SEARCH

SEARCH BY CITATION

Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation. Jacoby, K. 2001 . University of California Press , Berkeley, CA . 324 pp. (305 + xix). $39.95 (hardcover) . ISBN 0-520-22027-7 .

Crimes Against Nature aims to set popular American environmental history straight through an animated “bottom-up” perspective. The rhetoric of the early conservation heroes espoused myths that rural people, being ignorant of their impact on the natural world, had no system for regulating resources. We needed to protect wilderness from “the recklessness of rural folk” ( p. 198 ). At the turn of the century, “rural folk” were living a subsistence lifestyle augmented by part-time market production. Tenuously resisting submission to a wage-based economy, they became victims of conservation when their means of livelihood were outlawed. The author concludes that “Americans have often pursued environmental quality at the expense of social justice” ( 198 ). Conservation's “hidden history” is examined here through three case studies.

Part I is a history of the intellectual development of American conservation and the social conflict arising as the movement took hold in the Adirondack Mountains. With water shortages and deforestation at hand, the environmental crises predicted by George Perkins Marsh in his work Man and Nature loomed before New York's legislature. European schools of scientific forestry were infiltrating American philosophy, and “excessive urbanization” of the populace was perceived to undermine tradition- al models of masculinity. In this social climate, the urban elite, who escaped urban stresses by periodically imbibing the rigor of the Adirondack life, found invigorated support. In so doing, they engineered a vast preserve. To the elite's chagrin, Adirondack communities did not want to relinquish their “law of the woods” in which the land was a commons and subsistence rights were recognized. Under park regulation, hunters and fishermen were trespassing poachers, homesteaders were squatters, and lumbermen were thieves. Communities feigned ignorance, destroyed boundary monuments, violently engaged officials, worked in armed gangs to harvest timber, set fires, and fought regulations in court. As park boundaries solidified and frustration with outsiders and industrial exploitation mounted, some Adirondackers adapted by selectively assisting with law enforcement. Others organized tourism-based entrepreneurial enterprises, but many conflicts remained unresolved.

Part II is an account of the struggle the U.S. government faced as it tried to set up an effective administration for Yellowstone under the nascent National Park Service. This section of the book exposes gross misunderstanding of indigenous culture and ecology and describes the infringements of settlers arriving on established park boundaries. Congress liberally drew lines to encompass the region's geothermal resources. Later, the eastern conservation elite recognized the area as a “natural wonder.” As the administrative burden shifted between poorly equipped interim offices, including the U.S. Army, the entertaining Yogi Bear story of Jellystone's marauding tribes, wily predators, evil poachers, raging fires, and bumbling scouts unfolded. I think Native Americans and their shattered hunting practices make more believable victims of park regulations than the American citizens who settled on the park's boundaries and illegally consumed park resources. Nonetheless, I felt a bit defensive as I observed that the unjust treatment of Native Americans via conservation was more a local symptom of the trenchant pattern of Native American subjugation than it was an example of conservation at the expense of social justice.

Part III is a tale of the humiliation of the Havasupai people as they were confined to their canyon home with ever-tighter restrictions on access to lands they had used traditionally. The paltry reservation set aside for them in the Havasu Canyon was contained entirely within the Grand Cañon Forest Reserve ( later to become Grand Canyon National Park). As the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the General Land Office, and the U.S. Forest Service exerted what could be considered a “… unilateral assertion of state authority over a politically disempowered indigenous population” (p. 183), the conservation movement's myths were perpetuated under the perception that the preserve would be “… overrun with [Havasupai] who kill game and start forest fires” ( p. 177  ). The author's recognition that conservation regulations were part of a unilateral set of tools for state assertion of power mollified my earlier objections.

As a specialist in federally protected species, I recently attended a meeting in which discussions centered on a private landholder who alternately had been the object of “criminalization” by the agencies, of lawsuits by neighboring landowners, and of praise for a policy of stewardship and compliance with regulation. In the faces of the landholders, unwitting players in the biodiversity crisis, I recognized the bewilderment that the “marginal inhabitants” of the American wilderness must have felt as the early conservation movement, with its myths and stereotypes, commandeered their lives and work. Jacoby's case studies provide worthy insight into the social risks the conservation elite assume when they seek to protect remote resources from misconceived threats. The author eloquently treads a delicate line between a social indictment of the conservation movement and a challenge to the triumph of American enlightenment under the movement. The lessons learned from America's “hidden history” of conservation's social consequences drive home the point that both social and ecological bridges must be crossed for wisdom to diffuse effectively from conservation's agents to its adopters across the globe.