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And now it's going beyond discourse. In May 2005, over a hundred armed people seized a research-and-management camp in Guatemala's Laguna del Tigre National Park, demanding acquiescence to their status as settlers within the park and, after some palaver, taking four hostages. Their demands were eventually met, by the state governor, with promises of material help in exchange for release of the hostages. Four months later, in Kenya, the minister of wildlife and tourism announced that Amboseli National Park would be downgraded to a national reserve and returned to a governing council of the Maasai people, its original owners. Amboseli, a diverse landscape famed especially for its elephants, is considered one of the jewels of East African conservation. In an open letter to Kenya's president, 29 organizations complained that the downgrading, done without consultation following a published notice in the Kenya Gazette (the official legislative journal), was illegal.

This brings us back to the dictionary. There is an English word, less ancient than shibboleth, used in Britain and elsewhere for such disestablishment of a national park: de-gazetting. It's a word with which we should all acquaint ourselves; it's a word, unfortunately, of the future. How so? Because other efforts to de-gazette national parks are likely to arise soon, as we citizens of various countries find our short-term appetites more compelling than our long-term ideals. I alluded to this already, when I mentioned that national parks exist in the dimension of economics as well as geography, biology, and symbolism. To those, add two more: They exist also in the dimensions of politics and of time. What has been done, however noble and farsighted, can be undone.

Of course, national parks aren't the be-all and end-all of nature conservation. They're just one method, one tool, slightly more conspicuous and complicated than the rest.

Other forms of landscape protection exist within many countries—the wildlife sanctuary, the hunting preserve, the designated wilderness, the réserve naturelle intégrale (in Madagascar), the zapovednik (in Russia), and more. One international body, the World Conservation Union, defines five categories of protected areas other than national parks, and those five categories contain more than 60 percent of all such areas on the planet. National parks in the strict sense account for only 22.7 percent of the total expanse.

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