our love for nature, appreciation of Yellow Island and through our varied experiences as people of color. We have all had different life journeys and career paths and somehow all ended up on Yellow Island on Earth Day. Friendships were made :)"

After docking back at Anacortes, Quena led the group through another one-word reflection. Our circle expressed the power of connecting with the land and with each other. Grounded. Joyful. Grateful. Alive. Connected.

And me—the girl who just moved? I felt welcomed home.

So, if you’re like me—a Black, Indigenous Latinx woman exploring a new home—I recommend connecting to the natural spaces around you. A good way to do this is to find local outdoor groups. Pamela Lim, Outdoor Asian’s Washington event coordinator, notes, “If you identify as AAPI, join us at future events! We center the AAPI diaspora in all of our programming and outings. We focus on beginner-friendly activities and defining our identity in the outdoors.” And if you do not identify as a person of color, or simply have experienced greater access to public lands or preserves, I invite you to support organizations like these however you can. Start by using the links below to follow, like, share and donate.

Support BIPOC-Identifying Outdoor Groups


Outdoor Afro


Outdoor Asian


Latino Outdoors

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