I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here

Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation

Karl Jacoby

Americans, argues Karl Jacoby, have frequently disrespected social justice in the name of environmental protection. Conservation from its beginning has often assumed that commoners, particularly rural citizens, are unable to properly steward the land. Creating a memory from myth in order to serve their purposes, conservationists such as George Perkins Marsh, wrongfully portrayed rural people as ignoramuses, intent on raping the earth of its resources for short-term profit. Further criticizing Marsh, Jacoby challenges his contention that nature and landscape can exist in a pure state, free of human institutions. Rather, Jacoby contends that humans and nature are just parts of one dynamic system that encompasses the entire earth.

In Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation, Jacoby supports Samuel P. Hays’ contention that conservation was not a naturally democratic movement, championed by the common man. The conservation movement was rather a policy initiative instituted by a few from afar and driven by the desire for efficiency and scientific management of resources. However, Jacoby’s narrative is not the same as Hay’s. In Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency, Hays argues that the inaccurate, common historical narrative is one in which the hero is the conservation, the common man being a member, and the villain is big-business capitalism. In contrast, Jacoby argues that the erroneous nature of conservation historiography lies instead in the vilification of the rural populace. Traditional history, Jacoby states, typically discounts rural populations or discredits and downplays their agency and awareness. Additionally, Jacoby contends that conservation was not just a modern movement, but rather a movement that pitted modern and Romantic ideology against each other.

Jacoby’s main goal is to eradicate the separation between social and environmental history. Historians such as William Cronon, Richard White, and Roderick Nash pay a great deal of attention to capitalism’s affects on natural environments, but pay little to no attention to the social implications of capitalism and its effects on nature. These historians and others, Jacoby contends, are too focused on the man and nature dichotomy. Conservation history presents not just a chance to look at man’s relationship with his environment, but also offers a change to study the distribution of power in society. Conservation history is also a history of class relations, and a chance to analyze the ways in which a society is able to legitimize and demonize social practices.

Conservation laws created a great deal of social unrest in rural areas. With each new regulation, a new crime was created writes Jacoby. Practices that had been perfectly acceptable and standard parts of the rural citizen’s culture were now prohibited. Understandably, these often abrupt changes were met with varying levels of resentment on the part of these individuals. A hostility that conservationists, not able to comprehend anyone’s opposition to their plans, deemed yet another example of rural citizen’s backwardness and inability to govern themselves. One of the main reasons that these rural citizens’ stories have been overlooked by historians, Jacoby writes, is that they left behind far less evidence of their experiences, due to the fact that many of their activities done against conservation efforts were done surreptitiously and because many were not well-educated or completely illiterate. However, one can recreate a sense of their efforts through court cases, rural newspapers, and a few firsthand accounts that have survived. What one finds when one looks at these documents is a “pattern of beliefs, practices, and traditions that governed how ordinary fold interacted with the environment,” (3) which Jacoby refers to as “moral ecology.” The moral ecology of the rural populace at the time sharply contrasted with that of the elite conservation movement, which Jacoby believes illustrates the deep division between social strata during the time period.

Jacoby examines the illegal actions of rural citizens in three major hotspots of conservation application. In the Adirondacks, citizens are confronted by policies that disrupt their acceptance of what other deem to be trespassing and are forced to adjust to the influx of tourist elites and Great Camp owners and subsequent tourism. Timber theft is also a rampant problem, which interestingly was most practiced, not by locals, but by large lumber companies. In Yellowstone, problems with Nez Perce Indians and poachers are the main problems. And in the Grand Canyon, Indian relations and the breakdown of their traditional culture are the main sources of contention. Two main themes connect the three regions. Firstly, the conservation initiatives greatly reduce the local population’s ability to live a self-sustainable lifestyle and force them to become members of the large capitalist economy. Secondly, the local populations are not resentful of conservation laws outright, but are instead resentful of the fact that outsiders, that do not understand the regional environment, are able to make all of the decisions concerning their homeland.

Feature Photograph: 

  • Title: Buckboard Charlie, a squatter near Iron River, Michigan
  • Creator(s): Lee, Russell, 1903-1986, photographer
  • Date Created/Published: 1937 Apr.

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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2 Comments

  1.  “…pay a great deal of attention to capitalism’s affects on natural environments, but pay little to no attention to the social implications of capitalism and its effects on nature.” Love this very much! That sentence really helps my own research (although i’m not a historian). Thanks so much for sharing, I regularly read your comps notes. Very useful. Keep it up 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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