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Myths of the Anthropocene Boosters: Truthout’s Misguided Attack on Wilderness and National Park Ideals

Stephen Corry is the founder and director of Survival International, an organization that seeks to protect tribal people’s rights. While a worthy goal, Corry, unfortunately, seeks to blame conservation for many of the ills facing tribal people, rather than recognizing that conservation is ultimately the best way to retain and protect native culture from the rapacious indulgences of modern industrial society.

In his essay attacking the national park ideal, “The Colonial Origins of Conservation”, Corry repeats factual errors of both omission and misinterpretation.

Corry’s assertions align with a larger movement that seeks to denigrate conservation goals and ideals. These same misinterpretations now dominate many critiques of national parks coming from predominately politically left-leaning academics in fields like anthropology, history, and political science which celebrate humanity’s role on Earth. The arguments from this camp are often very similar to those in business and industry who advocate human control, exploitation, and domination of the Earth.

Ironically, Corry starts his essay by asserting that “Many people root their attitudes and lives in narratives that they hold to be self-evidently true.” Yet he seems unaware of his guilt in this matter.

MYTH 1: WILDERNESS IS A CULTURAL IDEA, NOT REAL

As part of the foundation for Corry’s criticism of parks and other protected areas is the notion that conservationists have some idealized notion of “wilderness” as pristine and untouched by humans. This is a strawman set up by anti-wilderness/parks critics that simply does not reflect the thinking of most conservationists.

Park and wilderness advocates are quite aware that humans have lived in and traveled most areas of the globe. This doesn’t invalidate the idea that some places are less influenced and manipulated to suit human ends. Even today we see this disproportionate human influence.  What is now protected as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska is certainly far more dominated by natural processes than a major urban area under human influence like Los Angeles. Even before European settlement in America, humanity was concentrated in the most favorable locations. Tribal warfare, combined with periodic famines and disease as well as the waxing and waning of climate ensured that human settlement and influences were varied and not uniform across the continent.

Much of these lands would meet the definition of wilderness as most conservationists understand it—in other words where Nature, rather than humans, is the primary influence upon the land.

As much as anything, low human population numbers (in most places) combined with limited technology reduced human influence. That is not to suggest that humans could not and did not have impacts on the landscape. It is clear from archeological and other research from the Easter Islands to the Hawaiian Islands that humans could over-exploit resources including causing the extinction of animals.

Even where people were concentrated, their impact and influence upon the landscape was still much less than human manipulation and exploitation enabled today with modern technology. There’s no comparison between cutting down trees with a stone ax and what can be accomplished leveling a forest with industrial logging equipment.

MYTH 2: TRIBES WERE NOT PUT ON RESERVATIONS TO CREATE US NATIONAL PARKS

In his essay, like many before him, Corry misinterprets history and relies on innuendo to fit his narrative that Native Americans were displaced to create national parks and other reserves. For example, he repeats the same tired idea that Indian tribes were “evicted” from Yosemite to create a national park.

The origins of this myth has to do with the settlement of California. During the 1849 California Gold Rush, much of the Sierra Nevada foothills was settled by miners. In 1850 after members of the local tribe inhabiting the Yosemite Valley raided several trading posts, a group of miners sought retaliation. In 1851, the miners, along with others, organized the Mariposa Battalion that sought revenge. The battalion engaged some Indians in a pre-dawn battle near Wanona within present-day Yosemite National Park. Some of the Indians surrendered, while others dispersed and hid in the mountains. By the time the Battalion reached what is now the Yosemite Valley, all they could locate was one old Indian woman. The Mariposa Battalion burned the Indians’ huts and left.

A year later, another military force entered the valley and captured most of the tribe and sent them to a reservation in the Central Valley. This occurred in 1852—some 38 years before Yosemite was declared a national park (in 1890).

These military actions, treaties and reservations were all part of the US. Manifest Destin-y aspirations, and had nothing to do with creating national parks. With the exception of Yellowstone National Park, which was established in 1872, all other US national parks were created in 1890 or later, well after all tribal people were sequestered on reservations.

And even in the case of Yellowstone, all of the local tribes that had any association with the lands in what is now the park, were on reservations prior to even discussions of park creation. None were “moved” or “killed” so as to create the park. Indeed, by the time the first government expeditions were dispatched in 1871 and 1872 to explore and document the features of what is now Yellowstone, they did not report seeing any Native Americans since by then all were already residing on reservations.

When Yellowstone was created, there was no National Park Service, and in the early years, without rangers or other government entities, the park suffered from market hunters, poachers, and other outlaws who were hauling off parts of petrified trees, geyser  rock formations, and other park features. To prevent the continued vandalism of the park, the U.S. Army was stationed in Yellowstone beginning in 1883 to build roads and trails, and to provide a government presence to discourage poaching, and the destruction of park features by irresponsible tourists.

