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Where the Wild Things Aren’t: National Parks

As the National Park Service celebrates its centennial this summer, the compulsory stories and listicles acknowledging the event will lazily trot out the Ken Burns–sanctioned notion that national parks are “America’s Best Idea.” Of course, it was a good idea to protect exceptional places like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite against rapacious use of the land. But does the decision to refrain from destroying places that obviously shouldn’t be destroyed really amount to a stroke of national genius? And, given what we know about ecology a century later, should park-making still serve as a model for conservation?

Preserving nature is not the straightforward proposition it seemed to be back in Theodore Roosevelt’s day. Rough-riding politicos can no longer enshrine wilderness by simply removing indigenous people and cordoning off a few rugged sections of landscape. National parks today face conundrums of which Roosevelt could never have dreamed: climate change melting the glaciers in Glacier National Park; the systemic slaughter of nearly a thousand “excess” Yellowstone bison last winter; and across the country, park infrastructures crumbling beneath record-sized crowds and an $11.9 billion maintenance backlog.

Fiscal neglect is nothing new to the National Park Service—its budget has been a favorite target for congressional cuts since World War II. In 1953, Western historian Bernard DeVoto suggested that the NPS protest its miserly appropriations by closing America’s most iconic parks. “Letters from constituents unable to visit Old Faithful, Half Dome, the Great White Throne, and Bright Angel Trail would bring a nationally disgraceful situation to the really serious attention of the Congress which is responsible for it,” he wrote.

Today, DeVoto’s indignant words seem downright quaint. The selective closure of parklands did stir up some important popular resistance to the Gingrich-engineered government shutdown of 1995. But during the sixteen-day budget stalemate in 2013, when Ted Cruz sought to defund the Affordable Care Act, right-wing lawmakers and activists opportunistically used the sorry spectacle of World War II veterans being denied access to the National Mall to deflect blame from the Tea Party caucus onto the Park Service itself and its White House overlords. Thanks, Obama!

Yet even this Congress is able to recognize that its constituents love a big birthday. So this year, legislators cobbled together $15 million (about one tenth of one percent of the maintenance backlog) for Centennial Challenge Projects. The challenge in question, of course, is part of the pet Republican crusade of creeping privatization of public goods; the money allocated to mark the Park Service’s centennial is intended to match philanthropic gifts set aside for certain tasks. Proud Centennial Challenge donors to the nonprofit Yellowstone Park Foundation, for instance, can watch their contributions at work from the shores of Yellowstone Lake as a cigar-shaped boat gill-nets invasive lake trout and grinds them into chum right there on deck. (The Park Service, for its part, announced in May that it will start to offer naming rights to corporate donors; Bass Pro Shops, we’re looking at you.)

Separate Spheres

The floating charnel house on Yellowstone Lake is, in its own way, a fitting reminder of how the hundred-year run of the Park Service is also a testament to the particularly American tendency to manufacture and manage nature. “Wilderness,” after all, is a construct borne of European people’s inability to interact symbiotically with the world around them. As author and Lakota chief Luther Standing Bear wrote in Land of the Spotted Eagle, “We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, the winding streams with tangled growth, as ‘wild.’ Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness.’
. . . To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery.”

The proliferation of national parks—which took place, not coincidentally, at the same time as the widespread establishment of Indian reservations—punctuated the continent’s transition from a place inhabited by people who lived in concert with the land into one increasingly covered by the detritus of industrial and agricultural civilization, save a handful of pretty preserves set aside to visit. No doubt, national parks provide important habitat for wildlife and other ecological benefits. But as a serious conservation strategy, let’s face it: aesthetic quarantine is a woefully inadequate response to our present ecological mess. In fact, philosopher Timothy Morton argues that the whole notion of capital-N Nature—something pristine and wild that’s “out there,” as opposed to the inescapable ecological medium of our existence—is an anesthetic that allows us to forget about things like global warming, mass extinction, and ocean acidification. Don’t worry about that melting glacier, folks—just concentrate on the picturesque peak beneath it.

Don’t worry about that melting glacier, folks—just concentrate on the picturesque peak beneath it.

The twisted logic of this nothing-to-see-here conservationism is grossly compounded when the privatization reveries of the right, already deployed to such winning effect in the charter-school movement and the for-profit prison system, flower into a brand of entrepreneurial enclosure of the commons. It is, of course, presented as a savvy, just-in-time upgrade to the statist status quo. “‘Environmental entrepreneurs,’ as we call ourselves, are creating alternatives to the traditional models of nature protection—filling a void left by governments either unwilling or unable to act,” Pete Geddes wrote in a 2015 New York Times op-ed. Geddes is the co-chief executive of the American Prairie Reserve, which seeks to “rewild” a swath of central Montana the size of Connecticut. The Prairie Reserve plan essentially creates a privately owned national park—relying on the backing of billionaires to buy out struggling ranchers and revert the land many have worked for generations into “untamed” prairie. Ranchers who view the project as a threat to their way of life have organized opposition around homespun groups like the Rancher Stewardship Alliance, setting up a classic Western showdown between locals and environmentalists.

