California: Yosemite Park and its origins as modern day conservation-based genocide


Lafayette Bunnell, American explorer, Yosemite on March 21, 1851: Accompanying him that day was one of the most ferocious militias in western American history, the Mariposa Battalion, commanded by James Savage. A veteran of Indian wars, Savage was there with one blunt aim: to rid Yosemite of its natives. Bunnell, who is remembered today largely for his lyrical prose about nature, stood by and watched while Savage and his men burned acorn caches to starve the Miwok out of the valley. Seventy were physically removed. Twenty-three were later slaughtered at the foot of El Capitan, the towering granite obelisk that has become a totem of California wilderness.

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Although it took some years to complete the task of creating a fictional wilderness in Yosemite, all the valley's residents were eventually evicted, and in 1914 their land became a national park – no natives welcome. In the century that followed, millions of tribal natives around the world were forcibly evicted from wildlife reserves and national parks such as the Royal National Park of Australia, Banff in Canada, and Tongariro in New Zealand. In East Africa, the Serengeti and Amboseli National Parks were formed this way; on the border of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest of Kenya, Batwa pygmy refugees still camp in hovels hoping one day to return to their forest homeland.

Refugees from conservation have never been counted; in fact they're not even officially recognized as refugees. But the number of people displaced from traditional homelands worldwide over the past century, in the interest of conservation, is estimated to be close to 20 million, 14 million in Africa alone. It is a sad history, and one that has forced conservationists to reevaluate the hero status of their movement's founders, and to reconsider the idea of protecting biological diversity by removing humans from the mix.


As the world shrank and transportation accelerated, inhabitants of the most remote villages began to discover that they were not alone. There were others like them on almost every continent – people with unique dialects, diets, cultures, and cosmologies who were at best misunderstood, at worst oppressed by the dominant nationalities that surrounded them. These indigenous groups began to communicate with one another and to meet, and through interpreters they learned of ways that aboriginals in other societies had succeeded in protecting their cultures and recovering their sovereignty, independence, and homelands lost to colonization.


They began to resist assimilation and to petition for recognition of territorial rights. As these movements gained force, it was perhaps inevitable that they'd come in conflict with conservationists. And as conservation became global in its reach, conflicts with large international organizations like the Worldwide Fund for Nature, the Nature Conservancy, the Africa Wildlife Federation, and Conservation International occurred on every continent. The sad consequence of this discord is that proven land stewards like the Maasai of Eastern Africa, the San Bushmen of Botswana, the Karen of Thailand, the Ashaninka of Peru, and the Kuna of Panama have in one way or another declared themselves "enemies of conservation."

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Mark Dowie is an investigative historian. This article was adapted from his seventh book, "Conservation Refugees: The Hundred Year Conflict Between Global Conservation and Native People," and portions of the article appeared in Resurgence, Orion, and Stanford Social Innovation Review.

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Comments (4)

RitaMay 11th, 2009 at 8:32 am

The point in the article is well taken; native peoples moved off their lands to make national parks.

However, isn’t the dominate economic world model currently — and since America was founded — that forests and lands are taken from native peoples. Wouldn’t these lands have been taken by others and developed?

Similar articleJune 6th, 2009 at 4:14 pm

In most human conflicts, there are good guys and bad guys. This is not so in the history of global conservation, which is at least partly a story of good guy versus good guy. The major contestants in the struggle to protect nature and preserve biological diversity may seem to be transnational conservation organisations on one side and rapacious extractive industries on the other. But there is a larger, more lamentable conflict: the one between transnational conservation and the worldwide movement of indigenous peoples – good guys both.

These two forces share a goal that is vital to life on earth – a healthy and diverse biosphere. Both are communities of integrity led by some of the most admirable, dedicated people alive. Both care deeply for the planet and together are capable of preserving more biodiversity than any other two groups on it. Yet they have been terribly at odds with one another over the past century or more, violently so at times, mostly because of conflicting views of nature, radically different definitions of “wilderness” and profound misunderstandings of one another’s science and culture.

The perceived arrogance of “big conservation” is a confounding factor; so too is the understandable tendency of some indigenous people to conflate conservation with imperialism. The results of this century-old conflict are thousands of protected areas that cannot be managed and an intractable debate over who holds the key to successful conservation in the most biologically rich areas of the world.

Violent effort

The conflict began in the bucolic stillness of Yosemite valley in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains of California. From the middle of the 19th century until 1914, when Yosemite became a national park, a concerted and at times violent effort was made to rid Yosemite of its natives, a small band of Miwok Native Americans who had settled in the valley about 4,000 years ago.

During the same period, most of the major parks created in America – notably Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Mount Rainier, Zion, Glacier, Everglades and Olympic – repeated the Yosemite example by expelling thousands of tribal people from their homes and hunting grounds so that the new parks could remain in a “state of nature”. This practice of conservation was exported worldwide, becoming known as “the Yosemite model”. Refugees from conservation areas have never been counted; they are not even officially recognised as refugees. But the number of people displaced from traditional homelands worldwide over the past century in the interest of conservation is estimated to be close to 20 million, 14 million of them in Africa alone.

I have travelled across all five inhabited continents researching this subject, visiting hundreds of indigenous communities, some in conflict with western-style conservation, others in harmony with it. Although tension persists, along with arrogance, ignorance and the conflicts they breed, I found an encouraging dialogue growing between formally educated wildlife biologists, who once saw humanity as inimical to nature, and ancient aboriginal societies that have passed their remarkable ecological knowledge from generation to generation without a page of text. I found, mostly in the field, a new generation of conservationists who realise that the very landscapes they seek to protect owe their high biodiversity to the practices of the people who have lived there, in some cases for thousands of years.

