Beyond Borders: The Shady Past and Uncertain Future of (Trans) National Parks


To Conserve Unimpaired: The Evolution of the National Park Idea. Keiter, R. E. 2013. Island Press, Washington, D.C. 343 pp. $35.00 (paperback). ISBN 1-59726-660-4.

Civilizing Nature: National Parks in Global Historical Perspective. Gissibl, B., S. Höhler, and P. Kupper, editors. 2012. Berghan Books, New York. 294 pp. $95.00 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-85745-525-3.

Transforming the Frontier: Peace Parks and the Politics of Neoliberal Conservation in Southern Africa. Büscher, B. 2013. Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina. 283 pp. $24.95 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-8223-5420-8.

The spread of national parks has been nothing short of remarkable. From humble beginnings in the United States with Yellowstone in 1872, today nearly 100 countries boast national parks that encompass widely diverse cultures, societies, and ecologies. Scholars from a variety of disciplines have followed closely in the wake of the national park diffusion, each seeking to explain why they hold nearly universal appeal. Until fairly recently, the dominant explanation has been a heroic narrative couched in the language of the environmental movement: as ecological degradation increased, far-sighted groups of individuals recognized that a counterbalance was needed and pushed for the creation of parks and similar protected areas.

Over the past three decades a critical scholarship has challenged this grand narrative, negatively appraising the ecological and social performance of parks. These works argue that national parks have failed to live up to expectations of maintaining ecological biodiversity and have disempowered and displaced (often already marginalized) people. Into this intellectual thicket ventures Robert Keiter, with To Conserve Unimpaired: The Evolution of the National Park Ideal; Bernhard Gissibl, Sabine Höhler, and Patrick Kupper, with the edited volume Civilizing Nature: National Parks in Global Historical Perspective; and Bram Büscher, with Transforming the Frontier: Peace Parks and the Politics of Neoliberal Conservation in Southern Africa.

Each work is a welcome contribution to furthering our understanding of why and how, given their chequered past, do national parks proliferate so widely and hold such appeal? The unanimous answer: both the national park ideal and national park boundaries are, and have always been, extremely malleable, fluid entities. And although some brands of conservation such as World Heritage Sites have requirements that must be met in order to receive official designation, there is no such structure governing national parks—any state can declare one (chapter by J. Carruthers in Civilizing Nature). As evidenced by the case studies in the three books reviewed here, people have idealized national parks to be just about anything, from a radical political statement, as in 1930s revolutionary Mexico, to an opportunity for the forces of neoliberalism to extend their reach, to a means of securing indigenous resource rights, and national parks have been adapted to fit just about anywhere, from the typical game preserve in “wild,” colonial Asia to the highly manicured landscape of the Netherlands. However, as Keiter observes, in reality “a national park cannot be all things to all people,” thus ensuring conflict will arise among those with competing visions.

In To Conserve Unimpaired, Keiter persuasively argues that “the national park idea is actually not a single idea, but rather an amalgam of ideas that have evolved over time … [and includes] conceiving of the national park as a wilderness area, a tourist destination, a recreational playground, a commercial commodity, an ancestral homeland, a natural laboratory, a wildlife reserve, and, more recently, a vital ecological cornerstone.” Over 11 chapters, he traces the history of these ideals in the United States and how such ideas have been actualized. Each chapter follows a standard layout, first providing background on early park policy relating to the chapter's particular theme, then discussing how that issue was reframed after key events—most commonly the “Lane” letter (1918), which interpreted the National Park Service's (NPS) management responsibilities to maintain its parks in an “absolutely unimpaired form”; the Leopold Report (1963), which called for concrete plans to manage park visitors and ecosystems; Mission 66, the NPS's 10-year program to dramatically increase services for park visitors; and the State of the Parks Report (1980), which identified and characterized threats endangering the natural and cultural resources of the parks—and subsequently how each chapter's issue is currently being addressed (or not). Such format makes the book easy to follow, and although Keiter makes repeat references to the same historical events and documents, for which he apologizes, this style is not obtrusive.

