REVIEW: Bernhard Gissibl, Sabine Höhler and Patrick Kupper, Civilizing Nature: National Parks in Global Historical Perspective. Bergahn Books, New York and Oxford, 2012. x+24 pp. ISBN 978-0-85745-525-3.

Ian Tyrrell1

Civilizing Nature tackles an important theme in global environmental studies, the spread of the national park as idea and practice. It starts from the premise of the constructed character of the ‘national park’ with its various motives to categorise and create newly territorialised spaces that were, in practice expressive of modernity and the ‘civilizing’ of nature through ‘protection’. With a remarkably wide geographical coverage, the case studies that follow document the national park’s global spread and diversity. The collective research exhibited here avoids simply diffusionist ideas, associated most notably with the work of Roderick Nash,2 and shows the appropriation of nature channeled into protected spaces, illustrating in turn the interplay of imperial, international organisational and national forces. The book displays the malleability of the concept of national park, its adaptation to different circumstances, and its changing cultural nuances across time. The editors are aware of the problem of definition, and sensibly override the formal nomenclature where necessary. They provide interesting data on the overlap of categories such as state park, national park, nature reserve, wilderness area and natural monument.

The richness of the case studies cannot be fully illustrated in this review. Recurrent themes are the American model and its diverse competitors; the role of empire as an agent of park diffusion and transformation of nature; the transnational actors and international agencies that emerged in the interstices of empire but by the 1920s to the 1970s sought to transcend imperial origins; and the various uses of the national park idea for nation-building and nationalism.

Karen Jones tackles head on the issue of American influence. She shows that Yellowstone provided a model for national parks elsewhere, even as she argues that it was typically modified in its transnational applications. The importance of this model is underlined in several of the other essays such as Carolin Roeder’s on Triglav National Park in Slovenia. It is still necessary, however, to emphasise that quite apart from the adaptation of Yellowstone to different circumstances, there was no single U.S. pattern for European and global emulation, at least before 1916 – that is, if we understand ‘model’ to be a coherent system of park categorisation or plan of management. American national park administration and conceptualisation prior to the establishment of the National Park Service in that year indicates as much. American parks were themselves both heterogeneous in structure and subject to external pressures and even removal from the hallowed list. What Yellowstone did do was to provide a broader if vaguer inspiration, and it did so because it became elided with European-projected ideas of receding frontiers and endangered wildlife, themes that Yellowstone and other American parks exemplified along with their ‘grandiloquent Western scenery’ (p 36). Advocating the American example was useful for European supporters of such parks, as more than one of the contributors to this volume indicate (see e.g., p 132). National parks could become identified in European minds with the modern because of the common image of the United States as exemplifying modernity, and because of ‘nation’s’ presence as an organizing idea. As Etienne Benson sensibly notes in his study of animal tracking, scientific practice within national parks also requires closer attention. While it is commonplace to consider a ‘Yellowstone model’, he reminds us, ‘national parks have always been more than a concept or a set of principles.’ They have also involved ‘collections of very concrete practices’ developed in particular locations (p 174).

The experience of empire became a source of conservation sentiment and aided in some cases the transmission of nature protection ideas to metropolitan Europe. This is clear in Bernhard Gissibl’s fascinating discussion of attempts to create nature reserves in German East Africa (now Tanzania) before World War One. He shows the salience for the German case of Romantic notions about wild nature, with similar yearnings to get back in touch with the primitive to those that to some degree motivated American national park creation in the same period. Most interestingly, he shows the impact of these ideas back home in efforts to fashion ‘natural’ spaces that involved the repopulating of chosen areas with wild animals such as the European bison. At the turn of the twentieth century, some Germans were worried about the extinction of that species, worries motivated in part by the knowledge of the bison’s American relative and its perilous condition. Gissibl’s account is particularly useful because of the argument sometimes encountered that metropolitan and colonial policies were disconnected in Europe’s empires. Yet Gissibl shows that feedback loops did operate. The establishment of a post-World War Two idea of a park-oriented approach to the restoration of wilderness as part of urban recreation, and its blending with European cultural landscape ideas, rounds out his incisive treatment.

Jeyamalar Kathirithamby-Wells also deals with the role of colonialism and shows in the process how difficult it is to separate the categories of ‘imperial’ and ‘national’ in influences on park creation. Regarding the development of Malaysia’s large Taman Negara National Park, she documents the changing relationship of nationalism to this park first proclaimed in 1939 by British colonial rulers. The latter saw it as a ‘symbol of unity and national pride’ in ‘a society divided by race and religion’ (pp 90, 91), but after independence nationalists became less suspicious of the exercise since they too sought to forge worthy national symbols. Rising tourism and awareness among the emerging, urbanised middle class of the importance of a ‘natural heritage’ has underpinned these impulses.

