What you Should Know Before you Visit Another National Park

by Danica Cotov


Growing up, I spent every summer traveling across the U.S. with my family. We camped, hiked, and explored as many National Parks as possible; it was the classic American road trip, minus the RV.

Trekking up seemingly endless plateaus in the unforgiving Arizona desert, trudging against powerful currents in the submerged dark canyons of Utah, and climbing slick boulders on Hawaii’s jagged coast, I felt free. I experienced a sense of belonging that I had yet to feel amongst peers. I was convinced I was a transcendentalist born too late.

As “Father of the National Parks,” I admired John Muir. A naturalist, conversationalist, and author, he put words to the emotions I felt. In Our National Parks, he wrote:

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.”[1] 

The mountains, the valleys, the coastlands, they were all my “home.” But what I didn’t realize at the time was that in order for them to become my home, thousands of people had to be kicked out of theirs.

Conservation-Induced Displacement in U.S.

In 1864, 52 years before the first National Park was officially established, President Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act and gifted the Yosemite Valley (as well as additional lands) to the state of California. [2] An unfortunate consequence of this action, members of the Southern Sierra Miwok tribe were forced to leave the area.

national parks indigenous peoples

Similar stories of displacement of indigenous peoples can be recounted about many of America’s 59 national parks. The Everglades, Zion, the Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier, and Olympic: all parks I’ve explored…all parks I’ve loved[4]…all parks with similar sordid pasts.

The unpleasant history of each of these is easily overlooked in favor of the myth of a pristine “wilderness.” The work of various tribes, such as the Miwok, in caring for the land was ignored, and “wilderness” was narrowly defined as an area where “earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”[5]

Throughout the 20th century, national parks, or as writer Walter Stegner called them, “America’s best idea,” have spread to the rest of the world. But not without a price…


Conservation-Induced Displacement around the World

Currently protected areas, including national parks, amount to 15% of global land surface (not including Antarctica).[6]Corned by Protected Areas,” a recent report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on indigenous peoples, states there is at least a 50% overlap between such protected areas and the lands of Indigenous Peoples.[7]

In 2017, a study found that between 1990-2014, more than 250,000 individuals in 15 countries suffered eviction from protected areas. Additionally, a 2015 study of 21 countries found that only 10 had legislation regarding the restitution of lands. Indeed, six had specific laws that allowed for the eviction of local peoples for the sake of conservation.[8]

While the total amount of conservation refugees has never been officially tallied, it is estimated to be close to 20 million, with 14 million people displaced in Africa alone.[9]

Just in case these numbers aren’t enough to help you understand the devastating effects of this conservation model known as “fortress conservation,”[10] let’s take a deeper look.


  • In Botswana, the San Bushmen have been evicted from their homes and land for the past 20 years. This removal process has included the systematic burning of homes, the closure of schools and health centers, and the termination of water supplies.[11]


batswana botswana


  • In Tanzania, the Maasai and other pastoralists have been removed from a 579 square mile area near Maasai Mara and Ngorongoro National Parks.[13] A mass eviction in 2009 left 3,000 people without homes.


  • In India, 3,000 Baiga and Gond tribespeople are being kicked off the Kanha tiger reserve, despite having lived in harmony with the animals for centuries. The forest department has threatened to release elephants to trample their homes and crops.[14]


  • In Thailand, the Hmong and Karen hill tribes have been removed from their forest homes and declared as “squatters,” despite having lived in the area for more than 100 years.[15]


And these examples are only from Africa and Asia…


“So what can I do?” you may ask:


→ Think twice before you plan your next visit to a national park, either in the U.S., or somewhere on the other side of the globe.


Learn about the park’s history and the people who call it home.


Be respectful—understand you may be treading on sacred land.


Determine if there are current efforts to displace indigenous peoples from the park land, and decide if you want to inadvertently support such efforts.


Share what you’ve learn with others!



For more historical information on this subject, check out:




[1] Muir, John. Our National Parks. Houghton, Mifflin, 1901.

[2] Dowie, Mark. Conservation Refugees : The Hundred-Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples. 1st MIT Press pbk. ed. ed., MIT Press, 2011.

[3] https://www.nps.gov/media/photo/gallery.htm?id=B17BC4E5-155D-4519-3EC6B73FCE2806A8

[4] Dowie, Mark. Conservation Refugees : The Hundred-Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples. 1st MIT Press pbk. ed. ed., MIT Press, 2011.

[5] The Wilderness Act of 1964, Public Law 88-577 (16 U.S.C. 1131-1136)

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/andes-to-the-amazon/2018/jul/16/rights-not-fortress-conservation-key-to-save-planet-says-un-expert

[7] https://www.corneredbypas.com/brief

[8] https://www.corneredbypas.com/brief

[9] http://archive.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/05/03/no_natives_allowed/?page=1

[10] https://sesmad.dartmouth.edu/theories/85

[11] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/apr/18/kalahari-bushmen-hunting-ban-prince-charles

[12] Id.

[13] https://www.survivalinternational.org/news/9091





Danica Cotov is a second-year student at Northeastern University School of Law. She is currently taking ‘Human rights, the Environment, Development and Community Resilience’ this quarter with Professor Brownell.

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