See no people, hear no people, speak no people: the uncomfortable histories of your favourite national parks

Image licensed under Creative Commons, used with permission

Yosemite, 1869. John Muir, father of the modern conservation movement, writes with rapture of what he sees:

…the blue arctic daisy and purple-flowered  bryanthus, the mountain’s own darlings, gentle mountaineers face to face with the sky, kept safe by a thousand miracles, seeming always finer and purer the wilder and stormier their homes…

John Muir is credited by many as having begun the movement towards environmental conservation of some of the most beautiful places on Earth. Following his rapturous writings on Yosemite, in 1872 the area became the world’s first dedicated National Park. Many others have since followed globally, conservation stemming from a similar belief that places of “outstanding natural beauty”, biodiversity and spiritual value should be protected from the rampaging progression of industrial capitalism, saved by legal designation from becoming another high-rise or industrial estate. Muir’s environmentalism has influenced conservation and environmental ethics for centuries now, elevating values beyond profit and production, and cementing ideas of wild and wilderness in the psyche of modern-day Western civilisation.

National Parks in the UK, of which there are fifteen, are subject to stringent planning regulations and ongoing campaigns to reduce or prevent environmentally- and aesthetically-damaging practices, such as mining or quarrying, taking place within their borders. The National Parks authority ascribes to the ‘Sandford Principle’, with the aim of finding ‘the right balance between recreation and conservation’, and if the two come into conflict, to give priority to conservation over human enjoyment. National Parks create a place for nature to flourish, and a place for people to visit, learn from, and be spiritually restored by, the beauty and peace of their surroundings.

Within the Sandford Principle, within the very idea of a National Park where any human presence is a fleeting, visiting, one, lies a dark past. On the surface, designating areas for nature to flourish in absence of (obvious) human intervention, sounds like a great idea. As a species, we’ve done a pretty good job of destroying much of the planet’s biodiversity and natural environment. Surely legal recognition of our tendency to mess things up is a good thing? National Parks should be places that people can visit and enjoy, but with the primary aim of conservation and protection of nature.

Within this idea of National Parks as places for conservation and visitation, lies an expectation of the land as free from ‘damaging’ human residency. The implication is that these sites of beauty and special scientific interest have always been pristine, human-free wildernesses. However, the uncomfortable truth is that many of them were home to flourishing communities before they became a “wilderness”. Stories of dispossession echo each other across the world. When Yosemite was declared a National Park, the Crow, Blackfeet and Shoshone peoples – all of whom had lived in relative ecological harmony with Yosemite, and who certainly did not have any plans to convert the area into high-rise flats – were forcibly expelled from the area. Yellowstone was the scene of a bloody slaughter of the Nez Perce people by the American cavalry.

In Scotland last year, a new “Wild Land” map designed to preserve areas of the Highlands and Islands from development maps ominously onto the areas once inhabited by communities who were violently removed from their homes to migrate or die during the Highland Clearances. Historical human presence is thus erased through the implication that ‘wild land’ by its very nature cannot include human habitation.

This is the dark side of environmental conservation: the side that elevates a land over the humans who have historically shaped it; that drives them away in order to cultivate middle-class, monocultural tourism; that creates a land not to be lived in, but only to be visited.

It is always important to be aware of the history of a place, especially if that history is one of violence in the name of so-called progressive politics. Trauma can have a deep effect on communities; even the land itself. In the Scottish Highlands you can still see evidence of farming methods used by communities before the Clearances, and in the Jewish National Fund’s Canada Park stones still remain from the bulldozed Palestinian homes which were destroyed in order to plant fir trees. The trauma inflicted upon a community of humans who were cleared from their land because some incoming environmentalist decided that in this specific area, imposed ethics of conservation would take priority over land rights and livelihoods, should not be underestimated.

I am not trying to argue that conservation per se is bad. In fact, I think the conservation and ecological restoration of badly damaged areas of land is probably one of the most important things that we should be focusing on at the moment. We need to reverse deforestation – forests provide both a natural “carbon capture and storage” (to use the jargon) mitigation for rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; climate change is predicted to vastly decrease biodiversity, so we should try and conserve as much as possible to retain functioning ecosystems that we depend upon for food, clean water and medicine; spending time in non-urban areas and swathes of mountains and clean air have proven mental health benefits; and aside from anything else, wild areas are beautiful, and I would fight to my last breath to retain the right to walk up mountains or swim in lakes or climb an imposing rock face.

However, when the environmental policy-makers are at odds with communities that live, or that have deep historical connections to, the very land the policy-makers purport to protect, it raises questions. In whose interests does environmentalism of this sort work? Whilst talk of ecological restoration may give a nod to the historical conditions of an area, it rarely considers the restoration of human communities who have experienced dispossession.

If the purpose of our National Parks is truly to create “wild land”, where conservation is the first priority and leisure the second, there seems no space for the creation of a truly democratic land ownership system that encourages communities to live in a harmonious co-dependence with nature. Instead, human habitation is dismissed in one stroke as negative; top-down environmentalism takes its position as the new landowner and lord of the ecology of a space. Historical trauma is confined to history, with no recognition of the power imbalances that remain today.

There is a way to democratise environmentalism, so ecological restoration, rewilding, land rights and the rejuvenation of declining communities can work together towards a sustainable future. It begins with the recognition of history; it begins with accepting uncomfortable truths and recognising that the use of the language of wilderness can deny communities of agency over the lands they inhabit and depend on. The acceptance of mistakes in the past and efforts to rectify them, through consultation with communities or measures such as the Land Reform Bill, is a first step on the way to a National Parks policy that considers humans not as outsiders in nature, but as integral parts of ecosystems in themselves, and works to create a vision for the future where an ecological democracy can be established.

Published by

Miriam Dobson

PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield. Soil, urban food, allotments, ecosystem services.

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