Parks without people? A response to Jason Mark

A few days ago, environmental writer Jason Mark published an essay in Sierra, the national magazine of the Sierra Club, in which he advocates for “a provocative idea”: establishing nature reserves that would be “off-limits to most people” except “working scientists.” These preserves would be managed exclusively “for wild nature alone.” Mark invokes conservationist icon Aldo Leopold, who argued that the “land-community”—that is, the whole of an ecosystem including water, soil, plants, animals, and people—has a “right to continued existence.”

“The establishment of people-less parks would recognize that right and mark a grand gesture of ecological solidarity,” Mark writes. “Like any true solidarity, the giver gains in the course of the sacrifice. Preserving a place truly beyond us would, in the end, be a blessing to ourselves.”

I had a strong negative reaction to Mark’s essay. Although he acknowledges that many parks were created by evicting and then excluding Native peoples, along with the grim history of Jim Crow policies in parks, he seems to acknowledge these legacies only insofar as they would “complicate” the approval of his proposal for off-limits protected areas. And he confusingly asserts in the same essay that “[f]rom their inception, American parks have prioritized the interests of people.” I mean, yes, some people—mostly affluent white people who want to recreate in them but not, obviously, the indigenous and non-white people who were excluded.

The piece seemed to me to be insulting to Native Americans, seeming at first glance to be arguing that since European settlers stole Native land and then screwed it up, now no one should be able to have it.

In addition, much of my work has been focused on recognizing and tracing the implications of the fact that humans are part of nature and have never been separate from it. Yes, many of our current modes of interaction with the nonhuman world are destructive and thoughtless. But walling-off nature from people isn’t the answer, in my opinion. The answer is to learn or return to positive relationships with nature.

So I contacted Mark and asked him if we could talk about his essay, and he graciously agreed. 

An extremely helpful bit of context emerged from our chat. In its original form, his essay was designed with a very specific audience in mind: affluent outdoor recreationists—the very same “Strava-addicted trail runners,” “anglers,” and “experienced and conscientious backpackers and hikers” that he wants to keep out of these hypothetical preserves. Re-read as a letter to dudes from Bend and Boulder with four-digit  REI dividends, Mark’s argument is that nature shouldn’t serve them at the expense of the plants and animals who call public lands home. Though they may casually conflate their interest in kayaking or rock climbing with environmental concern, their play can harm the ecosystems they play in. As Mark writes, “Even the quietest and most abstentious of hikers leave some trace, though that may be no more than a ripple in the force of the forest.”

Fair enough. I agree that in many places the ecosystem should take higher priority than the pleasure of recreationists. Many parks and other public lands already try to balance these competing uses. The same day I spoke to Mark, I nagged my brothers about settling on dates for a trip we are planning to Olympic National Park, because the park limits the number of wilderness permits it issues for certain areas. What Mark seems to be arguing for is setting the number of available permits in some areas to zero. 

In theory, I can get behind that. I believe strongly that people need access to nature, both woven into their daily lives and in big joyful mega-doses in protected areas, but of course too many people can harm certain ecosystems and maybe there are some places where the right number of people is none. On the phone, we batted around the idea of “resting” some popular sites by closing them for a year or a few years at a time. 

But closing areas to everyone except scientists still rubs me the wrong way. It seems to clearly continue a long, shameful history of colonialism perpetuated through allegedly objective science and conservation. If there is going to be a category of people let in, surely it should be the indigenous inhabitants of the area. Native people in North America don’t have some mystical monopoly on positive relationships with nature; their ancestors thousands of years ago probably had a hand in the Pleistocene extinctions of mastodons and other large North American beasts, just as European ancestors killed off the wooly rhino and mammoth on their continent. But Native people’s more recent ancestors were the very people who, in relationship with other species, co-created the beautiful, diverse, flourishing places that settlers admired enough to seize and then protect and police as parks.

Mark seems willing to meet me halfway. He suggests using “a co-management agreement between the state or federal authority that currently holds the public land and native indigenous groups who want to use it as a living laboratory for traditional ecological knowledge.” 

“This piece is really written in the spirit of thinking out loud,” he adds. “I don’t claim to have all or even many of the answers.” 

Here’s what I think. In an ideal world, the human footprint would be so carefully controlled that there would be a lot more land that is not intensively used by humans. There would simply be more “nature” to go around. Indigenous groups would also have true sovereignty over their territories and they would be the ones in charge of management and rules in many places.

In this future, humans who hunt or kayak or rock climb or harvest traditional resources would have more room to spread out and we could ensure our influence would be either neutral or actively positive. Getting to this ideal will require political change, technological advancement, and humility. As we move towards this vision, I am all for prioritizing the interests of nonhumans and ecosystems above outdoor-recreation bros. But I am not for a hierarchy of nature access and control that replicates the very power structures that got us into our environmental mess in the first place.


Image: The wokas season, by Edward Curtis, depicting indigenous sustainable harvest of water lily seeds.

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