Monday, October 19, 2009

Conservation Ideology and National Parks

I've been blogging about women in philosophy but have mostly been thinking about the "problem of people and parks."

A recent (July 2009) article by Emily Wakild in Environmental History speaks to a related issue: the history of park planning along the U.S.-Mexico border.

In the 1930's, Mexican and U.S. officials tried to plan an international park on the southern U.S. border which would be analogous to the U.S.-Canada Glacier Waterton International Peace Park. The planning ultimately came to naught, partly because the U.S. insisted on locating the park in a place that would be inaccessible to Mexican tourists.

What's interesting about the article is that it makes explicit the values that have supported the formation of U.S. national parks and examines the ways these values differ in another culture. The U.S. national parks favor locations of unique grandeur and untouched forests, often in remote locations. Mexican national parks, on the other hand, favored locations that offered easy access to visitors, which had cultural meaning, and which were in need of reforestation.

This strikes me as similar to the difference in the U.S. between national parks and state parks. While national parks act as symbols of American uniqueness and rugged beauty--and have been linked to economic privilege--state parks are accessible, are a way of conserving diverse lands, and embody democratic mingling of classes.

It's interesting to get this historical view on what are still current questions of land use and land preservation. Does preservation require eliminating other land uses? Does tourism aid or inhibit preservation? Are conservation goals better served by setting aside the wildest lands or by targeting resources to areas that can benefit from restoration of watersheds or forests? How does park creation further political goals and goals of democratic participation? Answering such questions often demands impossible answers, such as placing a valuation on symbolism and comparing the value of a place as national symbol to its use value.


Noumena said...

U.S. national parks favor locations of unique grandeur and untouched forests, often in remote locations.

I don't have time to look through the article, but growing up in California, this struck me as inaccurate. Certainly Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon are out in the middle of nowhere. But a huge chunk of the Sierras (the Western `spine' of California) is National Park and National Forest, and they're just a couple hours from San Francisco. (Yosemite is 4-5 hours, depending on traffic and the route you take.) On the coast, there's Muir Woods and Point Reyes. LA has Joshua Tree, the Channel Islands, and the Santa Monica Mountains.

Granted, you need a car to get to all of these places from the urban centers, and sleeping in a tent in Yosemite will cost you as much as staying in a nice hotel (if you can even get a space). So I think there may be something to the class contrast with Mexico. But I don't buy the geographical contrast, at least as without qualification.

Evelyn Brister said...

Hi Noumena,

Yes, I was speaking technically only of national parks, not monuments etc. which have different purposes and histories. The US had a fast round of park declarations in the first part of the century, and most of those you mention in CA don't fall into that category. Maybe Kings Canyon, which was designated in 1940, but Joshua Tree wasn't designated until the mid-1990's. In general, I'll even grant that California might be a special case for the geographical proximity between wilderness and urban centers.

But the point is that the early US national parks WERE wilderness, Big Bend included (which was the subject of the article). In other nations, one reason land was conserved was because it was already heavily used and because the government designation could be used to maintain some uses and limit others.