Empire itself was a complex thing, as the example of the British settler colonies shows, where colonials also colonised the indigenous and the land in a double relationship. The American case of national parks is most easily related to that social formation of a ‘settler empire’ in which national park aspirations were evident quite early. Melissa Harper and Richard White take up this question of settler societies, and, in the process, throw light not only on the formation of national identities in and through the appropriation of nature as preserved space, but also the development of settler societies themselves. Their exemplary comparative historical analysis emphasises the nascent national diversity present in the process of what might be called settler state formation,3 in which national parks played an important crystallizing role. They, too, conclude that there was no one model, and that Yellowstone provided little direct influence or inspiration in the Australian case. In their comparative vignettes, Harper and White also deal insightfully with both Canadian and New Zealand park creation. Given the focus in much of the existing literature on the United States, their chapter is a salutary reminder that the national park idea was gaining favour in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and that settler societies made pioneering contribution long before there were many such parks in Europe. Australia’s Audley National Park was the second so-called national park in the world, but Australia was not an independent nation, a point that underlines the somewhat arbitrary nature of the concept. Yet Harper and White argue that the independent self-governing British colonies were already beginning to see themselves as nations. Audley’s proximity to a major urban location made it very different from the kinds of tourist and recreational endeavours that were operational in the case in Yellowstone or some other western American national parks. Perhaps as befitted a country bathed in over-blown egalitarian rhetoric, the pioneer Australian park was a more democratic facility in a number of ways, not least in its accessibility to the populace through public transport.

The question of national parks and empire is further complicated because in some countries the terminology differed sharply from the American example, and considerable diversity of categories and practice appeared even within single empires. In discussing The Netherlands, Henry van der Windt calls the national park ‘a powerful but flexible concept that inspired various groups’ (p 220) even as untamed or wild nature could not be found in that country and spaces had to be thoroughly created through ‘nature development’ in the post-World War Two period (p 219). But nature reserves created earlier in the Dutch colonies were quite different. Van der Windt highlights discontinuities between metropolitan and colonial conservation, a theme also illustrated in Caroline Ford’s work. In the French case, as Ford shows in a meticulous survey, France had areas reserved for scientific study, located in the colonial realm. Yet Algeria, a colony, was treated differently from other French possessions and was the only one with a French departmental structure. Algeria’s role as a unique French settler society was viewed ‘as an extension of metropolitan France’ (p 77) and meant that it alone received a national park designation in the era of French colonialism. This points to the importance of prospective or de facto incorporation in a nation, and, perhaps, though she does not state this, of citizenship issues. Certainly the case of American national parks would have provided some confirmation of this thesis. These were created only where U.S. citizens could lobby; they did not spread to distant, unincorporated ‘insular possessions’ until the end of colonial rule, but more easily did so to the insular ‘territory’ of Hawaii acquired at the same moment of formal empire in 1898-99, where U.S. citizens could pull strings.4

Inter-imperial connections might have been stressed more in this volume. In the course of her discussion on Malaysia, Kathirithamby-Wells notes the almost simultaneous development, though in different institutional circumstances, of protected areas in the neighboring Dutch East Indies (a theme nicely complementing van der Windt’s discussion of Dutch imperial conservation). This was also the time, incidentally, that the United States in the Philippines was similarly considering a parks program and the trans-imperial exchanges suggested by these cases might well be fruitfully pursued for the whole of South-East Asia. Crossing empires also entailed temporal succession and attendant geo-political and military change. Roeder’s study of Slovenia’s Triglav National Park in the Julian Alps shows how the major themes of empires, international networks and nation all contributed to the park’s gestation through to the assumption of its boundaries in 1981 – as the area went through a succession of different regimes from imperial, to monarchist, and then socialist, and finally to the present-day Slovenian republic (with disruptive wars in between), thus demonstrating a ‘political dimension of nature conservation’ (p 240).

