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When Wilderness Was Strictly Whites-Only

Today,environmental conservation is often painted as an act of compassion — but the history of the movement is fraught with ecological ignorance and racism.

By Louise Fabiani


In Thomas Cole’s 1847 painting Home in the Woods, a father returns to his home in New Hampshire’s White Mountains with a fresh catch for his family. Cole’s paintings often reflected his advocacy for conservation of wild spaces. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

However tempting it is to trace racist fervor in the United States to the slave trade, white supremacy ideologies reared their head earlier, in the founding of the country. When the early European explorers arrived, and began pushing against the frontier, the native peoples they encountered appeared so wild and “other” to them that they seemed to them to be part of the wildlife — hardly fellow humans at all. As colonies sprang up and agriculture spread, newcomers perceived “the wilds” (peopled or not) as impediments to progress — like physician and ethnologist Josiah C. Nott, who portrayed race as a biological category, and wrote in his 1844 book that a Native American is “a beast of the forest like the Buffalo.”

In an irony that plays out to this day, racism didn’t manifest only when white people wanted to subdue the wild, but also when they sought to conserve it. In Vanishing America: Species Extinction, Racial Peril, and the Origins of Conservation, Miles A. Powell examines U.S. environmental history’s long track record for racism and classism. Citing environmental literature from the 19th century to the present day, as well as private correspondence exchanged by the conservationist figures he studies, Powell, an assistant professor of environmental history at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, finds shocking examples of both involving some of the biggest names in 19th- and 20th-century biological conservation.

Powell’s intention is to illuminate a little-known chapter of American history, a lengthy period when wilderness was a racially charged concept. He uncovers that the concept changed along with the face of the land, its peoples, environmental politics, and wildlife.

From the beginning, the concept of the “wild” signified different things to different Americans: “White America’s entire justification for colonization lay in the notion that the continent required domestication,” Powell writes. “To admit that an Indian tribe had been civilized, or ‘domesticated,’ would be to forfeit claims over the group’s territory…. Indian eradication often seemed the only possible outcome.”

As the turn of the 20th century approached, many white people (most often identifying as Nordic or Anglo-Saxon) “saw themselves as an imperiled race,” Powell writes, and perceived that their own impending extinction was reflected in the nation’s disappearing wildlife. Their solution for preserving both was to bar the wrong — i.e., non-Nordic or Anglo-Saxon white — people from wild lands. Powell cites frontiersman Kit Carson’s “scorched-earth tactics” in 1863, intending to subdue Navajos in New Mexico, and the expulsion of Native Americans from Yellowstone National Park decades later to argue that a major Nordic European goal was to make the continent racially monochromatic, and naturally “pure.”

This exclusionary principle ended up forming the backbone of the conservation movement and led to its central irony: The wild had to be kept as free of people as possible — until the right kind of white man needed to go hunting. That principle did not apply to all with fair skin, however: excluded were gun-happy Italian immigrants, whom prominent conservationist William Temple Hornaday called “human mongooses” for their reputed fondness for killing every living thing in sight.

Since civil life was thought to make white men soft, much of the wilderness was set aside for their use. Compared with the “Indian braves” and able-bodied foreigners from southern and eastern Europe arriving on American shores to take up laborers’ jobs, many white men, Powell argues, felt puny and vulnerable. City life was both too easy (providing somewhat more readily available food and shelter) and too hard (dirty air, crowded conditions). White men expunged their over-domesticated, quasi-feminine attributes with the nature cure — in short, they reconnected with their inner Davy Crocketts.

(Not everyone thought non-whites did not belong in the wild, however: Henry David Thoreau, the nature writer, and Lewis Henry Morgan, one of the first anthropologists, believed Native Americans were integral to the wilderness experience.)

In the meantime, popular natural historians and writers like Madison Grant and Henry Fairfield Osborn repurposed the principles of natural selection to support racist and eugenicist theories. They applied superficial and self-serving interpretations of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) to both human and non-human life, singling out certain individuals, races, or species for signs of strength, and others for weakness.