His rationale for the book's geographical scope is less satisfying. He focuses on the large national parks—the crown jewels—because of “inevitable space restrictions.” Consequently, we learn about the same national parks that have captured the attention of scholars for the past century: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier, Glacier, among a few others. Although these places are important, Keiter misses the opportunity to challenge the dominant focus by targeting the academically neglected, less iconic national parks. Indeed, given that one of his primary goals is to move away from the typical portrayal of national parks, addressing the issues above in the less studied parks would have actually reinforced the broader applicability of his analysis.

For Keiter, the history of national parks in the United States is one of conflict and collaboration. He portrays the NPS as valiantly responding to, trying to anticipate, and being handcuffed in addressing, threats to the park. He points to the many instances where the NPS has been thwarted in realizing its mandate by outside challenges, including competition with other federal agencies and state governments, lobbying of corporate interests, and actions of local individuals and groups neighboring park boundaries. To balance his narrative, Keiter also, in what he refers to as “friendly” critical analysis, shows how the NPS often undermined support for its own policies by alienating potential allies. Moreover, he reminds readers that many conflicts over national parks were, and are, initiated by the fact that the environment does not respect lines drawn on a map, for example, ranchers’ opposition to the reintroduction of wolves in neighboring Yellowstone National Park and concern about the effects of resource development in Alberta and British Columbia, Canada, south of the border in Glacier National Park.

As is made clear in Civilizing Wilderness such conflicts are far from unique to the American context. Editors Bernhard Gissibl, Sabine Höhler, and Patrick Kupper have compiled an impressive collection of 13 essays, plus an introduction and epilogue that examine the history of national parks from a world history perspective. Collectively, the essays demonstrate that the “patchy global geography of conservation is a consequence of the very malleability and adaptability that characterized and actually enabled the global spread of the national park idea.” They also convincingly argue that a transnational purview is required for understanding the history of national parks. Each of the volume's essays demonstrate these points by weighing the extent to which national parks outside of the United States followed the American example versus drawing on local and other transnational influences. The generalized answer is an amalgamation: although each nation could not help but be aware of, and influenced by, the American example, national parks nonetheless were transformed to suit local conditions and their own peculiar history, culture, politics, and ecology. This connection is made most apparent in the first two chapters, but is also addressed in all the case studies thereafter, which include many comparisons of American parks—as usual, Yosemite and Yellowstone are referenced most often—and the spread and implementation of the American model across the globe.

The volume is thoughtfully divided into three parts. The first, “Parks and Empires,” examines how parks were established in frontier settings, resulted from imperial encounters with nature, and were entangled with European and American civilizing missions. Chapters examine the national and international influences on Yellowstone's creation; the growth of parks in the United States, Australia, Canadian, and New Zealand; protected area development in France and the French colonies; British imperial environmentalism in Malaysia's Taman Negara Park; and the linkages of game conservation between East Africa and Germany. “Organizations and Networks” frames the second part, which investigates how transnational and international movements, networks, and organizations adopted and adapted the American national park concept for varied social and political ends. Essays here include the establishment of Swiss National Park; the importance of international organizations such as the United Nations in the spread of national park ideas; the activism of transnational indigenous networks; and the science of wildlife management in the United States and Nepal. Part three, “Nations and Nature,” explores the close association of national parks with notions of territoriality and processes of nation building throughout the last century. Chapters analyze the emergence of parks in revolutionary Mexico; national parks in the Netherlands and Dutch colonial possessions; protected areas in postcolonial India; and nature conservation in the Julian Alps. The volume's editors remark that the essays in part three serve to “show, from an environmental history perspective, that globalized environmentalism and international environmental regimes did anything but weaken the governing capacities of the nation.”

