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Outside/In: The Problem With 'Fortress Conservation'

Yellowstone National Park
Soldiers from Fort Yellowstone, posing with captured buffalo heads after apprehending a poacher.

The National Parks are seen as a national treasure, touted by some as “America’s Best Idea.” But restricting access to the natural world as a method of conservation is also part of a history of indigenous erasure. 


On this episode, we trace the history of the prejoratively-termed “fortress conservation,” from Robin Hood to Fort Yellowstone and the global spread of national parks and preserves.


Plus, what the likelihood of another four years of divided government means for climate action.

 What Could a Biden Administration Do On Climate With A Divided Congress?

Sam Evans-Brown

As of 1:50 p.m., November 6th, as we wrap up production on this episode, it’s looking like at least another two years of divided government: Joe Biden in the White House, Democrats holding the House, and likely a Republican-controlled or split Senate. 


With prospects looking fairly dim for dramatic legislation coming out of Congress, the spotlight turns to the executive branch.


Over the past four years, the Trump Administration moved to roll back emissions regulations for cars and power plants, allowed oil and gas and resource extraction in national parks, withdrew from the Paris Accord, and cleared the way for the construction of the now completed Dakota Access pipeline.


If the next administration is motivated to be a leader in environmental and climate action, how hard would it be?


“The basic rule on reversing actions that have been taken by a previous administration is you usually have to go through the same process that it took to put the policy in place to undo it. Executive orders can, for the most part, be repealed on day one," said Brenda Mallory, Director of Regulatory Policy with the Southern Environmental Law Center and former General Council in the Obama Administration’s Council on Environmental Quality.


You can find more information on how a Biden administration might approach climate change with a divided Senate here.


Fortress Conservation
Taylor Quimby

In 1877, members of the Nez Perce encountered a group of white tourists in the newly created Yellowstone National Park - the trail was an ancestral path, used by indigenous peoples for generations. At the time, the Nez Perce were engaged in a moving war and fleeing the U.S. Army. Fearing the tourists might disclose their location, the Nez Perce kidnapped them and took them to Montana. 


This wasn’t the wilderness experience the U.S. government had imagined when they created the park.

Credit Yellowstone National Park
GUARD MOUNT ON MAMMOTH PARADE GROUND, NATIONAL HOTEL IN BACKGROUND. "2nd Lt. Johnathan M. Wainwright Officer of day/1st U.S. Cavalry"

 And so, in 1886, they called on the U.S. Army to fend off white poachers and drive away indigenous tribes. They called their new home “Fort Yellowstone,” and for 30 years, the U.S. armed forces managed the park. 


Throughout the 20th century, conservationists and environmentalists have looked to protect wildlife and biodiversity through the creation of parks and other forms of exclusionary wildlife zones; zones that seek to preserve spaces devoid of human impact, or to create them, by removing or dis-empowering indigenous people who already live there. Today, some academics call this strategy by a pejorative name: fortress conservation.


But fortress conservation relies on the myth that you can separate humankind from the natural world. When forests are turned into fortresses, they require guards, gatekeepers and administrators. People who decide how fortresses can be used… and by whom. And the history of the U.S. National Parks is filled with examples of parks created through the forcible displacement of indigenous peoples.


Featuring Karl Jacoby, Prakash Kashwan, Rosalyn LaPier, Hadrian Cook, and Vicky Tauli-Corpuz.

Taylor Quimby is Supervising Senior Producer of the environmental podcast Outside/In, Producer/Reporter/Host of Patient Zero, and Senior Producer of the serialized true crime podcast Bear Brook.
Outside/In is NHPR's podcast about the natural world and how we use it. Click here for podcast episodes and more.

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