The management of protected areas – national parks, wilderness areas, natural reserves etc – has always been a contested and politicized space. Even the concept of a national park is contested and politicized, as any indigenous group who has had their access rights to an area reduced because it became a national park will attest.
In his article for The Daily Beast (America’s wilderness faces the firing squad [6 July 2014 and available here]) Doug Peacock examines some of the significant pressures America’s parks face – from extractive industries, from recreation and from wildlife management in particular.
Here in one article Peacock is able to highlight the big issues of protected areas and their management – and not only in America.
The politics of protected areas
It used to be that protected areas were seen to be a place where people could escape the onslaught of modernity. The early thinking behind the concept was, in fact, to provide a place of respite from the spread of cities and the kinds of life – the disconnections to nature – that rapid urbanization and economic development created. So it had this human ethical dimension to it – a place for people to regroup, reconnect and revalue.
But protected areas were also mechanisms where wild places – perhaps wilderness – could be protected from the encroachment of human civilisational trajectories. And therein lies a possible contradiction that can be at the heart of many of the issues raised by Peacock (and others). On the one hand, these wild places are being protected for people, but they are also being protected from people. Our societies, our values, our economic systems, our political systems are therefore at the heart of protected areas. As Peacock suggests, though not in as many words, this also means issues of economic, political and cultural power are intrinsic to the management equation.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that extractive industries continue to eye protected areas as places to increase mega-profits and politicians try and reframe the protected area concept, against a background of a crisis in energy or, as is happening in Australia, a need for continuing economic development (Sure we can dredge within the Great Barrier Reef – we’ve done an impact assessment, we’ll use the best technology available) or whatever argument these rapacious, extractive industries and their political masters/mistresses try to spin to a public. To my mind, this kind of ‘mega-extraction’ driven by economic profit, is fairly obvious and identifiable.
Contesting spaces, contesting values in national parks
The more subtle issues are, I think, to be found in Peacock’s discussion of outdoor industries and, in particular, the push to have areas opened by groups who see national parks as ‘their playground’. Peacock highlights the significant differences between the actions of these groups – for example, adventure racing – and the actions of individuals whose engagement with a park is framed by the ‘re-connect’ sets of values. In his view, we are seeing a separation between groups that used to have an integration – some parts of the recreation industry have shifted their thinking of what a national park should be, and therefore should be used for.
I think this is an incredibly important point that needs to be considered slightly more broadly. The big shifts in recreation – be it through ‘adventure racing’, recreational vehicles, commercial climbing, wildlife tourism, ‘eco’ tourism (of whatever type and with whichever label), visitor numbers etc – are worthy of much more attention and greater understanding of what these impacts actually mean in terms of value frameworks that users are bringing to national parks. In a sense, we have these national parks attracting visitors. What we don’t always understand or think about (and this is something Peacock raises) is that people’s motivations can be (often are) very different. All visitors aren’t equal, and, as Peacock highlights, some are trying to set agendas that are contradictory to what other visitors want (and perhaps, are the antithesis of what a protected area should be).
There are two recent examples which I would add to highlight some of these complexities. Both are from a tiger reserve in India where I had been working: the first example is focused on the role of the tiger in visitor motivations to visit, the second on visitor expectations of the experience. At one level, the visitors come with a common purpose – to spend time in the reserve. But they bring with them expectations, values, ethics etc which can provide all kinds of challenges at a level of visitor experience and also at the level of reserve management.
I was sitting on top of an elephant as it worked its way through the jungle, talking to an international visitor who was also on the elephant. She was saying how disappointed she was that she still hadn’t seen a tiger.
At that point, the elephant emerged from the jungle onto one of the jeep tracks. Within 30 seconds, a jeep had come, the guide in the jeep had shouted that a tiger was on the track a couple of hundred metres away and the jeep was gone with the woman in the back seat. I never saw her again, I have no idea if there was in fact a tiger on the track – no other details except for that 30 second explosion of activity. But it did highlight just how big a pull the tiger had on this visitor (and in fact many others I had interviewed). We had been on the back of an elephant, going through an extraordinary jungle and yet the focus was on the tiger, not the habitat. And up to that last 30 second explosion of activity, disappointment reigned supreme.
The second example happened at accommodation – an old forest rest house, deep in the jungle. From your room, you could hear the sounds of the jungle, light was given by a kerosene lamp, and the lounge-room had all the hall marks of the colonial-era: wood paneling, open fires and furniture. Over the nights I was there I would speak to various people about the accommodation and their visits to the reserve.
One thing that soon became obvious was how different visitors interpreted the accommodation – some thinking it was peaceful and beautiful, others thinking it was too basic, because there was no electricity and there was no TV in the room. I saw competing ideas associated with the essence of the visitor experience here, a significant issue actually because management had to make decisions about what kinds of visitor amenities they wanted for the reserve (as well as what kind of infrastructure – roads to take the increasing number of visitors and jeeps with their guides? electricity poles to bring the required power for TVs?).
Peacock is right to highlight the ways some of these users are setting management agendas and ultimately re-framing what a national park is and should be (and I’ve posted about this previously – here). I think the crucial message though is to think about the ways these much more subtle and nuanced perceptions of what a national park is and should be, get developed, reinforced (or changed) and how these ultimately impact on the management of wild places.
National parks are ethical, not economic units
I think we are well-overdue for a return to the ethical essence of what a national park is – a place of re-connecting with the rest of the natural world and re-imagining our relationships to it. The more they get commodified, get turned into play grounds and the more politicians see them as economic units, the further away we get from these values – to the cost of all living things, including us.