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A Letter to Congress

our national parks’
dark history

a short by. Christopher Newman
Country. USA
RUN time. 03:15 min

“Chris Newman’s magnificently sensory scenes impress upon us Stegner’s words that in “the brave new world of a completely man-controlled environment … we need wilderness preserved, as much of it and as many kinds.”
It’s Just Movies

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a view from scotland

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ally lantz

stories from
the ground

In A Letter to Congress, Wallace Stegner articulates the importance of national parks as ways of connecting us to the natural world. Our story takes a different route, focusing on the realities of national parks as symbols of our complex — and often flawed — relationship with nature preservation.

Scotland’s Cairngorms National Park is the UK’s largest national park at 4,528 sq km - almost double the size of London!

a view from Scotland

Scotland’s national parks were created to prevent areas of natural beauty becoming uninhabited land owned by the state. The majority of land in these parks is in the ownership of private landowners, including conservation bodies, and people who continue to live and work in the parks. This is similar to George Catlin’s original ideology for US National Parks which was based on preserving the landscape in its entirety with man and animal. In this way, national parks can hold the dual function of preserving precious lands and ecosystems whilst demonstrating the harmonious, symbiotic life of humans living in nature.

The National Parks of Scotland are more effectively described as “managed landscapes” and are only one of several ways to protect and conserve the natural environment in Scotland. Public access to all land in Scotland is governed by the Land Reform Act of 2003, which grants the public a ‘right to roam’ for activities such as walking, camping, cycling, canoeing, swimming, and climbing. Contrast this with a place like England, where the public are forbidden from 92% of land due to private ownership, and you start to realise the right to roam gives people the freedom to coexist with the land.

Along with the National Parks, Scotland also has National Nature Reserves, National Scenic Areas, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and Marine Protected Areas and all these areas are overseen by the local public. This is even closer to the ideals that Wallace Stenger describes, allowing people much needed access to natural lands as a reprise from the encroachment of modernity. Contrast this with a place like England, where the public are forbidden from 92% of land due to private ownership, and you start to realise how the right to roam has given people the freedom to coexist with the land.

The key difference between the US National Park System and those in Scotland is the intended purpose behind their creation. The US National Park System was created to preserve some ideal of a “pure” wilderness uninhabited by humanity. While the Scottish National Parks were created to protect they areas as a whole; people, animals, and landscape.

Lauren has observed the unique benefits of Scotland’s right to roam, as well as the negative impacts of integrating a throwaway society with national park land

For environmentalist and nature enthusiast Lauren Fields, Scotland’s national parks have been a formative presence in her life.

“Scotland’s national parks have played a significant role in the connection I have with my environment. Access has granted me the opportunity to spend quality time in nature, exploring the wonders of my home country .”

“I have so many wonderful memorable times spent in Loch Lomond as a child, and every time I return home it is often the place I go back to visit. Cradled by the mountainous landscape, it has offered me the space to reflect on my place in this wonderfully interconnected world.

So from my personal experience, access has granted me the opportunity to look at the world through a holistic lens, and value the natural landscapes that exist beyond the constraints of urban living.”

Loch Lomond is Scotland’s biggest Lake measuring at a massive 72km²

Despite these treasured experiences of Scottish nature, Lauren does have some issues with the idea that the right to roam and inhabited protected areas solves all the problems of national parks.

“My experience of Scottish national parks has certainly instilled more universal values, as freedom to roam has granted me the opportunity to explore and discover parts of my home country that I wouldn’t have thought to visit before. In an ideal world, this expanded view of our environment would lead to us living harmoniously with nature, offering us the opportunity to recognise the lives that exist beyond our human-centric narrative. Unfortunately, however, this experience isn’t a collective one and more often than not I have found some of our most beautiful landscapes spoilt by litter, even in the most isolated of places.

We have a very romanticised view of what nature connection and access to space would look like. People who choose to inhabit the parks, more often than not, have a tendency to feel more connected with their environment. However, I find that when I visit the lochs, instead of being greeted by the stillness of the waters, I am agitated by the lack of silence for miles. Jet skis and speed boats seem to be the things that consume most of my attention, and rainbow coloured plastic spoils the view.

I hold two opposing views. [On one hand] that humans engrossed in their current materialistic value systems shouldn’t be granted access to nature spaces. No one treads lightly or gives the systems of complexity underneath their feet a second thought. Unpeopled natural spaces owned by states have a much better chance of reviving the wildlife that have been depleted as a result of human activity, and offer the opportunity for landscapes to truly flourish. AND, I also think people need to experience nature in order to truly have those moments of awe which puts into perspective their shared existence in the world. You can’t come to that conclusion without having the visceral experience of being in nature. My question is, do we as a collective truly have the awareness to take responsibility for how our actions and behaviours affect the world around us?”

Lauren’s account shows that even when the formative roots of a national park’s foundation are built on human harmony with nature, there are significant issues with the way people behave once they are in it.

Cairngorms National Park on a typically misty day

Despite the issues, I was interested to hear to what extent Lauren felt integrated national parks fostered Scottish attitudes towards, and relationships with, nature and conservation projects.

