Friday, January 9, 2015

An Australian take on the US Wilderness Act

The Reflections section of the latest Environmental History on the US Wilderness Act has a piece by Libby Robin, "Wilderness in a Global Age, Fifty Years On", offering an Australian angle. Robin writes:
While the US national parks model, “America’s Best Idea,” had a strong following in Australia in the 1960s, the idea of wilderness never had the strong transcendental or romantic attraction it held in America. Our wilderness did not create heroes. Australians died in the bush: being away from settlement meant being away from water, and survival was precarious. By 1990 the idea of wilderness was also seen as “western” and not inclusive of Indigenous history. Australian ecologists and historians fiercely debated the limits of “wilderness thinking” some years before Environmental History published William Cronon’s “The Trouble with Wilderness” in 1996. While Richard White’s wry paper “Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?” had a strong following among historians of our 1980s forest debates, it has been the powerful critiques from Aboriginal Australia that have determined new directions in twenty-first-century practices of biodiversity conservation and in the way national parks are now managed.
Walking along Garie Beach, Royal National Park.
Photo: Andy Richards
Some states followed “America’s Best Idea” more closely than others. The New South Wales (NSW) National Parks and Wildlife Act (1967) was directly modeled on the American legislation; its inaugural director of the National Parks and Wildlife Service was Samuel Weems, former parks adviser to the US Department of the Interior. NSW learned of the model at the First World Congress of National Parks held in Seattle in 1962, a major international meeting. NSW National Parks Service joined the enthusiasm for a second congress, in Yellowstone National Park, timed to celebrate a World Centennial of the National Parks Idea in 1972. It was only late in the game, after the US Congress had approved financial support for the event, that organizers realized Yellowstone itself was not a legislated national park in 1872. Technically, the world’s first national park legislation had been passed in NSW on March 31, 1879, to establish the National Park (later Royal), an urban park, just 15 miles from the center of Sydney. This was nothing like the bigger, wilder model of Yellowstone, 1,000 miles from any city. NSW parks managers, as keen as their US colleagues to celebrate a World Centennial in 1972, did not press a claim for priority. They wanted larger more remote wild national parks, and having little interest in city parks, they were aware of wide support for a World Centennial not just in the United States but also in other Western nations where national parks had emerged early including New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and Sweden. 
Robin writes about the tensions between nascent recognition of indigenous relationships to the land and American ideas of wilderness:
Biodiversity management practices in Australia have been described as oppressive of Indigenous understandings of Country and in denial of the history of both Aboriginal and settler land management practices. “Biodiversity is a whitefella word,” one bumper sticker declared. In her explanation of Country, anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose uses the term nourishing terrains, evoking the idea of places that care for people and where people reciprocate that care. Country is not land to be owned and transacted through a market system. Country owns a person and is part of personhood. By contrast, wilderness in the 1964 US act celebrated “solitude and unconfined recreation.” It is an aspiration for postindustrial peoples who earn their living somewhere else. These are not lands of livelihoods:
[I]f one cannot see traces or signs of one’s own culture in the land, then the land must be “natural” or empty of culture. In the context of Australian settlement by Europeans, … the concept of terra nullius (land that was not owned) depended on precisely this egocentric view of landscape. Not seeing the signs of ownership and property to which they were accustomed, many settlers assumed that there was no ownership and property, and that the landscapes were natural.4
Wilderness, for Aboriginal peoples, means Country that has lost its stories, that has not been cared for with fire. Its people have neglected its stewardship. Traditional elder Daly Pulkara from the Yarralin community in the Northern Territory told Rose that good country was “quiet.” Wilderness was made by men and cattle, where rain washed the life of the land away in gullies (arroyos). Wild land was “sick.” In 1969 Frank Gurrmanamana, a Gidgingali man, visited Canberra, the nation’s well-planned capital city. He was dismayed by the “wilderness” and told Rhys Jones “this country bin lose ‘im Dreaming.” Canberra was a “land empty of religious affiliation; there were no wells, no names of the totemic ancestors, no immutable links between land, people and the rest of the natural and supernatural worlds. Here was just a tabula rasa, cauterised of meaning.”
Because national parks were established to save ecosystems, Australian legislation excluded people. They were places where people visited but didn’t live. Such a hyper-separation of nature and culture denied settler history as well as their long history of Aboriginal land management. It was as if, as Tom Griffiths put it in 1990, the conservation movement for natural history was “in conflict with conserving the history of place.” Traces of history such as stockyards and huts (even recreational huts in the alpine areas) did not belong in national parks and were removed. The aesthetic of pristine wilderness should be restored to the place and the history denied. As depopulation in rural and regional places is increasingly recognized as a problem, the idea that people are good for conservation is gradually superseding earlier ideas of purity. Dwelling in place, even living in national parks, enables responsibility for the care of the land and divests governments of that expense.
New understandings of Country have created a rather different nature reserve system in Australia, one that does not depend so much on the idea of wilderness as on caring for Country. The Natural Heritage Trust of Australia Act (1997/no. 6) has created a National Reserve System (NRS) that includes national parks (mostly state managed), private reserves, and Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs). IPAs have been made possible by the recognition of native title. Aboriginal communities now own much of the land that used to be designated Crown (public/empty) land, and they take responsibility for its care.  

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