Published: October 2006
Hallowed Ground: Nothing Is Ever Safe
Parks nourish the human spirit, help sustain the planet, and reflect the ideals of the societies that protect them. But for some of these preserves, the future is uncertain.
By David Quammen

Landscape and memory combine to tell us certain places are special, sanctified by their extraordinary natural merits and by social consensus. We call those places parks, and we take them for granted. Some are large, spectacular, and wild—such as Yellowstone and Kruger. Some are intimately local—such as Buttes-Chaumont, set within a busy neighborhood of Paris. Many are threatened by pressures from the societies that surround them, even as our hunger for the respite they provide grows ever greater.

We dedicate the bulk of this issue to Earth's most cherished natural places. David Quammen surveys the debate on a theme roughly formulated as "parks versus people." John G. Mitchell traces the history of the parks idea in one country, the United States, and assesses the perils faced by America's National Park System. Jennifer Ackerman considers the role of parks in urban environments.

In his 1995 book Landscape and Memory, social historian Simon Schama wrote: "All our landscapes, from the city park to the mountain hike, are imprinted with our tenacious, inescapable obsessions." Human obsessions aren't always pretty. But these chosen landscapes—parks, of every sort—may show us at our best.

—Chris Johns, Editor in Chief

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."

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.

None of those other forms of protection, though, does or says what a national park does and says. None embodies the idea of a national citizenry standing in special relationship—as enjoyers for the present, as guarantors into the future—of some treasured parcel of the natural world. Only national parks do that. They speak more loudly and more proudly of a country's special gifts, and of its ideals.

Serengeti National Park tells the world that the people of Tanzania, accepting some burden of inconvenience, find themselves privileged to embrace within their boundaries a vast grassland filled with lions—come and see. Galápagos National Park testifies that Ecuadorians are cognizant not just of the extraordinary biological riches (including the marine riches) of the archipelago, but also of its crucial role by way of Charles Darwin in the history of science. Ujung Kulon National Park, at the western tip of Java, codifies Indonesia's commitment to the survival of the sorely endangered Javan rhinoceros. Fiordland National Park reminds us that New Zealand is the Norway of the south.

Part of what makes national parks complicated is the diversity of their origins and the ways their meanings have changed over time. India's Gir National Park, for example, amid the dry forest and rocky hills southeast of a city called Junagadh in the state of Gujarat, received its current designation only in 1975. It is surrounded by the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary, which was constituted in 1965 and is managed under slightly different regulations, allowing for the continued residence (within the sanctuary doughnut but not the park at its core) of some indigenous livestock-raising people known as Maldharis. Together the park and the sanctuary encompass 545 square miles (1,410 square kilometers) of habitat for the last remaining wild population of the Asiatic lion, Panthera leo persica. Although foreigners may assume that the tiger is India's signature big cat, in fact the lion still holds an important place within Hindu beliefs, and until recent decades it was considered India's national animal. The lion population at Gir is now strictly protected from hunting and other direct forms of attack. But the park and its buffer zone wouldn't exist today if not for prescient action more than a hundred years ago by a local potentate, the Nawab of Junagadh, for whom the lion was valuable first as a game animal.

Even the nawab could understand, with help from his gamekeepers, that these Gir lions had been hunted too much, driving the population perilously low. So, at the start of the 20th century, he declared a temporary ban on lion shooting, giving the Gir forest protection as a de facto wildlife reserve. His motives were practical: He was proud to have lions within his realm, he liked offering hunts to his fancier guests (such as the British viceroy, Lord Curzon), and he saw that a bit of temporary forbearance was necessary, or else the lions would be gone altogether. The nawab's moratorium eventually became a national resolve that the Asiatic lion should not be allowed to go extinct.

