November 29th, 2015

Book Review: Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation by Karl Jacoby

By Dennis Lum

Abstract: Reviews the book Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation by Karl Jacoby. Discusses how this work reveals the often hidden consequences of the early conservation movement for land-based people.

Keywords: conservation movement, environmental history, national park system, indigenous people


Book Review: Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation by Karl Jacoby

Sleeping in your family tent in the Adirondacks, Yellowstone National Park, or in the campgrounds of the Grand Canyon, one doesn’t expect to be awoken by voices of resistance and anguish. But if those voices were heard, they would be those of settlers and Native people who were criminalized and displaced from newly-designated parklands by the late 19th century/early 20th century conservationist movement. Poor white settlers and Indians alike, who were living in subsistence in the forests, mountains, and canyons, found their customary activities held in vile disfavor by stalwarts of the conservationist movement. To the conservationists, rural communities that hugged the mountains and canyons and the folk who lived there were outlaws who possessed a flawed understanding of the natural world and, therefore, lacked an appreciation of “wilderness.” This retelling of the history of the conservationist movement in a larger context is the focus of a profoundly important book entitled, Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation. It is beautifully written by Karl Jacoby, Professor of Environmental History at Columbia University.

To a great extent, the American conservationist movement shaped our contemporary ideas about nature and wilderness. This elitist discourse emanated from the Eastern U.S. and was fashioned by industrial pastoralists, scientific forest technicians, and well-to-do sport hunters and fishermen. To the conservationist, the idea of wilderness meant the absence of human intrusion. No one put it better than George Perkins Marsh, journalist, teacher, diplomat from Vermont, and author of Man and Nature (1867): “Man is everywhere a disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords.” Marsh was an important voice for turning the Adirondacks into a government-protected park. He forcefully argued that the “improvident habits of the backwoodsman,” and the “slovenly husbandry of the border settler,” were inadequate to the task of stewardship of the natural world.

Jacoby reminds us that the conservationist movement and the creation of the national park system required the enactment of new laws for newly-defined crimes. He argues that “law and its antithesis are the twin axes around which the history of conservation revolves.” Hunting became poaching. Living in subsistence became squatting. Cutting timber for homes and firewood became thievery, and setting fires for clearing became arson. Indians and poor white settlers were viewed as living too close to nature, ignorant, illiterate, and primitive.

According to Jacoby, modern and anti-modern impulses lie at the center of the conservationist movement. He juxtaposes harnessing science in the modern management of natural resources with what he terms the “romantic search for authentic experience in which nature is offered as the antidote to an increasingly industrial ‘over-civilized’ existence.” Within this framework, the urban industrialist becomes the weekend sports hunter. Jacoby states that by 1893 more than 60 private parks in the Adirondacks consumed more than 940,000 acres of land while the state forest preserve covered 730,000 acres. J. Pierpont Morgan, Alfred Vanderbilt, and William Rockefeller were among some of the more prominent private park owners.

The creation of a two million acre park at Yellowstone disavowed claims of Native tribes having homeland connections to that land. Overlapping Indian nations who used the land in complex cycles linked to the seasons were viewed as senseless nomads bereft of reason. The Blackfeet, Crow, Lakota, Shoshone, and Bannock peoples were seen as primitive wanderers. Jacoby points to the cultural trope, “the sedentary Indian (on reservations) is the civilized Indian.” Lawless whites and raiding Indians must be reined in. Settlers in both the Adirondacks and Yellowstone argued that the conservationist laws interfered with “killing for the table.” Yet, Jacoby argues, “of all the inhabitants of 19th century rural America, it was the Indians who were the most powerless, and consequently, it was the Indians whose lives were most remade by the coming of conservation.” Jacoby continues, “For Native Americans, conservation was inextricably bound up with conquest.”

At the Grand Canyon, conservationists saw the Havasupai as immature and irresponsible. W. P. Hermann, Grand Canyon Forest Supervisor, proclaimed in 1898 that the Havasupai “disturbed the scenic beauty that the forest preserve sought to protect.” The Havasupai spent the spring and summer in Havasu Canyon engaged in intensive agriculture and fall and winter hunting on the Canyon plateau in the Coconino forest that borders the South Rim area of the canyon. Magazine articles, echoing conservationists, reported them as “bands of roving savages.” In 1880, President Rutherford B. Hayes issued an executive order setting aside a five mile wide and 12 mile long reservation in the canyon for the Havasupai, which cut them off from their traditional fall and winter hunting grounds. For the Havasupai, as for other American Native tribes, the reservation was the final wedge that separated the people from the land and helped to destroy their landed culture.

“Memory,” Jacoby reminds us, “is rarely an impartial record keeper.” The powerful can write their versions of history while the cries and anguish of unfortunate others remain voiceless and unheard. Karl Jacoby has helped to demystify some of the romantic myths surrounding the conservationist movement. To a large extent, the creation of the national park system was, as Jacoby argues, an authoritarian repose that emanated from the depths of the conservationist impulse, one that sought to link modern scientific management of natural resources with federal and state governance. The movement also linked pastoralism and recreation to the market. Jacoby believes that the “most essential role of a historian is to serve as society’s truth-teller,” and he has certainly accomplished that. It is a story of dispossession that should be told around every campfire at every national park.

Jacoby, K. (2001/2014). Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation. Berkeley: University of California Press.


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