Wildland conservation has a recorded history and a literary tradition. Aborigines evicted from their homelands in the interest of conservation have only memory and the bitter oral narrative I heard again and again while visiting their makeshift villages and refugee camps; their pre-eviction experience is rarely recorded outside the literature of anthropology. So the concept of “fortress conservation” and the preference for “virgin” wilderness has lingered in a movement that has tended to value all nature but human nature, and refused to recognise the positive wildness in human beings.

Thus the beautifully written and widely read essays and memoirs of early American eco-heroes such as John Muir, Lafayette Bunnell, Samuel Bowles, George Perkins Marsh and Aldo Leopold inform a conservation mythology that until quite recently separated nature from culture and portrayed both natives and early settlers of frontier areas as reckless abusers of nature, with no sense or tradition of stewardship, no understanding of wildlife biology and no appreciation of biodiversity.

It was the “manifest destiny” of conservation leaders, then, to tame what the 17th-century Massachusetts Puritan poet and minister Michael Wigglesworth described as

A waste and howling wilderness / Where none inhabited / But hellish fiends, and brutish men / That devils worshipped

It has taken transnational conservation a century to see the folly of some of its heroes, such as Richard Leakey, who recently denied the existence of indigenous peoples in his home country, Kenya, and called for the removal of all “settlers” from game reserves and other protected areas.

Today, all but the most stubborn enclose-and-exclude conservationists are willing to admit that it is specious to conflate nature with wilderness and occupants with “first visitors”. They have recognised that indigenous people manage immense areas of biologically rich land, even if they don’t own it. And most, although not all, are managing it well.

Hostile evictees

Some conservationists argue that a policy of tolerating the impoverishment of indigenous people has wrecked the lives of 20 million poor, powerless but eco-wise people, and has been an enormous mistake – not only a moral, social, philosophical and economic mistake, but an ecological one as well. For it is far better to have good stewards living on land than to have that same land cleared of residents and surrounded by hostile evictees. Enlightened conservationists are beginning to accept the axiom that only by preserving cultural diversity can biological diversity be protected, and vice versa.

As conservationists and native people make their uneasy convergence, I hope they will come to agree that they both own the interdependent causes of biodiversity conservation and cultural survival, that they need each other, and that together they can create a new conservation paradigm that honours and respects the ways of life of people who have been living sustainably for generations on what can only be fairly regarded as their native land.

And I hope that native people will blend their traditional knowledge systems with the newer sciences of ecology and conservation biology in search of better ways to preserve the diversity of species , which is not only vital to their own security but to all life on earth. At this point, as the entire planet seems poised to tip into ecological chaos, with almost 40,000 plant and animal species facing extinction and 60% of the ecosystem services that support life failing, there may be no other way.

• Mark Dowie’s latest book is Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict Between Global Conservation and Native Peoples, published by MIT Press, priced £18.99. To order a copy for £17.99 plus p&p, call 0330 333 6846 or go to

Mark FisherAugust 21st, 2009 at 4:21 am

It is the constant refrain of cultural admiration that human land stewardship creates and preserves biological diversity, thus disavowing all other species in a self-willed land. Dowie has a veiwpoint to promote, and a book to sell. He completely misrepresents Aldo Leopold. His categoric statements of contemporary “fact” are not helpful or necessarily truthful.

In western Europe, nature conservation is based on agricultural use of land, or a reapplied synthetic agricultural pressure if farming logic or viability has relinquished that land. There is a justification for this on the same basis – that this “stewardship” conserves biodiversity, when in effect it is just a redistribution of species. Would Dowie consider this comparable?

Rita is correct to identify that while it was an injustice to evict native people, the net benefit was to maintain landscapes that have resisted agriculturalisation. The history of Yellowstone shows how the land outside the park was quickly degraded for aboriginal use by the agriculture of the expansionist Euro-Americans. The mixed motives of that time should have been informed by the vision from the 1830s of George Catlin of creating national parks of native American culture “What a beautiful and thrilling specimen for America to preserve and hold up to the view of her refined citizens and the world, in future ages! A “nation’s Park”, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty!”

It did not happen. It would have needed considerable protection from Euro-American expansion. It would always have been under threat from agriculturalisation. It is a redress that is needed, not in nature conservation terms, but from land rights – the ability of people to live a pre-agricultural life. Hence the contemporary discussions on ethno-botanical reserves; the call by Germaine Greer for such as her homeland of Australia to declare itself a hunter-gatherer nation and forge links with others; and the trend amongst some young people to eschew “civilisation” and rewild themselves. This is not about the nature conservation industry and their priorities and targets. Aboriginal peoples are not to be used as the tools of conservation as Dowie is implying.

Tom T.August 29th, 2009 at 8:52 am

Mark Dowie’s article is so full of inaccuracies it is hard to know where to begin. First, Yosemite became a national park in 1890, not 1914. Second, the Indians of Yosemite were not evicted to make way for a national park. The Mariposa Battalion was established by the California state legislature in the early 1850’s to remove the Indians because of a conflict between Indians and gold miners called the “Mariposa War”. It had nothing to do with the establishment of the park nearly forty years later. Third, John Muir didn’t even arrive in California and Yosemite until 1868, and he was a laboror in Yosemite Valley for ten years. He had no authority to expell anyone from the valley. It is obvious that Mark Dowie has some kind of anti-environment agenda to pursue and is not interested in historical accuracy.

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