Gil didn't think that creating the national forest had been wrong—only that it had been created on the wrong model. "See, in those years, the policy was based in the USA's Yellowstone," he told me.
He couldn't have chosen a more relevant example. Yellowstone was the first national park in the world, and its creation, in 1872, marked the moment in which white Americans truly fell in love with the splendor of the land they had conquered. But for that love to grow, the ideal of wilderness as a source of rapture and recreation had to be separated out from the loathing we all felt for native Americans, whose presence in the West tended to distract from our John Muir-style reveries.
Muir himself, the St. Francis of the American West and a prophet of wilderness preservation, admitted that he was barely tolerant of the native Americans he encountered. In 1869, he wrote that he would “prefer the society of squirrels and woodchucks.” Muir's reverence for what he saw as the natural order of things continues to fuel conservation today, but it didn't extend so far as to include humans—of any color—as part of the environment. "Most Indians I have seen are not a whit more natural in their lives than we civilized whites," he wrote. "The worst thing about them is their uncleanliness. Nothing truly wild is unclean."
Native Americans were excluded from Yellowstone at its creation. Though people had been present for thousands of years in the area that was to become the park, native American practices of hunting and planned burning were anathema to a view of nature as sacrosanct from human involvement. If native Americans had been allowed to remain, they would have gotten in the way of all the nature white people wanted to appreciate. The creation of Yellowstone formalized the idea that human beings have no place in a protected wilderness—unless they are tourists.
As a result, some of the places we consider most pristine, most wild, are in some ways deeply artificial. A popular park like Yellowstone is in some ways every bit as controlled, as managed, as the Exclusion Zone of Chernobyl. And even parks less besieged by visitors than Yellowstone or Yosemite are premised on ideas and laws that define human beings as outside of nature.
This artificial division between natural and unnatural pervades our understanding of the world. Industrialists may hope to dominate nature, and environmentalists to protect it—but both camps depend on the same dualism, on a conception of nature as something to which humanity has no fundamental link, and in which we have no inherent place. And it's a harmful dualism, even if it takes the form of veneration. It keeps us from embracing a robust, engaged environmentalism that is based on something more than gauzy, prelapsarian yearnings.
But we cling to the ideal of a separate and perfect nature as though to give it up would be the same as paving over the Garden of Eden. When I met with the writer and academic Paul Wapner, whose ideas I'm stealing here, he told me that a colleague had warned him not to publish his book on this subject, titled Living Through the End of Nature. His colleague thought it was a bad career move, and that anyone who argued that the concept of "Nature" was no longer a useful one was giving away the farm.
But the farm has already been given away. We're just so entranced by the concept of nature-as-purity that we won't face facts. Our environment is not on the brink of something. It is over the brink—over several brinks—and has been for some time. It was more than twenty years ago that Bill McKibben pointed out the simple fact that there is no longer any nook or cranny of the globe untouched by human effects. It's time to stop pretending otherwise, to stop pretending that we haven't already entered the Anthropocene, a new geological age marked by massive species loss (already achieved) and climate change (in progress).