“I honestly wish I could answer this question by saying that Scots have a deeper and more visceral sense of being connected with nature. There is an abundance of wonderful rewilding projects going on, for sure, but I think there would be danger in romanticising the idea that granted more access we would become less ignorant to our surroundings and more in tune with the world around us — as I have discovered that that isn’t quite so true. Scots take pride in their land, it’s very palpable when people speak with excitement about our rough and wild landscapes, but unfortunately this pride doesn’t quite translate into the behaviours. I saw a sign just the other day that stated “if you’re so proud to be Scottish, why do you keep littering our land?”

Scotland is an outdoorsy country. People hike, and bike, and swim and run and adventure the wilderness, much to the benefit of having access to the national parks. And as a result, many nature connection projects and rewilding organisations have been birthed from this accessibility and connection. National parks have fostered a wonderful love for the landscape of course, however I do wonder with the amount of rubbish I see, and the lack of thoughtful reflection for the rest of nature, if the love of some outweighs the ignorance of others.

There is an air of adoration for Scotland, and I’m sure the accessibility of national parks has fostered much of the appreciation for our landscapes. But my concern is, does the lip service of love truly feed into the way people treat our land? I hope that, with the many rewilding projects underway, and people having access to witness the revival of our landscapes, such spoken words of love do merely become an addition to, and extension of, the respected actions shown towards our beautiful bonnie Scotland, and that our freedom to explore our national parks is recognised as a privilege of access and opportunity for connection to the wilderness, rather than an intoxicated sesh.”

Access to land comes with benefits and costs. The part accessibility plays in inspiring conservation and rewilding projects is undeniable but it does give people the opportunity to abuse the privilege of access. Lauren points out the difference between spoken pride in the land and the will to take actions to benefit that land. Breeding pride in a nation’s land in an undirected and abstract sense, can be weaponised into something dangerous. Eco-Fascism, which derives from a white supremacist belief in the superiority of national land, has been rising across the world as hard right political parties try to dictate the terms of the environmental movement with a nationalist framing. Pride in nature comes from an appreciation of its awe-inspiring, harmonious systems and your connectedness with them. As soon as its importance begins to be defined by borders and nations, it inevitably loses focus on nature and instead becomes a legitimising force for expansion, conquest and further environmental destruction.

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conservationism as neocolonialism

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dispossessing the natives: US National Parks are born

The US national park system was created in 1872 when Congress gifted Yellowstone National Park in the territories of Montana and Wyoming to the American public as a “pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” and placed it under control of the Secretary of the Interior. Not much regard, of course, was given to the tribes who had been living and hunting on this area for generations — the Tukudika, for example, who called this land home and were forcibly evicted. Evidently, they didn’t qualify as part of the “American” public.

As a young country without the architectural grandeur of old European cities, the US saw the institutionalisation of their awe-inspiring landscapes as an answer to the urban superiority of other nations. More parks soon followed when President Theodore Roosevelt created five new parks, 18 national monuments, four national game refuges, 51 bird sanctuaries, and over 100 million acres of national forest between the years of 1901-1909.

A main driving force behind the advocacy for these parks were naturalists like John Muir, the founder of the conservation group Sierra Club, whose writing on the beauty of the land was prolific and widely distributed. In Muir’s view, the preservation of nature and human inhabitants were incompatible. In 1889, when pushing for the protection of the “untouched wilderness” of Yosemite, Muir disregarded how the Ahwahneechee tribe were already stewarding the land and living in harmony with it. In fact, his description of the Ahwahneechee people he encountered was far from sympathetic, characterising them as “most ugly, and some of them altogether hideous.”

Muir’s vision for the American wilderness wasn’t the only ideology in circulation. In Ethnic Cleansing and America’s creation of National Parks, Isaac Kantor writes that “the first articulation of the 'national park' theme was expressed by Western artist George Catlin. Catlin wanted to preserve the landscape in its entirety, including the animals and people living upon it. Therefore, he wished for the creation of a ‘nation's Park containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature's beauty!’."

Muir’s vision for conservation prevailed and, according to Kantor, “the Department of Interior’s stated purpose for Yellowstone’s existence was the preservation of the wilderness (animals, fish, and trees), to be enforced by the military, which was already aggressively pursuing resistant Indians throughout the Plains.”

conservationism as neocolonialism

Muir’s idea of preserving the unpeopled wilderness became the dominant ideology behind conservationism — and its deeply racist principles were then transported to colonies. National parks in colonies were overseen by groups of white colonisers with racist ideas of indigenous populations as primitives who were harming the wilderness with their very existence. As a result to ‘conserve’ a national park area, indigenous people were forcibly removed from their ancestral land, fragmenting cultures and destroying livelihoods. As the parks were managed by wealthy white colonists, the culture of trophy hunting was transported to colonies, where Africa’s spectacular megafauna became sought-after prizes.

