No National Parks in Heaven

Who are we really "protecting" Nature for... or from?

Hello! Did you hear about Waste Not Why Not’s fresh new member? My name is Alisha Lee, I’m an environmental researcher focusing on environmental justice, conservation, and policy.  

I’m here to talk about why everyone who has visited a national park... is going to hell. 

—At least, that would be the case in The Good Place! My favorite TV show where no one goes to heaven because all of us have, at minimum, been blind to the injustices around us. Let me explain (in hell).

Despite being called “America’s best idea today,” there is a darker history to national parks. Consider our three “fathers of conservation”: John Muir, Madison Grant, and President Theodore Roosevelt. More specifically, let’s consider these fathers’ white supremacist beliefs, and how they’re baked into the creation of national parks. Because these beliefs have historically gone unchallenged, Indigenous Peoples suffered—and still continue to suffer—all the while wealthy, White colonialists told us that the conservation of nature is wholly altruistic. 

Buckle up for the bloody side of cuddly conservation parks. 

Take it back, John!

Once upon a time, there was a man named John Muir. 

Muir was an inventor, a writer, a preservationist, a naturalist, the “Father of the National Parks,” and the founder of the Sierra Club. John was also a racist. (There’s a drinking game somewhere in here.)

In 1868, Muir stumbled upon the towering granite cliffs, deep canyons, thundering waterfalls, and all the many natural wonders of Yosemite Valley. So enthralled by its beauty, he was moved to preserve the Valley. Muir began to champion this idea of a legally protected area for the single purpose of conserving nature. At that time, this was basically unheard of! 

During his stay, however, Muir wrote more than just of his admiration for the landscape. He also laid bare his disgust in the residents of Yosemite—which, by the way, was actually called Ahwahnee by Native Americans, for thousands of years. John Muir describes them, the Ahwahneechee, as “ugly,” “garrulous as jays,”“altogether hideous,” and “as [seeming] to have no right place in this landscape.” 

In the first chapter of John’s promotional book, Our National Parks (1901), he assured prospective visitors to Ahwahnee that “loggers are far more likely to be met than Indians and bears”. He further wrote: “Poor fellows, they have been poisoned, trapped, and shot at until they have lost confidence in brother man.” Here, sympathizers might think John is describing the violence that Ahwahneechee endured during a recent state-funded war against their villages. He’s actually referring to bears. 

John is significantly less compassionate towards his own brother man: “as to Indians, most of them are dead or civilized into useless innocence.” Although he raved about the importance of humans experiencing “wilderness,” he scorned those who actually lived in the “wild”. 

Wilderness: noun. an intentionally constructed word to describe the lands untouched by colonists and depopulated of Indigenous Peoples.

[Native Americans might be garrulous, but their houses sure make great tourist attractions! Depicted: Tourists posing in front of a Miwok u’macha at Ahwahnee, 1935. Via the William M. McCarthy Photograph Collection, California State Archives.]

Overpopulation and Eugenics was soooo 1800s to 2020

John Muir was not alone. Amongst John’s circle of conservationists was Madison Grant, a eugenicist who argued for the sterilization of BIPOC as a way to mitigate overpopulation (the supposed cause of the degradation of the environment—not colonialism, industrialism, or capitalism). Yup. 

Grant also wrote The Passing of the Great Race (1916), which...the title says enough. This book “influenced the Immigration Act of 1924, which limited emigration from Southern and Eastern Europe and Africa, and banned migrants from Asia.” It is also infamous for Adolf Hitler’s glowing reviews, in which Hitler praised it as his “Bible.” 

Shocking? As recently as the 1990s, the Sierra Club advocated for anti-immigration policies in the U.S. as a way to protect the country’s nature

Today, however, the solutions and theories around overpopulation have evolved to become less visibly racist and immoral. For instance, instead of sterilization, NGOs would argue for access to contraception, family planning services, women’s education, and equal pay, which are all things I support the need for. But! Whereas I believe these are basic human rights for all peoples, overpopulation-ists would target specifically non-White communities. (In case you still feel more comfortable having a White man explain history to you, check out our podcast episode, Are we over overpopulation?)

We need to remain critical of whose lives bear the blame of climate change and biodiversity loss, lest we end up like our life-long heroes: Dame Jane Goodall and Sir David Attenborough (current patrons of Even heroes and giants are, alas, flawed.

[Look at all this pristine nature where people previously lived! Depicted: John and Madison at Glacier Point, standing over the Ahwahnee Valley. Via WikiCommons.]

Tut-tut, Teddy, what is the Truth?

