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The Colonial Origins of Conservation: The Disturbing History Behind US National Parks
August 25, 2015
By Stephen Corry
Iconoclasm – questioning heroes and ideals, and even tearing them down – can be the most difficult thing. Many people root their attitudes and lives in narratives that they hold to be self-evidently true. So it’s obvious that changing conservation isn’t going to be an easy furrow to plow.
However, change it must. Conservation’s achievements don’t alter the fact that it’s rooted in two serious and related mistakes. The first is that it conserves “wildernesses,” which are imagined to be shaped only by nature. The second is that it believes in a hierarchy, with superior, intelligent human beings at the top. Many conservationists still believe that they are uniquely endowed with the foresight and expertise to control and manage so-called wildernesses and that everyone else must leave, including those who actually own them and have lived there for generations.
These notions are archaic; they damage people and the environment. The second also flouts the law, with its perpetual land grabs. For nature’s sake as well as our own, it’s crucial to expose how these ideas grew and flourished, to understand just how mistaken they are. There’s an ongoing attempt to wipe from the map the quagmire around conservation’s wellspring, to pretend it’s all now transparent and sunlit. It isn’t.
Some conservationists, usually those lower in the pecking order, have the morality to face reality. They must prevail. With enough support, they will propel the industry from below toward a radically different approach, one that stands a far better chance of saving the environment and one using far smaller sums of money to do so.
This iconoclastic revolution is urgently needed, and there’s no better time: 2015 is the 125th anniversary of Yosemite National Park, and 2016 completes a century for the United States National Park Service. These are highly symbolic anniversaries: Conservation dogmas were rooted in colonial conquest and were inextricably bound up in the genocide committed against Native Americans. Both lies – that of the wilderness and that of the inferiority of some human beings – were in full flower by 1916, though they were seeded earlier when the US began to invent the parks model that is still, all too harmfully, exported around the world.
The Eviction of the Ahwahneechee People From Yosemite
The conservation movement (and its problems) really began with the 1864 Yosemite Grant Act. Conservation leaders like John Muir believed that the indigenous people who had inhabited Yosemite for at least 6,000 years were a desecration and had to go. Muir deemed them “lazy” because their hunting techniques yielded a good living without wasted effort. Such prejudice is alive and well today: An official in India said that tribal people don’t want to leave their forest because they get “fodder and income … for free” and are too lazy to work, so must be evicted.
White invaders saw the land as pristine wilderness because it didn’t conform to their European industrial image of productivity. In reality, Yosemite had long been an environment shaped by its inhabitants through controlled undergrowth burning (which created its healthy forests with big trees and a rich biodiversity), tree planting for acorns as a food staple, and sustainable predation on its game, which ensured species balance.
In the 19th century, the newcomers didn’t hesitate to send in the army to police this wilderness and get rid of everyone else. One historian, Jeffrey Lee Rodger, is sympathetic to the cavalrymen, but admits their “improvised punishments … were clearly extralegal and may have veered into arbitrary … force.” He might have compared such “punishments” with those still supported by conservation today, particularly in Africa and Asia, where tribal people are routinely kicked out of parks and beaten, even tortured, when they resist.
Native Americans were evicted from almost all the American parks, but a few Ahwahneechee people were tolerated inside Yosemite for a few more decades. They were forced to serve tourists and act out humiliating “Indian days” for the visitors. The latter wanted the Indians they saw in the movies, so the Ahwahneechee had to dress and dance as if they were from the Great Plains. If they didn’t serve the park, they were out – and they all did finally die or leave, with their last dwellings deliberately and ignominiously burned down in a fire drill in 1969.
As Luther Standing Bear declaimed, “Only to the white man was nature a wilderness … to us it was tame. Earth was bountiful.” The parks were and are supposed to preserve their “wilderness,” but they’ve never been very successful. In the case of Yosemite: over a thousand miles of often-crowded roads and hiking trails were constructed; trees were felled to make viewpoints; the balance of species was altered as animal and human predators were eliminated; trout were introduced to delight anglers; a luxury hotel was built; bear feeding areas were established to thrill visitors, so conditioning the animals to scavenge for human food; and hoteliers carried out a “firefall” for a century, in which burning wood was pushed over Glacier Point to cascade thousands of feet into the valley (the scars remain visible nearly 50 years after it was halted).