That’s not to say the era’s white male conservationists weren’t concerned with the disappearance of some species. In the late 19th century, with bison reduced to a few small herds, and once-superabundant passenger pigeons down to a handful of incarcerated individuals, a clearer grasp of loss took hold in the collective consciousness. The painful awareness of actual and potential extinctions influenced policies and culture in ways that almost seem inevitable in retrospect. “As with the rise of the idea of the noble savage, Americans found it easier to celebrate wilderness once it seemed safely vanquished…. Before a full sea change in attitudes could unfold, Americans had both to see wild nature as imperiled and to see its loss as detrimental,” Powell writes.

James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans — about a white man, incidentally, not a Mohican — became a bestseller, a book emblematic of the age.

Powell incorporates several forgotten sidebars to official environmental history in his book, many alarming but often also illuminating. He digs up some dirt on Theodore Roosevelt, a former asthmatic who became a big-game hunter at home and abroad, and whose fixation on health extended into the political realm. “Roosevelt described westward expansion as a process not of ‘mere conquest’ but of ‘race expansion,’” Powell writes.

The future president’s show of strength in the West extended to both animals and people: In addition to cavalierly cutting a swath through the world’s large mammal populations for his trophy collection, Roosevelt applauded the Spanish-American War for ridding the gene pool of inferior soldiers. (Many will agree that he atoned for the former by helping to establish a number of national parks, protected areas, and conservation groups in his lifetime.)

Powell’s outing of Aldo Leopold is a similar kind of eye opener. Leopold’s 1949 collection of thoughtful, poetic essays was a bible for activists of the 1960s and beyond. And yet Leopold and his colleagues — the prominent natural historian William Vogt, most of all — felt sufficiently qualified, as ecologists, to pass judgment on immigration’s ability to upset the nation’s balance. He and his colleagues exchanged polemics on how Asians and other inappropriate newcomers were invading the U.S. They would “overrun the country” with their higher birth rates. (Of course, only foreigners had to practice reproductive restraint: Leopold had five children of his own.)

Following the 1798 publication of Thomas Malthus’ seminal text, On Population, fear of diminishing resources caught on in an increasingly crowded Europe. While not as foreboding to those inhabiting the wide-open spaces of the American continent, U.S. conservationists nevertheless found much to ponder as various native species started to vanish, and ultimately blamed human behavior for it. Using the lexicon of ecology — carrying capacity, natural balance, food web, invasive species — a handful of Leopold’s cronies “helped convince several states to pass sterilization laws in the 1920s and 1930s, despite the fact that sterilization was a controversial subject even among eugenicists,” Powell writes. Racial minorities were “often particularly targeted,” and successful government oversight of food, water, and other necessities led many to conclude “that state experts should also administer the reproduction of citizens.”

Powell is an academic and it shows. His endnote-riddled text reflects exhaustive research. He writes lucidly, for the most part, despite a tendency to repeat himself (he particularly favors the word “vigor”). Yet the book deserves to be included in current discussions of class, race, and gender. It indicates how highly intelligent and educated, even often well-intentioned, individuals can band together to promote divisive and discriminatory causes. The book also reminds readers that the conceptualization of “us” and “them” in America history is not strictly placed along color lines, but is strongly tied with ideas of fitness and value — some of which sprang from essentially neutral (“harmless”) scientific principles.

As such, Vanishing America belongs as a companion piece to Mark Dowie’s 2009 book Conservation Refugees. The latter covers the treatment of indigenous peoples in several continents, not only the Americas, and in more contemporary times. Yet it also examines how sincere concern for various natural regions — mainly forests — has, in many tragic cases, led to the exclusion, even genocide, of the very people adapted to living there sustainably.

Both books critique the fantasy of people-free landscapes as places that must remain empty until the right sort of folks want to enter them. Sometimes, these people happen to be sensitive, knowledgeable, careful, and respectful enough to take only photographs and leave only footprints, as the T-shirt says. Sometimes, as recent battles over the placement of pipelines and fracking operations through national parks and native-held territories attest, others gain access to land by virtue of the color of their skin and/or the thickness of their wallets.

Powell’s conclusions underline the limits of turning capitalism into a belief system and applying it to living beings. As more and more species and spaces become critically endangered, and first peoples follow close behind, our only hope of averting total disaster might just lie in being able to see the “other” in more holistic, less utilitarian terms. For that step forward, it is important first to look back.