In Elizabeth Garland’s essay, The Elephant in the Room: Confronting the Colonial Character of Wildlife Conservation in Africa, she writes that “Robust as certain kinds of western discourses about African nature may be — images of golden savannahs teeming with animals but devoid of human beings, and of Eden-like jungles, innocent in the face of an onslaught of African humanity — numerous scholars have shown how such representations have more to do with the West’s historical relation of domination over Africa than with the realities of African environmental history and practice.”

This colonial ideology continues today. with colonial countries exerting their dominance through financial and geopolitical power plays. In reference to the 2002 formation of Gabon’s national park system, which was financed to the tune of $53m by the US government, Garland demonstrates that the establishment of national parks can be a trojan horse to establish neocolonial control of huge amounts of land and natural resources. She writes “The areas designated to become parks will continue to belong legally to Gabon, of course, but if the experience of other African countries is any indication of things to come, the international conservation community will henceforth expect to have a stake, and a say, in the parks’ management and use. Further, the new park system is very likely to have a detrimental impact on many Gabonese people — more than one quarter of whom are employed in the nation’s logging industry, that is said to earn fifty million dollars annually from the trade in bushmeat.”

Within white-run national parks in former colonies, structural racism is rife. Safaris led by white guides are often more expensive than those led by native people, whilst professional mobility within the park system is often capped at a certain level for non-white park staff. In Garland’s words “the influence wielded over national conservation priorities by donors and investors based in Europe and North America are taken for granted as more or less inevitable features” of neocolonial national parks.

The financial disparity between the wealth of rich Global North funders and Global South governments is exacerbated by the long-term effects of the relentless resource extraction and destruction that took place under colonialism. This power dynamic ensures that land continues to be seized from former colonies under the guise of aid and conservation.

To this very day, the ideology of white-saviour conservationism can function as an enabler for the marginalisation of indigenous people across the world. The Guardian, writing about the Central Kalahari game park in Botswana, provides a chilling account of how, “for the past 20 years, the San tribe have been systematically stripped of their homes, land and culture. In a series of heavy-handed evictions, houses have been burned, schools and health centres closed, and water supplies cut off. Now these people live, dispossessed, on the edge of the huge game park, forbidden to hunt in or enter the land they have lived on sustainably for centuries. Meanwhile, one of the largest diamond mines in the world has been allowed to open in the park, and wealthy big game hunters from abroad are welcomed to newly constructed state-of-the-art game lodges.”

The San people are not an isolated case — tribespeople all over the world are affected, from Tanzania, to Mongolia, from Chile, to Sri Lanka and beyond. Western conservation groups often have a role in financing and enabling these human rights abuses. The Guardian reports that “dozens of cases of human rights abuses [have been documented] in central Africa in 2016, where up to $500m had been spent by the US, EU and other western donors to protect the … rainforest.”

“Much conservation is still in the mindset of being in opposition to people. Conservation is clearly not working. A new model of saving nature is urgently needed because the anti-people agenda … undermines attempts to protect nature. The present anti-people model … marginalises the very people who have protected forests for millennia and who represent one of our best hopes for doing so in the future”
Simon Counsell, former director of the UK’s Rainforest Foundation

To release the stranglehold of neocolonialism and white saviourism, control of these protected lands should go back to the indigenous people who have nourished and depended on them for centuries. And this is not only a matter of justice — it’s also one of efficiency, as studies have shown that communities with full legal rights to their land protect nature through traditional ecological knowledge that is as cheap as it is effective.

the great outdoors is #sowhite

Within the sphere of US national parks, there is also the question of inclusivity. A National Park Pass costs $80 per person per year which is a huge outlay for any struggling families. Add to that the petrol cost, which is especially high for working class people living in urban centres, and there is a built in exclusivity which dictates the demographic of people likely to visit the parks regularly. The result is that 78% of park attendees are white.

This lack of inclusivity has given rise to groups like Outdoor Afro, who aim to make national parks more diverse spaces by organising meet ups for black people who want to experience nature. They also provide training for those who want to work in the park service to help disrupt the whiteness of the national park service’s employees.

Other initiatives like Black Birders Week host week-long series of online events to platform black nature enthusiasts and to increase the visibility of black birders, who face unique challenges when engaging in outdoor activities. One student who attended the series tweeted “The lack of diversity in STEM has led me to question my capabilities and my place in biology. #BlackBirdersWeek has truly reinvigorated and reassured me that I’m not alone. I can do this, & I BELONG HERE.”

The question then becomes how do we move forward with a park system that protects wild areas from resource exploitation, but also promotes accessibility while providing reparations for past injustices. In the US, the National Park Service released a report in 2001 titled “Rethinking the National Parks for the 21st Century” recommending seven principles, including to “actively acknowledge the connections between native cultures and the parks, and assure that no relevant chapter in the American heritage experience remains unopened.” It’s a good place to start — hopefully, the beginning of a longer conversation that can make a real change.

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curation Ally Lantz
written Ally Lantz and Jake Coleman
contributions Lauren Fields (Future Leap)
edited Jake Coleman
art direction Susanna Basso
by Avocados and Coconuts
director Christopher Newman
country USA
run 3:15 min

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