The Native Americans’ own fires, their ancient practice of seasonal and controlled undergrowth burning, was stopped. One result is the devastating conflagrations that now plague California; those simply wouldn’t have happened on the Natives’ watch.
This wasn’t preservation, it was reshaping the environment to extract tourist dollars. In spite of this, and the fact that the National Park Service has presided over a loss of biodiversity and dozens of species extinctions, many conservationists have continued to believe they’re better at protecting environments than the tribal peoples who live in them.
Scientific Racism in the Conservation Movement
The conservation movement’s historically dismissive attitudes toward indigenous people were intertwined with the ideas of scientific racism and eugenics that were just beginning to emerge when the Yosemite Grant Act was passed. Charles Darwin had published The Origin of Species five years before the passage of the act, and Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, was beginning to develop his racist ideas of eugenics, declaring, “The feeble nations of the world are necessarily giving way before the nobler varieties of mankind.” Eugenics enthusiasts in Britain included writer H.G. Wells and playwright George Bernard Shaw, who thought those he saw as genetically inferior, who couldn’t “justify their existence,” should be humanely gassed. John Maynard Keynes, William Beveridge and Marie Stopes joined up, together with most of the liberal intelligentsia.
In the US, eugenics and conservation were born twins. Wealthy big-game hunters, including Teddy Roosevelt and his friend Madison Grant, both major conservationists, were among the most enthusiastic to embrace the racist creed. Their initial priority was to conserve the herds that provided their sport, and the easiest way to do that – so they thought – was to remove the “predators” who were killing the game to eat (and for its leather) rather than to hang horns on the wall. But these predators were principally human hunters – both Native Americans and poor colonists trying to eke a living from an unfamiliar world.
Ousting these subsistence hunters had the opposite of the desired effect. Elk herds in Yellowstone, for example, grew beyond the carrying capacity of the land. (The same is happening now, with elephants in Botswana.) Weak animals, once the first to fall from hunter’s arrow or wolf’s fang, started reaching reproductive age. The herd grew, but the animals sickened as hunger took its toll. Seeing their precious trophies fading through their bungling, the elite came up with ideas of “game management,” still applied today. The key is to cull, keeping the herd smaller but stronger.
They then turned their attention to the human “herd,” which was expanding rapidly from European immigration. Following Galton, they categorized humankind into hierarchical “races” and feared the country being swamped by what they considered to be lower races, including “Mediterraneans,” “Alpines,” and Jews.
The big-game hunting boys saw themselves as a different ilk. As the “Aryans” from northern Europe, they saw themselves as the creators of “true” civilization, science, culture, religion and wealth. They believed that racial mixing would threaten their “race” and what they saw as its irreplaceable talents. They passed laws to reduce immigration to the United States from “non-Aryan” countries, they outlawed interracial marriage and imposed segregation wherever possible, and they coercively sterilized anyone they could get their hands on who didn’t fit their bill; no one with a mental, physical, or even social, problem was safe, particularly the poor.
The most important hunter-turned-conservationist, Madison Grant, was also their principal writer. He was a key supporter, often founder or leader, of a dozen or so conservation groups that still exist, though he barely appears in their official histories. Among the most prominent were the Save the Redwoods League; the New York Zoological Society (now the Wildlife Conservation Society, WCS); and the National Parks Association (now the National Parks Conservation Association).
His book, The Passing of the Great Race, was published in the year the National Park Service was founded. Science Magazine’s glowing review enthused over its “solid merit.” Thirty years later, it would be cited by German Nazis who couldn’t understand why they were on trial: They were, they pleaded, simply emulating the United States, where scientific eugenics had long been used to shape society. Grant had sent a translation of his book to Hitler, who called it his Bible.
