Fortress Conservation & the Makings of Yosemite National Park

By Grace Ferrara

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Yosemite National Park, California. Photo courtesy of National Park Service.

This year, the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary in caring for our national parks. For 100 years, the Park Service has protected and maintained some of our nation’s greatest treasures and provided connections for millions of people to the Great Outdoors. The creation of the Park Service in 1916 represented a major step forward in the struggle to protect our natural environment from the encroaching threats of urbanization. To celebrate their centennial, the Park Service has launched several programs, including Every Kid in a Park and Find Your Park to encourage people to get out and enjoy some of our most awe-inspiring national heritage. I, for one, am a big fan of the work the Park Service does to preserve some of our most precious environmental and cultural resources. However, the 100-year mark of this beloved agency has led me to reflect on its history and origins. In alignment with what seems to be the rest of American history, the story of how National Parks came to be is not as altruistic as one would expect.

The grant for Yosemite National Park was established in 1864 to protect the park from development by white settlers, saving it solely “for resort and recreation… to be left inalienable for all time.”[1] This was the first time that an area of land was set aside for conservation purposes by the federal government. The establishment of this park has guided the creation of natural parks and reserves in the United States and abroad ever since. However, contrary to the language of the grant, the park was not untouched by people at the time of its establishment. The Yosemite band of the Miwok tribe had been thriving in the valley for nearly four thousand years by the time the park was established. This was of little consequence, however, to the white settlers who saw the tribe as a threat and a blight on the landscape.

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“The Fallen Monarch with Troop F, Sixth Cavalry, U.S.A. Mariposa Big Tree Grove California.” 1899. Photo courtesy of National Park Service.

The war against the Yosemite began in 1851 when Major James Savage led U.S. soldiers into the valley to get rid of the tribe in order to make the Sierra foothills safe for gold miners. This effort lasted until the last Native American settlement was evicted from the land in 1969. John Muir himself advocated for the eradication of the Yosemite tribe from the valley, arguing that they were simply nomads passing through the valley and that they had no permanent history, influence or claim over the land. Yet the Yosemite played a vital role in shaping the ecosystem by planting seeds, pruning trees and shrubs, and even starting cleansing fires to burn off the underbrush and recycle nutrients in the soil. Today the Yosemite have largely been acknowledged as the valley’s gardeners and in their absence, the ecosystem has suffered.

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“Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir on Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, California.” 1906. Photo courtesy of National Park Service.

Sadly, the forced removal of native people in the name of conservation still occurs today, and is now known as “fortress conservation”. The practice is so ingrained in conservation practice that it is reflected the very definition of wilderness in the U.S. Wilderness Act. Wilderness is described as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” In parks and reserves, these areas of wilderness are cleared of human settlements and guarded to keep people out. The Yosemite model has spread beyond the United States to Australia, South America and Africa where indigenous people continue to be removed or kept from their native lands. In many cases, this actually counteracts conservation efforts by increasing incentives to poach and overexploit natural resources. In Tanzania, more than one hundred thousand indigenous Maasai pastoralists have been driven from their land in the name of biodiversity conservation. At the Fifth World Parks Congress in 2003, Martin Saning’o, a Maasai leader, addressed a room full of ecologists and conservationists to draw attention to the plight of his people. “We were the original conservationists. Now you have made us the enemies of conservation.”1 Instead of caring for the land that once provided their livelihood, indigenous tribes must scramble to extract its resources as quickly as possible in the face of an unknown future.

Fortunately, conservationists are beginning to listen. Since the 1960s, indigenous peoples have formed organizations to petition national and international bodies for recognition of their economic, cultural, and civil rights. These groups often invoke Yosemite as a well-known example of the hardship they have endured. In 2007, the United Nations finally approved the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, advocating for the full participation of indigenous peoples in all matters involving them, including the establishment of parks and reserves. Today there are a handful of Indigenous Peoples Protected Areas and other wildlife reserves governed by indigenous tribes. These and subsistence harvesting laws have restored some native peoples’ rights. The National Park Service now prioritizes civic engagement in their practices, working with local communities to create effective conservation. However, the world still has a long way to go in providing restitution for the marginalization of native peoples by conservation advocates. Hopefully, with the UN’s Declaration and the efforts of community leaders like Martin Sanging’o, the consideration of the rights of indigenous people and their cultures will one day be a priority among conservation objectives.

[1] Dowe, M. (2011). Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict Between Global Conservation and Native Peoples. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.