This term, I was a teaching assistant for Parks and Protected Areas, a junior-level course focusing on the history, policy, and management of international areas protected for conservation, preservation, and resource extraction goals. The students learned about the philosophies that inspire different types of protection. I taught alongside Ashley D’Antonio, an assistant professor in Forest Ecosystems & Society, who studies recreation ecology. Her goal, and mine, was simple: challenge the students’ assumptions about parks and protected areas.

Throughout my first year in graduate school, it seemed that all the literature I read identified the same underlying cause of our environmental duress: the nature/culture dualism. The idea—grounded in thousands of years of western philosophy—that we humans are separate from nature. Some take it a step further, not only are we separate from nature, but above it, affording humans justification to exploit and utilize what we deem necessity.

In the context of parks and protected management, we see the nature/culture dualism play out in the actual establishment of American National Parks, which some call America’s Best Idea. To create these parks, tribes were forcibly moved from their traditional homelands, a process that became so recurrent globally it warranted a specific designation: fortress conservation.

American politicians and bureaucrats, through misinterpreted treaty agreements, quite literally separated humans from nature in order to “protect these places” and paradoxically encouraged humans to visit these places. According to western philosophy and fortress conservation, humans can visit nature, participate in recreation and tourism activities, and research ecological processes, but they can’t live with the land, move with the seasons, nor take only what is needed for survival. Living with the land, rather than controlling it, is in direct conflict with the human/nature dualism that grounds western thought. Mind you, not all humans were encouraged to visit; these places were meant to be enjoyed by a particular class and race who needed to escape from their taxing lives in the city.

However, the native peoples who lived in these majestic landscapes—now considered America’s crown jewels—knew that the land could belong to no person. How can the youngest siblings in creation, humans, claim land that belongs to all relations—all spirits, flora, fauna, rocks, and streams? The tribes of Turtle Island saw themselves, and continue to see themselves, as part of the interconnected web of nature and spirit, wholly integrated into the entire network of the physical and spiritual world. An ecocentric belief system and intergenerational traditional ecological knowledge guided the actions of tribes, like the Lakota and Kootenai.

While pursuing a degree in Environmental Arts & Humanities, I have analyzed the oppressive, degrading histories and philosophies of my ancestors. I pursued this degree to challenge the status quo and assist in the transition to a life-sustaining society.

Some of the parks and protected areas students are pursuing traditional forestry degrees, others are interested in intersecting socio-ecological systems, but all were shocked and appalled by the exclusionary practices embedded in the founding of so-called protected areas. In their final papers, the students expressed concern not only for degraded terrestrial and marine environments but also for conservation refugees who are continually excluded from lands that they help conserve and protect.

In this time of political polarization, we face mounting uncertainty concerning human and Earth rights. What keeps the fight alive in me is the outrage and passion I see in younger generations, of which I am part. How would our world change if we all humbly challenged our beliefs of right/wrong, good/bad and acted as students learning to seek justice and equity for all life on our magnificent planet?

-Sarah Kelly