Our last character in this circle of conservationists is President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909). Roosevelt has been praised as a leader of the environmental movement, and I am not saying he is not deserving of the title—Roosevelt established 5 national parks, his conservation sites covered over 230 million acres of land. That’s incredible, even by today’s standards. However, we tend not to acknowledge Roosevelt’s racist ideas. 

“Roosevelt deemed wars with ‘savages’ to be ‘the most ultimately righteous of all wars,’ despite their violence. ‘The rude, fierce settler who drives the savage from the land lays all civilized mankind under a debt to him,’ Roosevelt wrote.” — Stephen Wertheim, ‘Reluctant Liberator’

To be perfectly clear, Teddy was a white supremacist. He supported eugenics theories, including sterilization, and worked closely with Madison Grant. Together, they founded the New York Zoological Society, which put Ota Benga, a Central African man from the Mbuti people, on display in Bronx Zoo’s Monkey House for several days. Their Society is now known as the Wildlife Conservation Society

I tried to find out what happened to the Native Americans who lived in Teddy’s 5 national parks. Unfortunately, it’s extremely difficult to find answers to these questions, or even to find any negative criticisms of Teddy at all. Yet, in light of his remarks and actions, I remain deeply skeptical of his methods and intentions in conservation.

[My favorite way of travel, riding on a horse carried by Native Americans! Depicted: the Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt by James Earle Fraser, in front of the American Museum of Natural History. Via Wikicommons.]

Back in June, the American Museum of Natural History in NYC announced they will remove their statue of Theodore Roosevelt. While no one needs to be seeing a statue portraying racial hierarchy and white superiority, I would argue that as a historical monument, this is an accurate depiction of Teddy’s ideologies. 

Teddy, Madison, and John—such are the fathers of conservation. And as the fathers of conservation, their works are still being modeled after today, their words are still being recited by white nationalists, and their statues are still inducing a sense of admiration for some and ancestral trauma for others. Even their wax figures are made into whimsical movies for children’s entertainment.

These men, with their dedicated statues and schools, are daily reminders of how easily history can be rewritten to forget actual human suffering. Their conservationist legacy, in reality, was setting a precedent that has not been critically evaluated, and which continues to unfurl in environmental circles. 

ACAB (Are Conservationists All Bad?) 

Green 2.0, an “independent advocacy campaign to increase racial diversity among environmental organizations,” has published this year’s report on How People of Color are Pushed Out of Environmental Organizations.

“Among the 40 largest green NGOs, only 20% of the staff and 21% of the senior staff identified as People of Color. Environmental foundations revealed similar numbers, with 25% of the staff and 4% of the senior staff identifying as People of Color.”Green 2.0

This is already an improvement from their 2017 report, when only 14% of senior staff at NGOs identified as a person of color. The Sierra Club, however, dropped by 13.3% in POC board members from 2017 to 2019.

Like the institution of policing, America’s system of conservation has seeped into the foundation of conservation around the world. Wilderness is still determined through the lens of colonial powers, and conservation continues to prioritize the pleasure and comfort of settlers over the lives of locals, BIPOC, and low-income communities. We see it in colonial legacies profiting from overseas ecotourism sites, in the violence of internationally-funded wildlife police, and in the exclusion of indigenous voices in policies about their ancestral lands.  

We’ve gone too long without tackling the racist roots of conservation, and in doing so, we’ve let those sinister ideologies remain an underpinning of environmental solutions. We need to be more critical of our leaders, past and present. Let’s stop using the excuse of time to justify the actions of the past. Because while time has passed, not a lot has changed in our racist systems and practices today.  

Non-Governmental or No-Good Organization?

Before you support an NGO, do some digging:

  1. Have they proven to stand by and with BIPOC as well as by the environment?

    • Look at their staff. In particular, those in leadership positions. Is the workplace diverse? Do BIPOC have power in the organization? 

    • Is the one of three BIPOC staff a “Diversity & Inclusion Officer”? Because that doesn’t count.

  2. What did they really say in that public letter in support of BLM? Was it just a blanket and long-winded way of saying “racism is bad” or did it lay out anti-racist actions and address their own acts of racism without excuses?

  3. Do they have programs in which they work with BIPOC? 

    • If they don’t, boy bye

    • If they do, what are the locals/community members saying about the program? Always find sources that are not tied to the NGO.

  4. Do they put the responsibility of change on the individuals (e.g. wildlife traffickers, farmers, low-income families etc.) or on the systems and policies? 

If you’re ever lost, just remember: environmentalism should always be intersectional.


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