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The Myth of Untouched Wilderness

Updated: Oct 20, 2023

Bison in Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park became the first National Park in the United States and was established on March 1, 1872. Modern conservation efforts began in the U.S in the mid-1800s as people began to notice the negative impact the westward expansion of white settlers was having on the landscape and North American animal populations. Modern conservation efforts matured in the 1900s and as a result there are thousands of national parks and protected areas across the globe.

Nature conservation can be described as "the moral philosophy and conservation movement focused on protecting species from extinction, maintaining and restoring habitats, enhancing ecosystem services, and protecting biological diversity."

Well known figures such as Ansel Adams and John Muir were early advocates for a National

Park system in the U.S and romanticized the Yosemite valley as an untouched virgin wilderness. One that should be protected for future generations. Adams, Muir, and many others acted as influences on how Americans viewed wilderness which was eventually defined in the 1964 Wilderness Act 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." This definition and view of wilderness has been adopted by most organizations and countries around the world. Modern-day conservation efforts continue to focus on preserving "untouched wilderness," but this type of wilderness is a work of fiction.

The reality is, those early romanticizers of wilderness were selling a myth. The land and wilderness they loved was not uninhabited. It was not untouched by man. When Muir arrived in California in 1868 the Yosemite valley was cared for and used by native tribes and had been for over 4,000 years. In fact, about 50% of land converted into protected areas across the globe was used or inhabited by indigenous people at the time the land was slated for protection. Within the U.S that number rises to about 80%.

Conservation refugees are the people who are forced from their homes or lands due to conservation efforts. This happens when conservation organizations establish protected areas on land that is already occupied by communities. Conservation refugees often have no choice but to relocate to urban areas, where they face economic, social, and cultural challenges.

The displacement of native people from their ancestral lands isn't an issue of the past. It continues to happen around the world today. The Maasai and Batwa of Africa are two examples of recent groups expelled from their lands in recent years. The United Nations (UN) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimate the range of conservation refugees worldwide is five million to tens of millions.

Batwa woman and child
Batwa woman and child

For conservation efforts to succeed long term, organizations and governments need to recognize that mankind is nature. We are formed from this earth. We should be learning together how to responsibly use these lands rather than irresponsibly protecting them at the cost of human lives. The Miwok of Yosemite, Maasai pastoralists of Africa, and Batwa of Uganda all lived a lifestyle in harmony with nature before conservationists, using a western mindset of conservation, forced them from their lands. Before being driven from their lands the nomadic Maasai pastoralists of Africa used a method of farming that pollinated a diverse range of seed species and maintained buffer corridors between ecosystems for generations. When Maasai Mara and Serengeti National Parks were created, over 100,000 Maasai pastoralists were driven from their ancestral lands. In Uganda the Batwa, one of the oldest documented tribes in Africa, a nomadic people of hunter-gatherers, were evicted from the great rainforests of Uganda to conserve and protect an endangered species of gorilla. The type of conservation that forces everyone to adopt one mindset of conservation, nature, and wilderness is doomed to fail.

Conservation should not be about the removal of mankind from a place. Conservation should instead focus on our relationship with a place, and how the human species exists within the wider natural world. We should be learning together how to responsibly use these lands rather than irresponsibly protecting them.

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