Some authors try to insinuate the military was there to keep Indians out of the park. However, as related earlier, all of the Native Americans in this region were already on reservations. The US Army was stationed at forts around the West to ensure safe travel and settlement, not to protect wildlife and natural features.

Occasionally, as with the Nez Perce Indians in 1877 who fled their reservation in Idaho and traveled through Montana and Yellowstone seeking to evade U.S. troops, the Army pursued them through the park. But this action was not done to keep the Indians out of Yellowstone, but to capture the Nez Perce so they could be repatriated back to the reservation.

MYTH 3: INDIAN FIRE UNDERMINES WILDERNESS IDEA

Corry uses the Indian fire theory, as do many other Anthropocene boosters  to dismiss the idea that “wild nature” ever existed. Basically most Anthropocene boosters wildly exaggerate the influence of human-ignitions on vegetation to suggest that almost all forests were “managed” by Native American burning. Frequent, low severity fires set by Natives were alleged to maintain “healthy forests.”

While the original source of this idea was useful to counter the often held notion that wildfires were destructive or damaging to forest ecosystems, the concept that almost all vegetation was affected by frequent human- ignitions simply ignores basic wildfire behavior and fire ecology.

Recent studies by fire ecologists have concluded that while humans did set fires for a host of reasons (including to favor or attract certain plant or animal species), most of this burning occurred only in the vicinity of villages or other settlements.

Beyond the reach of local areas, it is questionable whether Indian burning was additive to what would otherwise burn due to lightning and other ignitions under natural fire regimes.

Furthermore, due to the natural resistance to ignition and burning of many plant communities, the vast majority of vegetation simply does not burn except under extraordinary circumstances—usually characterized by extended drought, low humidity, and high winds. With the exception of lower elevation pine forests, most plant communities in North America do not burn readily.

For example, much of the forested plateau in Yellowstone National Park is dominated by lodgepole pine/subalpine fir that is typically too moist or lacks sufficient fine surface fuels to burn. The natural fire interval is hundreds of years between major blazes and only occurs when there is a natural convergence of extreme drought coupled with low humidity, and very high winds while a blaze is burning.  These circumstances simply do not occur very often.

You could run through the forest with a blow touch and not get a blaze going in most years. Though Indians often camped in Yellowstone, they did not have any apparent influence on fire frequency or extent. And this same generalization about human influences on fire regimes is true across most of North America.

So the idea that Native Americans were somehow “managing” the forests across the continent is factually in error.

PARK MANAGEMENT ERRORS

Corry lists many of the mismanagement errors of Yosemite from the elimination of predators to the control of wildfires to the introduction of non-native trout to construction of major hotels and other accommodations to demonstrate how parks were not and are not places where wild nature exists. But in doing so, just as with his attempt to link Indian removal to reservations with park establishment, he ignores the cultural context that all of these policies were part and parcel of larger societal goals that went on in and outside of parks. In other words, they had nothing particular to do with Parks, rather they were a reflection of society’s overall goals for management of all lands.

What he misses is the fact, that National Parks were among the first places where some these ecological wrongs were corrected. For example, beginning in the 1930s some park biologists began to advocate for protection of predators, well before these ideas were accepted outside of parks. The same can be said about wildfire—where national parks were the first places to start allowing natural fires to play their historic ecological role without suppression. Ditto for the stocking of exotic species like brook trout in western parks, which now seldom occurs.  And today new construction of facilities in national parks is often discouraged, and if built, managers seek to take into consideration their impact on wildlife, native plants, and natural processes.

Corry also takes out of content other scientific facts. He asserts that parks have failed to halt the decline in biodiversity.  Absolutely correct. Indeed, we are experiencing what some suggest is the Sixth Great Extinction. But the evidence from many global examples finds that parks, particularly large parks, do a better job of protecting biodiversity and natural processes than any other kind of land designation, and certainly much better than lands that are exploited for hunting, livestock grazing, logging, mining, and farming and/or exploited by native people.

Thoughtful conservationists are well aware of the limitations of protected reserves. Many of the issues with species decline can be attributed not to a lack of management and exploitation by “indigenous people” as Corry implies, but as a consequence of more widely known and acknowledged reasons such small size of preserves, illegal poaching, lack of connectivity with other reserves.

Indeed, the growing consensus in conservation and scientific communities is not that parks and other wildlands reserves are failures, but that we need more of them, and in more places. At least half of the Earth should be protected, particularly biological hot spots.

RACISM AND CONSERVATION

Corry goes a step further to denigrate conservation and parks by insinuating that they are tools of racism. He does this by taking out of context the quotes and writings of early conservation leaders like Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, and others. There is no doubt that some of their statements would be viewed as racist today. Yet within the context of their culture and times, they were actually among the more liberal voices. And no matter what their expressed views on race indicated, it does not mean their support of parks and other restraint on human exploitation were bankrupt ideas.