Widespread Support for Eugenics
Scratch the record anywhere in the early conservation movement, and eugenics sounds loud and clear: Alexander Graham Bell, who falsely claimed to have invented the telephone and who was one of the founders of the National Geographic Society; two charter members of the Sierra Club, David Starr Jordan (founding president of Stanford University) and Luther Burbank were all prominent members of the movement. George Grinnell, founder of the Audubon Society (and Edward Curtis’ mentor) was Madison Grant’s close friend for nearly 50 years. The National Park Service’s first director, mining magnate Stephen Mather, was backed by Charles Goethe, of the Audubon and Kenya Wildlife Societies, regional head of the Sierra Club and outspoken advocate of Nazi eugenic laws.
In 1937, Goethe wrote to Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, director of “racial hygiene” in Frankfurt, saying, “I feel passionately that you are leading all mankind herein,” according to Garland E. Allen’s 2012 essay, “Culling the Herd,” in the Journal of the History of Biology. Verschuer was doctoral supervisor and collaborator of Josef Mengele, infamous for his barbaric experiments on children in Auschwitz. He continued to excel after the war, as professor of genetics at Münster.
In one article, “Patriotism and Racial Standards” published in a 1936 issue of Eugenical News, Goethe enthused, “We are moving toward the elimination of humanity’s undesirables like Sambo, the husband to Mandy the ‘washerlady.’ ” In 1965, on his 90th birthday, Goethe was dubbed the state’s “number one citizen” by California’s governor. He fought immigration from Mexico, making the racist argument that Mexicans have low IQs.
Eugenics grew into the establishment belief of the first half of the 20th century and didn’t falter seriously until 1945, when an American battalion stumbled into Buchenwald, just after its prisoners had seized it from fleeing camp guards.
When the Nazis had built it, their second concentration camp, an oak tree growing inside its fences had consciously been conserved. It was symbolic, though not about nature: Goethe (no relation to the conservationist) had written poetry, including some of Faust, under its branches.
The military defeat of Nazism was to unveil scientific eugenics as a true Faustian pact, absurdly false and grotesquely violent. That should have been its end. But as with much in this history, the fog of obfuscation hangs over the landscape: Eugenic affiliations are continually denied or censored.
Acclaimed figures in post-war European conservation included former Nazis like Prince Bernhard, a founder of WWF (who joined the allies before the war), and Bernhard Grzimek, the self-proclaimed “savior of the Serengeti,” cofounder of Friends of the Earth Germany, and former director of the Frankfurt Zoological Society – one of Europe’s biggest conservation funders. He made sure the Maasai and other tribes were expelled.
So did Mike Fay of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the creator of the Nouabalé-Ndoki Park in the Congo, which kicked out the Mbendjele people, using US taxpayers’ money. The Wildlife Conservation Society trained the guards who now beat Mbendjele people for suspected poaching. Given the way they’re treated, it’s frankly not surprising that those who once lived on and from the land “poach” if the opportunity arises: Conservation breeds poachers.
When today’s environmental leaders press for curbs on immigration and population, it can only call to mind this violent past. Did David Brower, for example, founder of both Friends of the Earth and Earth Island Institute, have to assert that having children without a license should be a crime – given that he had four of his own?
Few environmentalists protest at the theft of tribal lands or stand for indigenous rights. For example, John Burton, of the World Land Trust, formerly of Friends of the Earth, and Fauna and Flora International, openly opposes the very idea, though other key players, some in Greenpeace for example, have signaled support for tribes.
The unexpurgated history of conservation matters because it still shapes attitudes toward tribal peoples. Conservationists no longer pretend to be saving their “race,” but they certainly claim to be saving the world’s heritage, and they mostly retain a supercilious attitude toward those they are destroying.
Such attitudes must change. Conservation nowadays, particularly in Africa and Asia, seems to be as much about land grabbing and profit as anything else. Its quiet partnerships with the logging and mining industries damage the environment. Tribal people are still abused, even shot, for poaching, when they’re just trying to feed their families, while “conservation” still encourages trophy hunting. The rich can hunt, the poor can’t.
In spite of the growing evidence to the contrary, many senior conservationists can’t accept that tribal peoples really are able to manage their lands. They’re wrong. It’s a great con trick and it’s time it was stopped.
Other conservationists are keen to do better. They deserve to know there’s a groundswell of public support behind them, pushing for a major change in conservation to benefit, finally, tribal peoples, nature, and us all.