The Racist History Behind America's Famous National Parks!


The United States has 59 protected areas known as national parks that are operated by the National Park Service, an agency of the Department of the Interior. But when we went back through history, surprisingly negative facts just come along the way.

President Roosevelt did initiate the national parks concept.

Conservation increasingly became one of Roosevelt's main concerns. After becoming president in 1901, Roosevelt used his authority to protect wildlife and public lands by creating the United States Forest Service (USFS) and establishing 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 4 national game preserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments by enabling the 1906 American Antiquities Act. During his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt protected approximately 230 million acres of public land.

And this is where the story takes a different turn.

This was the period beginning approximately with the administration of Theodore Roosevelt and continuing through the administration of Warren Harding, during which the country discarded its remaining, melting-pot sentimentalism about blacks and foreign immigration. 

Madison Grant is a name you should be hearing a lot at this point because of the centennial of the National Park Service—in many ways a product of Grant's pioneering work as the greatest conservationist who ever lived, according to one early Park Service director, and a creator of "the park concept," in the words of another. But the reality is different from that, apparently, Madison Grant was more than a pioneer, let's say it, he was a racist.

In 1916, Madison Grant published The Passing of the Great Race to call attention to the plight of the "Nordics," a word he helped popularize.

"Unlimited immigration" and intermarriage, he warned, were "sweeping the nation toward a racial abyss."

Grant’s book ought to have been a national scandal. But The Passing of the Great Race was published, praised and the president of the American Museum of Natural History wrote the preface, and former President Theodore Roosevelt provided a blurb (“a capital book“).

When the Nazis established their compulsory sterilization program in 1933, they said they were following "the American pathfinders Madison Grant" and a Grant disciple, Lothrop Stoddard. Hitler once supposedly wrote to Grant to say his book had become "my Bible."

In 1917, Theodore Roosevelt wrote the following about Madison Grant's book "The Passing of The Great Race":

"The book is a capital book; in purpose, in vision, in grasp of the facts our people most need to realize. It shows an extraordinary range of reading and a wide scholarship. It shows a habit of singular serious thought on the subject of most commanding importance (...) It is the work of an American scholar and gentleman; and all Americans should be sincerely grateful to you for writing it."

The eviction of the Ahwahneechee People from Yosemite.

The conservation movement (and its problems) really began with the 1864 Yosemite Grant Act. Conservation leaders like John Muir believed that the indigenous people who had inhabited Yosemite for at least 6,000 years were a desecration and had to go. Muir deemed them "lazy" because their hunting techniques yielded a good living without wasted effort.

In reality, Yosemite had long been an environment shaped by its inhabitants through controlled undergrowth burning (which created its healthy forests with big trees and a rich biodiversity), tree planting for acorns as a food staple, and sustainable predation on its game, which ensured species balance.

In the 19th century, the newcomers didn't hesitate to send in the army to police this wilderness and get rid of everyone else.

One historian, Jeffrey Lee Rodger, is sympathetic to the cavalrymen but admits their "improvised punishments ... were clearly extralegal and may have veered into arbitrary ... force." He might have compared such "punishments" with those still supported by conservation today, particularly in Africa and Asia, where tribal people are routinely kicked out of parks and beaten, even tortured, when they resist.

Native Americans were evicted from almost all the American parks, but a few Ahwahneechee people were tolerated inside Yosemite for a few more decades. They were forced to serve tourists and act out humiliating "Indian days" for the visitors.

Conservationists would understandably rather forget all this.

Among other things, the USA invented and exported worldwide the model of uninhabited national parks—together with its ugly corollary, forced removals of indigenous populations. 

To change that, the conservation movement needs to acknowledge that the ghost of Madison Grant still haunts the natural wonders he helped protect.

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