The American Prairie Reserve also strikingly mirrors Morton’s larger argument about the limitations of an aestheticized sphere of Nature, due to the nonprofit’s incongruous position as a purported creator of wilderness that is associated—via donors and administrators—with groups that oppose global climate change pacts, support the Keystone XL pipeline, and write model legislation for Western state legislators trying to seize control of federal lands to open them up for fossil fuel development. Pete Geddes of the APR, for instance, is a former executive vice president for the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE), a Koch Family Foundations–backed enterprise whose director, John Baden, counts expanding oil exploration in the Arctic as one of his pet causes.

Standard Maneuvers

The tycoon conservationist land grab has a rich history in the United States—and has indeed been critical in creating the mythos of unspoiled Nature. In the 1920s, Standard Oil scion John Rockefeller Jr. became enamored of the Teton Mountain Range in northwest Wyoming during two visits to Yellowstone National Park. Wary of getting his own shoes muddy, Rockefeller spent little time in the actual mountains, which were by 1929 under park service jurisdiction, but he became enraptured by the view of the peaks from the valley floor, called Jackson Hole. The problem, as historian Laurie Hinck describes in Waiting for Wilderness: The Corporate Genesis of Grand Teton National Park, was that the valley was full of unsightly ranches, little towns, and other manmade visual impediments. Rockefeller, a teetotaler, was particularly aghast at the speakeasies. He determined to unsully the vista by swindling land from unsuspecting ranchers using a dummy corporation that concealed his hand in the project. He then foisted responsibility for the cleared-out valley on president Franklin Roosevelt, who declared Jackson Hole a national monument, later to be fused with the rest of Grand Teton National Park.

On-the-ground resistance to Rockefeller materialized once his role as mastermind was revealed. One wily middleman purposefully scuttled some land deals, locals freed animals from a roadside zoo built to showcase native fauna, and ranchers staged a protest cattle drive through the newly established monument. But the real fight was in the realm of narratives—about Jackson Hole, about nature, and about what value these things possess and for whom. This is the realm in which the junior baron established his real conservationist legacy.

Rockefeller had honed his PR chops with the help of Ivy Lee—a pioneer in public relations—doing damage control in the wake of the 1914 Ludlow Massacre. Rockefeller’s goons had attacked a camp full of striking workers and their families at his coalmine in Ludlow, Colorado, killing at least sixty-six men, women, and children. Labor organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, Upton Sinclair, and others clamored for Rockefeller to be brought to justice. But Lee orchestrated a deft multimedia campaign—unprecedented at the time in its sophistication and breadth—successfully molding public opinion to support the view that the miners and their families were, in fact, victims of labor’s selfish claims.

The tycoon-conservationist land grab has a rich history in the United States—and has been critical in creating the mythos of unspoiled Nature.

Rockefeller’s spin operation likewise sprang into action a decade later in Jackson Hole, where ranchers who had been scammed off their family plots became rabble-rousing obstacles in the way of protecting a national treasure. Rockefeller tapped the still-potent myth of the West as an untouched wilderness in need of shelter from the depravities of modernity. Meanwhile, as loudly as they could, locals decried the usurpation of their home, arguing that national park status would sterilize the valley and, as one wrote, “eliminate Jackson Hole from the scheme of life.” And sure enough, Teton County is now among the most expensive resort destinations in the nation, where titans of Wall Street hold vacation “ranchettes” and housing in the town of Jackson is so scarce and expensive that the luxe tourism industry flies in foreign guest workers, often busing them an hour to and from town each shift or housing them in trailers, since no one can afford to live in Jackson on a service worker’s pay. Where cattle ranches were intolerable blemishes on their pristine surroundings, Grand Teton is now the only U.S. national park with its own commercial airport.

Cash Reserves

Annie Proulx summed up the environmentalist’s stance on ranchers in her short story “The Governors of Wyoming,” via a monkeywrenching character named Wade Walls:

These subsidized ranchers and their gas-bag cows destroying public range, riparian habitat, wiping out rare plants, trampling stream banks, creating ozone-destroying methane gas, ruining the National Forests that belong to the people, to all of us, stinking, polluting, stupid, world-destroying cows—and for what? A pitiful three percent of this state’s gross income. So a few can live a nineteenth-century lifestyle.