Some critics of Thomas Jefferson like to suggest that the man who wrote in the U.S.  Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” was a hypocrite because he held slaves, ignoring the fact that nearly all wealthy men of the era held slaves, and Jefferson was no exception. Evaluating personal behavior of historic individuals by today’s cultural standards is unfair.  Nevertheless, Jefferson’s inconsistent personal behavior does not invalidate the idea that the goals and values expressed in the Declaration of Independence are worthy of support and emulation.

CULTURAL VS RACIAL INDIGENIOUSNESS

The core reason for Corry’s attack on the park ideal is that he feels they are often created on the backs of local peoples, particularly indigenous people whose traditional hunting and gathering grounds may be incorporated into a park and thus off limits to future exploitation.

What Corry and other advocates fail to acknowledge is that with very few exceptions, most of humanity is now hooked in one way or another with modern technology. From the adoption of rifles, motorboats, fishing nets, and even airplanes in the pursuit of game and fish to use of cell phones, TVs, computers, and medical technology, for better or worse the majority of today’s indigenous people are part of the modern technological world. They may racially be characterized as Eskimo, African Pygmy, or Australian Aborigines, but they are to some degree also part of the larger industrial techno-culture that now dominates the world. And use of modern technology requires limits if we are to protect biodiversity. Indeed, one of the primary philosophical tenets of conservation is the recognition that limits are necessary in human endeavors if we are going to successfully protect wild nature.

Moreover, there is a growing scientific recognition that even culturally indigenous cultures could have significant impacts upon biodiversity. It is well established that colonization of oceanic islands by Polynesians set in motion some major local extinctions. And while the massive die-off of Pleistocene megafauna is still debated, there are indications that humans operating with very limited technology were able to kill off or at least hasten the demise of many species.

All of this points to the conclusion that human exploitation without restraint can be harmful to the rest of the global tapestry of life.

MISPLACED IRE

Corry asserts that many tribal people have been displaced or evicted from traditional lands. While acknowledging this has occasionally occurred—more in the past than today—it is not the normal model for park creation and never has been. In fact, far more aboriginal people are displaced by the logging, ranching, mining, oil and gas development, and farms commandeering their lands than as a result of parks.

For instance, in the years (1850-1871) just prior to the establishment of Yellowstone National Park, more than 180 million acres of western federal lands were given to the railroads as an incentive to build tracks across the country. What had a greater impact on native people? A 2 million acre park or 180 million acres expropriated from the public domain for private development?

Parks are traditionally a Democratic ideal, available to everyone, while the privatization of aboriginal lands for natural resource exploitation tends to displace and exclude everyone but the owners or at least those with the wealth and power to seize them.

Furthermore, many people readily accept the notion that for the “greater good” some people are moved or displaced to create something of benefit to society overall. In most cases, it is creation of a freeway or a hydroelectric project or some other project that is destructive of Nature and culture. The Three Gorges Dam in China is reputed to have displaced more than 1.2 million people living in 13 cities, 140 towns, and 1,350 villages. And while there were many opponents to the dam project for this very reason, you would be hard pressed to show that all the parks and reserves in the world have ever displaced that many people and this is only one of many industrial projects that has resulted in the loss of traditional settlements.

PARKS ARE UNIVERSAL GLOBAL LEGACY

Beyond the question of whether any of these industrial developments are right, the one thing you can assert for parks/wildlands is that they do provide a great benefit to the global population, and even in many cases, the few people who might be displaced by park creation. Parks are a global repository for biodiversity and often are the only place where some animals can survive—for instance predators which are almost universally persecuted by people.

For better or worse, people have far more options than many wildlife species. And if we are going to share the planet with other living beings, we have to make room for them. Whether we are talking about reducing the logging of old growth forests to save spotted owls, setting aside marine reserves to save fish from fishermen, or curbing the grazing of domestic animals so native herbivores can thrive, we humans have an ethical obligation to preserve habitat for these creatures.

While not all indigenous people initially benefit from park creation, long-term they do provide alternative economic opportunities as well as intangibles like scenic beauty, clean water, and clean air that are critical to everyone, including poor people. And wildlife is typically more abundant in parks and thus more available to subsistence hunters outside of parks and other reserves.

Ultimately we are not establishing parks simply for people. And that is one of fundamental conflicts with Corry’s position and others who place humanity at the center of the stage. Parks and wilderness reserves serve as the great legacy for all living beings and are one of the great ideas of our civilization, right up there with equal rights for all people. Yes, there are problems created by some park proposals. And admittedly one can see ways to improve park/wildlands reserves for both Nature and people. But at its core, parks and reserves are not ultimately for people. More than anything that is the great divide that separates conservationists and Anthropocene boosters like Corry.