Kruger National Park in South Africa and Kakadu in Australia are other instances where important acts of landscape protection had their origins in complicated, even objectionable, political realities. Kruger was proclaimed as a national park in 1926, under the white-run government of the time, without much regard for the native African peoples whose ancestral lands were at stake. Today its protected status makes it a huge economic asset for post-colonial, post-apartheid South Africa. Kakadu was established in stages, between 1979 and 1991, reflecting a peculiar three-way arrangement among the traditional Aboriginal owners (who wanted formal title to at least some of their ancestral lands), the government of Australia (seeking a nature reserve in the Northern Territory wetlands), and representatives of the mining industry (who held mineral claims and hoped to exploit them). Kakadu is a splendid place, the world's greatest refuge for crocodiles and cockatoos that happens also to encompass a uranium mine.

Kakadu stands snug against the western border of Arnhem Land, a huge Aboriginal reserve that is one of Earth's most gracefully human-occupied wildernesses. Along with Amboseli and Gir, it testifies to a broad truth: National parks generally aren't large enough to assure the conservation of complete ecosystems, including all the upstream resources and processes, all the migratory birds, and all the native ungulate and predator species, some of which live at low densities and require very large areas to support a viable population. The boundaries of a national park, in virtually all cases, are artificial lines (sometimes curvy, sometimes straight) that do not embrace the complete ecological existence of the plant and animal populations dwelling (or visiting) inside. Those boundaries are merely a statutory membrane through which the park, like a living cell, must be able to breathe.

Even the first and most celebrated of American parks, Yellowstone, suffers that limitation. Its boundaries are mostly rectilinear; its ecosystem is not. Yellowstone National Park comprises 3,472 square miles (8,992 square kilometers) of forest and grasslands and waters, a box-shaped plot of territory, with sides roughly 54 miles by 63 (87 kilometers by 101). It is relatively large for a park, but not sufficiently large to sustain the long-term health of a population of grizzly bears (as Ursus arctos, the brown bear, is known thereabouts). What would Yellowstone be without the grizzly, its signature species? A sad, scenic travesty of its former reality, and not what Americans want it to be. That's why all scientific and policy discussion of the status of the Yellowstone grizzly—Is it secure or still threatened? Should it be delisted from its Endangered Species Act protections?—is framed not by the boxy borders of the park but within the broader perimeter of what is known as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), an amoeba-shaped expanse defined by the limits of contiguous forest and other relatively undisturbed landscape. The GYE also includes Grand Teton National Park, portions of six national forests, and other public and private lands, totaling more than 28,000 square miles (73,000 square kilometers). The bears use these lands without regard for legal designations or boundaries on a map.

To retain grizzlies within Yellowstone Park, so that your great-grandchildren may have a chance of glimpsing one there—eating yampah roots and clover in the Hayden Valley or gnawing on a moose carcass along the Lamar River—it will be necessary to protect every possible acre of their current habitat outside the park as well as within it. And even that may not be sufficient.

Then again, saving the grizzly is not a purpose articulated in the founding legislation for Yellowstone, as passed by Congress and signed by Ulysses S. Grant back in the spring of 1872. After delineating the tract in question, the law merely said that it was "dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people," and that anyone who dared to homestead there would be considered a trespasser. The wise heads of the 42nd Congress had no inkling that Ursus arctos would one day be preciously rare south of Canada's border, nor that this pleasuring-ground would give its pleasure, in part, by serving as a sanctuary to North America's most fearsome mammal. As with other legislation, including the United States Constitution, it was left for later generations to explore and expand the lapidary meaning of the original text.

Changing circumstances and values don't always move societies toward deeper appreciation of their national parks and other protected areas. Sometimes those changes tug the opposite way, as the Amboseli situation illustrates. The current tussle to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling is another such instance. That tussle should alert us, if we're paying attention, to the fact that Yellowstone and Gir and Serengeti can all be de-gazetted too, whenever the relentless press of growing human populations and human demands exceeds the political resolve, in each case, to preserve something glorious for its own sake and for the sake of later generations.

In the world of conservation professionals, there is a dour saying: All our victories are temporary; only the defeats are permanent. This applies equally to the ANWR battle and the Yellowstone Act of 1872. But here's my own offering, a slightly more cheerful variant: Our national parks are as good, only as good, as the intensity with which we treasure them.