The final section of Civilizing Wilderness provides a particularly interesting contrast to Büscher's conclusion in Transforming the Frontier that the rise of neoliberal conservation has produced a devolved form of governance. Büscher arrives at this conclusion through a history of the emergence and implementation of transfrontier conservation areas (TFCA), or peace parks (referencing their alleged power to enable reconciliation between states), in southern Africa. As with national parks, peace parks are imbricated with multiple visions and, according to the rhetoric of their supporters, promise seemingly anything and everything. They will reestablish old animal-migration routes and restore ecologies, fix economic (especially local community) poverty by attracting tourists and providing jobs, and enable African nations to resolve cross-border disputes. It is no surprise, then, that these parks have generated an incredible amount of enthusiasm among the conservation community and have been endorsed by a long list of high-profile world leaders, including Nelson Mandela. But, as Büscher aptly observes, the history of these parks provides little evidence that they embody a “global solution” or the “new telos of conservation.”

After an engaging theoretical and methodological introduction, which, though complex and dense, is well worth the effort, Büscher spends two chapters discussing the regional southern African history and politics of peace parks before the majority of the monograph, chapters three through seven, delves into the “ethnographic particularities” of the Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Project (MDTP) between neighboring countries South Africa and Lesotho. (As a minor criticism: the book is loaded with acronyms but absent a list of abbreviations, making them at times frustrating to follow.) Using textual deconstruction and long-term ethnographic field research, Büscher deftly navigates through the gambit of what he terms neoliberal “peace park discourse” (the marketing campaign promoting TFCAs as a “win-win-win-win-win” scenario that benefits corporate investors, national economies, biodiversity, local people, and Western consumers) and exposes the reality of a neoliberal conservation “characterized by (racialized) dispossession, inequality, and persistent and accelerating environmental degradation.” It is here where Büscher's analysis is most forceful, shocking the reader throughout his work with revelations of how much time, money, and other resources are spent (re)producing discourse while the on the ground, local effects remain negligible.

Conversely, the least satisfying aspect of the book is its treatment of the physical environment, which remains peripheral. Although this normally would not be an issue because Büscher focusses on discourse, it becomes problematic as his argument turns to a critique of neoliberalism's disregard for the importance of situational “realities” such as “massive environmental degradation” and when he suggests that the “reality and representation struggle in conservation and development has become one of the major struggles of our time.” This point of contention aside, Transforming the Frontier is a sophisticated, theoretically heavy text, one that provokes the reader to seriously reflect on the effect of the increasingly common neoliberal governance of conservation. It is well worth the read.

In light of the points all these authors make about the darker side of parks and their many unrealized goals, what does the future hold for (trans)national parks? Keiter provides the most concrete answer, arguing it is imperative to “define anew the national park idea and to inspire a new generation to meet our looming conservation challenges.” He also details lessons learned and policy recommendations: science must be integrated into park management policy; effective wildlife management entails maintaining biodiversity at all levels; park wildlife needs and ecological processes transcend park boundaries and require an ecosystem perspective; Native Americans have valid treaty-based claims which must be addressed; more expansion to public education efforts are essential; and nature conservation must be brought closer to where people live and introduced into urban settings and minority communities. The authors in Civilizing Wilderness suggest that in any understanding of, and future planning for, national parks the recognition that conservation areas cannot be understood without approaching them from a transnational scope is ensured. In turn, Büscher argues, though with much less detail than Keiter, for the need to provide alternatives to the neoliberal vision of conservation, offering for consideration “so-called indigenous epistemologies” that are more likely to lead toward “a more hopeful, just, and sustainable future.” It is a telling observation that none of the authors suggest that the time for investing in the national park idea is past, though Büscher appears to be close. This trend is especially notable considering all three books recognize that parks have, more often than not, failed to meet their conservation and social mandates. Although I am not suggesting this path either, I do find it astonishing that given the inability of national parks to fulfill the lofty aspirations of their creators, academics and others continue to place so much emphasis on the value of parks. Throughout history many structures—religion, capitalism, the nation-state, colonialism, and so forth—have been deemed impracticable, damaging, or otherwise having worn out their usefulness and so are viewed as ripe for overthrow. Yet, calls to replace national parks with a different structure altogether are extremely rare. The power of the national park ideal is thus revealed to be more entrancing and alluring than perhaps even the authors of this assembly of books realize.