Dave McRae has been frequenting areas of the George Washington National Forest for well over eight years. It’s where he hunts, camps, hikes, forages and brings his family to enjoy the outdoors.
Now, it is a landscape that is forever altered for him. As a Black man, he said the threat of racism is constant and real.
Over the summer, two instances of racist vandalism on public land near the forest have sparked a call to action, with local residents, an area club and a national nonprofit pushing for a response from the agencies who oversee the land.
The first message was scrawled with spray paint on the underpass of Virginia 130. It’s an area accessible by kayak or boat, near the put-in at Snowden boat ramp in Amherst County. The second was carved deep into the bark of a sycamore tree on an island in the James River, about a mile upriver from the bridge.
These acts of racism were far from spontaneous — they required prep work and power tools. Pat Mitchell, founder of the Blue Ridge Mycological Society, often hunts and forages for mushrooms in this area with McRae. It was his friend, another Lynchburg resident, who first brought the vandalism at the bridge to his attention.
The paint spanned about 15 feet of concrete under the bridge and included racist words and a drawing of a noose.
“It was large, blatant and graphic,” Mitchell said. “A lot happened to make that appear there.”
He imagined the person responsible for the racial epithets had to prop the boat to hold it still. They had to drive out to a remote area of the national forest with paint and an intent.
It was May when Mitchell’s friend found the message, and it stuck with him — so much so, that he woke up on Father’s Day, went back to the bridge with his kayak, paint can and a roller, and completely covered it up. On his next trip to the area, he went to an island Mitchell and McRae frequent. There, on a “beautiful, carved sycamore,” was another racist message.
“It had to have been a power tool, more precise than a chain saw.” Likely, an attachment on a battery-operated angle grinder, making “deep, deep cuts.”
McRae, who lives in Fluvanna County, said this won’t keep him away from the area forever, but it has brought these latent concerns to the forefront of his mind. Every person he passes, every truck and car, he has to wonder if that was the perpetrator, has to worry about what comes next.
It isn’t like the “usual random worries,” he said, not a concern that someone crazy is lurking in the woods.
“For me, there is a normal person in the woods who hates what I am,” he said. “Enough to make a mural.”
It was Mitchell who warned McRae of the messages, and McRae, “not surprised, just disappointed,” brought the vandalism to the attention of Oregon-based nonprofit Hunters of Color.
Lydia Parker is a founder and the executive director of HOC. She lives in Oregon, and is from the Kanien’kehá:ka, more commonly known as the Mohawk tribe.
Parker and her two co-founders began the organization to increase BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) participation in hunting for the sake of conservation, food sovereignty and to preserve ancestral traditions.
According to a survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 97% of hunters are white, and Parker said it is a space that is exclusionary to BIPOC, with barriers to entry and blatant underrepresentation of minority communities in the United States.
“For the sake of conservation, and for the future of hunting and conservation, too, we need to be able to diversify in all outdoor activities,” Parker said.
In August, HOC reached out to both the Glenwood-Pedlar U.S. Forest Service district and the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources to ask they take action against the vandalism, including removing the racial epithet from the tree and denouncing racism in a statement. Other requests included the placement of a plaque near the sycamore tree, and that a ranger be assigned to patrol the grounds or a camera installed.
The message was cosigned by Mitchell, and by extension the Blue Ridge Mycological Society, and by McRae. HOC made a post compiling photos of the vandalism and its requests to the agencies on Public Lands Day in September.
Parker said the USFS and the DWR each redirected her to the other multiple times. It still is unclear exactly which agency is responsible for the land on which the vandalism occurred.
According to Lauren Stull, district ranger with the Glenwood-Pedlar district, while much of the land in this general area is part of the George Washington and Jefferson national forests, the forest service does not manage the Snowden boat ramp or boater access to the James River. In regards to the island, the national forest boundary ends at the south bank of the James River in that area. Regardless of ownership, she said the USFS will work cooperatively with the DWR.
Stull said the forest service received a call in late August from HOC, which made them aware of the vandalism, and Forest Service law enforcement responded cooperatively with a DWR conservation officer to investigate the matter.
Mitchell said any response from the agencies did not come without considerable “pushing and nudging.” The first statement in response, jointly delivered on DWR’s Instagram page Sept. 24, was a denouncement of vandalism with no mention of race. It left McRae, Parker and Mitchell dissatisfied.
McRae said the “lukewarm” response from agencies involved is more than disappointing. This isn’t a dog whistle, he said, it’s blatant.
“Would it take me swinging under a bridge for you guys to be like, ‘Oh, okay, you know what, maybe we should kind of be serious about this?’” he asked.
A second statement came from the DWR on Sept. 28. This one called out the recent racist vandalism, calling it a “brazen effort to marginalize, intimidate, and anger our minority hunters and anglers, who have long been a key part of the outdoors community.”
It said these actions must be met by “anti-racism,” in the form of intentional actions, initiatives and policies that promote equity. Specifically, the statement cited the DWR’s first Inclusive Excellence Strategic plan, which was developed over the last year, and finalized in June.
George Braxton, chief diversity and inclusion officer with DWR, helped to spearhead this statement. He was unable to answer the question of jurisdiction but said his position was it “didn’t matter.” As “stewards of the wild spaces in Virginia,” and the license providers for hunters, anglers and other outdoor sports, he said jurisdiction mattered less than addressing the issue itself.
Braxton said he does not believe the vandalism is representative of the community at large but said “we definitely want our position known on this and our zero tolerance for this kind of activity.”
Forest Supervisor Joby Timm said George Washington and Jefferson national forests support the statement against racism by DWR.
“We stand ready to oppose all forms of racism,” Timm said Thursday in a written statement to The News & Advance. “The Forest Service mission is grounded in connecting people — all people — to the land and to one another.”
Parker appreciated the explicit denouncement of racism from the DWR.
“It’s more than just vandalism that’s the issue, it’s the intention behind the vandalism,” she said. “If that’s the amount of energy and effort that someone is willing to put into carving a tree to make a statement, then people who think that racism is bad need to put in that much time, energy and effort to stand against racism” — to be “anti-racist” rather than just “not racist.”
It’s not an isolated incident, Parker said. HOC constantly hears reports from BIPOC all over the country who experience things like this, are chased off of public land by other hunting parties or face countless other barriers to entry in spaces that are meant to be “for everyone.”
“It’s something that so many folks don’t have to think about,” Parker said. “In reality it’s something that happens so much more often than people know.”
According to Mitchell, neither the DWR or the USFS was responsible for the eventual removal of either act of vandalism.
The vandalism on the bridge was painted over by his friend, and the use of the n-word on the tree was “halfheartedly hacked-off” by someone who must have come upon it independently.
Early in October, Mitchell and some friends returned to the island and the sycamore with a machete and a hammer and lathed out the rest of the hate speech and imagery, with the exception of the letters spelling the word “LOVE.”
He’s been in talks with an arborist and has determined the tree will likely survive, though it’s been “gored pretty good.” He still hopes to see a plaque erected, something that will explain the damage done to the tree and the scars the cuts will leave behind.
“It needs to be known that there are allies,” Mitchell said, “and that there are people that care enough to further mutilate a tree to take that message off.”