the conservationist impulse to protect “wilderness” from the encroachment of human society, Jacoby points out, wholly disregarded the rural communities that had been living there for generations. Overnight, settlers and residents became outlaws and “squatters” residing on government owned land. The hunting and fishing which had sustained those communities was suddenly “poaching,” a crime that could result in fines or banishment.
In order to enforce these new sets of rules, federal and state governments mobilized a bureaucracy of Forest Police to prevent squatting and poaching. Officials set new legal boundaries around “conserved” areas and organized forestland into grids of property ownership. Jacoby argues these efforts to define and protect “preserved” zones oversimplified complex ecological systems and produced unintended consequences. When officials at Yellowstone began hunting predators such as coyotes and mountain lions to maintain animal populations, the number of elk soared, throwing off the park’s delicate ecological balance. Despite the conservationist impulse to preserve nature as it is, park managers were really creating “nature” as it ought to be.
Crimes against Nature also details a variety of confrontations that ensued between park officials and the local communities who refused to leave. Setting fires, hunting or even making violent threats all represented forms of resistance against the incursions of the state on rural lands. Although many conservationists regarded these rural populations as fascinating vestiges of a pre-modern world, that nostalgia co-existed with a fierce contempt for their “primitive” modes of subsistence. Conservationists and Forest Police railed against the “irrationality” and wastefulness of rural hunting habits and worried that such behavior would undermine the rule of law.