But if, as Walls claims, ranchers desire a nineteenth-century lifestyle, the American Prairie Reserve is constructing something closer to an eighteenth-century fantasy. The APR seeks to enhance its target area’s biodiversity, recreating the land as Lewis and Clark encountered it in 1805, replete with genetically pure bison (though, of course, without the people who were there hunting bison). Its administrators and donors aspire to reestablish the prairie dog towns that once stretched across the plains. The tunnels that comprise these towns provide habitat for all types of creatures, from ferrets to snakes to burrowing owls, but have largely disappeared, since ranchers tend to view prairie dogs as varmints to be exterminated. Flocks of college-age do-gooders have arrived to help remove fences or alter them to facilitate big-game migrations—one slightly bewildered lad working there wrote for Earth Island Journal that “the intensity of the [mosquitoes] led one crewmember to have a breakdown”—and the reserve even hopes to see the reintroduction of grizzly bears and wolves.

All of these are noble goals, but not a single one of them mandates the removal of working ranches. What’s more, several nearby projects are pursuing ambitious conservation goals by integrating them into the local ranching economy. On the nearby Matador Ranch, the Nature Conservancy is working to advance the same basic agenda using a “grass bank” model developed in the Southwest in the 1990s. By offering steep discounts to graze livestock on the Matador’s verdant pastures, grass banks incentivize area ranchers to leave off plowing, and to refrain from killing prairie dogs and from introducing invasive species. To the south, conservationists with the Wyoming Migration Initiative are working in partnership with ranchers throughout the state to help ensure migrating elk, mule deer, and pronghorn safe passage. Ranchers are crucial partners—along with conservationists, the energy industry, and the Department of the Interior—in the recent landmark coalition formed to protect sage grouse habitat.

The American Prairie Reserve even acknowledges that it could likewise reach its conservation goals while ranchers remain on the land. The organization allows ranchers whose property it purchases to keep working there for a time as tenants—sort of like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath—and even buys ranchers’ beef if they adhere to a set of standards. (APR sells this prairie-dog-free meat at high-end prices under its Wild Sky brand, redistributing profits back to the ranchers.) But nothing about its long-term vision suggests the American Prairie Reserve aims to make ranching a significant part of its eventual “rewilded” landscape. The project’s vision indeed rests on the likelihood that the human population in its target area will continue to shrink, as it has for several decades. With its billionaire funding structure, the entrepreneurial trust will have ample money to wait the cycle out. No one is forcing ranchers from their land at gunpoint, but just like every other place in the West that attracts the interest of CEOs and luxury tourism, property values will rise to the point where agriculture becomes financially unsustainable, and bit by bit the ranches will end up in the reserve’s pocket. Because neither the American Prairie Reserve nor its donors want ranchers—they want wilderness.

And wilderness, more than ever, is a luxury plaything for today’s placeless overclass. Even Yellowstone and Yosemite have become positioned within our culture in a manner that makes them arguably detrimental to conservation. The problem is that roping off Nature in protected boxes reinforces what environmental historian William Cronon calls the “dangerous dualism that sets human beings outside of nature.” National parks—with their slick marketing, tourist-crammed boardwalks, merchandise-stuffed gift shops, corporate accommodations, and uniformed attendants—resemble nothing so much as outsized theme parks. They encourage people to experience the environment as a consumer product—something to watch in awe through the windshield like a good movie, to enjoy on vacation but not carry back to life in the “human world” (except via more consumer keepsakes). Presenting the environment as “other” in this manner, rather than something to which we are inextricably linked in our daily lives, further alienates people from ecology while confusing and distorting our basic understanding of how conservation might work.

Against the backdrop of such destructive trends, it makes no sense to replace ranches with a nature playground for tourists. Ranchers, whatever their faults, are among the very few people left in the United States engaged in intimate, working relationships with the land—people for whom ecology is not an abstraction. Unchecked overgrazing is contrary to the public interest, but so is disenfranchising working people who possess generations-deep knowledge about the landscapes we want to protect.

Projects like the American Prairie Reserve, rooted in the mass hallucination of an unpeopled wilderness, should be rejected outright. Instead, we might look to endeavors underway in both urban and rural settings that reflect the ongoing mutual enmeshment of the “human” and “non-human” worlds. Ranchers live at the nexus of this intersection, so it’s unsurprising that forward-thinking groups have begun to tap them as partners for environmental projects throughout the West. But the logic extends to cities, too. Science writer Emma Marris describes in her book The Rambunctious Garden—a sort of conservation handbook for the Anthropocene—an undertaking in Seattle that has the Boeing Corporation cleaning up a Superfund site at an abandoned plant in a way that enhances the area for wildlife, with apparent early success.

“What’s interesting is the vision its supporters have for it,” Marris writes. “None of them are talking about restoring it to the way it was when Europeans first settled in Seattle in the 1850s. None of them are pushing for it to be made into a park.”