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An Endangered Idea

A national park is, in more cases than not, a wildly ambivalent act of collective purpose: dreamy yet provident, selfish yet sacrificial, local yet global in significance. Unlike a national anthem or a national flag, a national park exists in the concrete dimensions of geography, biology, and economics—and in the dimension of symbolism as well. It has living denizens and physical boundaries. It has benefits and costs. It has friends, and sometimes it has enemies. It has an aura of sacred permanence as a place that society has chosen to set aside and protect forevermore.

But how long is forevermore?

Within the past two decades, there has been a sort of backlash against the very idea of national parks—or at least, against that idea in its most rigid, presumptuous form. Simplistically stated, the theme is "parks versus people." The essence of the critique is that conservation goals can't be met merely by circumscribing parcels of landscape, calling them parks, and evicting or excluding the needy humans who want to scratch out a living there. And that much is certainly true. To approach conservation purely by lockout is politically infeasible on a planet with six and a half billion humans; equally important, it's inhumane and unjust. The benefits are enjoyed mainly by distant, affluent members of society, while the costs are paid mainly by struggling, powerless folk on the landscapes nearby. "Save the animals, keep the people away" is a strategy that won't work and shouldn't. Human pressures and needs will inevitably prevail, swamping each unpopular, undemocratic park like an ark with low gunwales. Take that argument to its extreme, though, and you have this: Protecting landscape and biological diversity by creating national parks is only another elitist form of cultural imperialism.

The opposing view, also in its most extreme form, is that parks must be parks, protection must be protective, and if chain-link fencing and armed wardens are necessary, so be it.

Neither of these views is entirely wrong or entirely right. But reconciling them hasn't proved easy. "The discourse on parks is being driven toward brittleness," according to one concerned commentary, published recently in the journal Conservation Biology, by Kent H. Redford of the Wildlife Conservation Society and two colleagues. Their sensible essay is titled "Parks as Shibboleths"—a shibboleth being, in case you've forgotten your Old Testament vocabulary, a sort of password that signals loyalty to some group or fixed idea. The very word "park," say Redford and his co-authors, has become a "coarsely textured term increasingly devoid of meaning," used now by conservationists and social advocates mainly to whomp each other upside the head. That sort of brittle discourse, the essay points out, is "bad news for both protected areas and people living in and near them."

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