Though national parks could serve either imperial or nationalist purposes, and sometimes the same park institutions could, over time, serve both, they also benefited from the development of forms of internationalism beyond empire and nation. For the transmission of national park and kindred concepts in an era of increasing internationalist activity, the roles of transnational actors were of particular importance. National park ideals were adopted and adapted through key individuals and the institutions that they supported. These did not always serve nation, though influenced by the pull of both nation and empire. With great clarity Patrick Kupper supplies a convincing overview of Switzerland, an important country for European park development. It was through transnational actors that the Swiss influence operated. At the centre of Europe, Switzerland’s situation as a site of institutional and supranational organisation and its association with peace-making and international diplomacy may provide clues to its influence. So too, the linguistic and cultural segmentation within the country. No wonder that there was no single national model abroad for Switzerland, yet the Swiss National Park was itself to be influential in Europe. Kupper’s account of the German-speaking Swiss naturalist, Paul Sarasin, is a welcome English language exposition of Sarasin’s importance, while the influence of another participant and colleague, the German Hugo Conwentz, is also documented. The latter’s work on natural monuments was ‘surprisingly transnational in character’, Kupper concludes (p 126). Through personal networking, Conwentz’s ideas spread to Switzerland (pp 126-27), the Austro-Hungarian Empire (pp 243-44), Italy and Sweden. (Conwentz’s ideas even reached the United States, a matter not taken up in these studies.) Sarasin is equally obscure in English-language work on conservation. The pioneering 1913 International Conservation Conference in Bern, at which Conwentz also spoke, owed its development in no small measure to Sarasin’s persistence and his ability to network within zoological and other scientific groups on the threat of species extinction. Anna-Katharina Wöbse likewise notes Sarasin’s ‘avant-garde global nature protection scheme’ (p 152). Yet the 1913 conference in turn is almost unthinkable without the circulation of information on a global basis from the ends of Europe’s empires and from the Americas. Indeed, Sarasin’s views were partly formed from his earlier explorations in South East Asia.

Not only is the work of individual transnational actors illustrated in this volume, but also the activities of supranational institutions: the League of Nations and, after 1945, the United Nations. Wöbse shows how various international organisations ‘translated heterogeneous ideas into a universalist notion of heritage’ (p 153), creating a common terminology and ‘corporate identity’ for the park idea on a global level. Thereby she identifies institutions mediating between diverse national, especially American, park concepts and the global rise of a natural heritage agenda. This process began under the League, which put ‘the protection of natural beauty’ on its program from 1925 to 1928 through its International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation (p 145). Tracing international networks beyond post-World War Two in the attempts to globalise park ‘ambitions’ through UNESCO and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Wöbse is careful to note that the process was dominated for decades by westerners and a small elite of white males. Internationalism was not completely free of the political, cultural and economic inheritance of western power.

Another underlying theme is the relations between empire, nation and indigenous people. Scholars of New Zealand’s environmental history will find Harper and White’s contribution helpful here, but Gissibl, Brad Martin, Jones, and Kathirithamby-Wells also provide evidence in this volume. As is well known, indigenous cultures have been frequently disregarded or even erased in national park creation processes. However Martin shows for the Canadian Inuit that in some circumstances a national park could be ‘a tool for indigenous cultural survival’. The Northern Yukon (now Ivvavik) National Park was ‘used as a vehicle for making claims upon the state’ (p 168). Arguably erasure was a much more difficult process in places other than where white settler colonial societies dominated demographically and environmentally. But even within the settler societies, there are differences. Harper and White note the distinctive inception of Tongariro National Park in ‘the way the indigenous sacred was incorporated into the nation’ through Maori paramount chief Te Heuheu Tukino’s gift of land in 1887. This outcome displayed ‘a sense of indigenous participation in the political process not apparent elsewhere’, though Harper and White make clear that power relations in settler societies affected this outcome. Despite Maori presence on the park board, their input seems to have been largely frozen into the moment of historical origins, and the indigenous influence thereafter was small in practice. Nevertheless, this case (and Martin’s) underlines a diversity of racial and social arrangements for national parks in societies now commonly labeled as part of settler colonialism (p 56).

Most interesting as a way of synthesising the themes of the connection between indigenous occupation and supposedly ‘natural’ and ‘wild’ spaces for national parks is Emily Wakild’s study of Mexico. No doubt the distinctive revolutionary circumstances from the 1910s to the 1930s influenced this nation-building exercise. Mexican parks departed from American ones. Being located ‘somewhere between protection and rational use’, they entailed ‘respect for rural livelihoods’ (pp 203, 201). This account is worthy of further scholarly attention in post-colonial settings, and in breaking down boundaries between ideas of sustainability and the national park concept.

Lacunae are rare in this volume. It is perhaps a shame that Sweden, with the first National Park system, is not covered, but we already have the earlier excellent work of Tom Mels on this subject.5 Moreover, as Kupper states, the case also drew upon American models and this might have limited its application in very different European circumstances. Several leads for future research are revealed, however. Not only might inter-imperial connections have been stressed more, but also indigenous impacts, compared across empires. These are matters of emphasis, however.

Key moments in national park creation might be hypothesised from these studies, beginning with the role of European imperial globalization, particularly from the 1890s to 1914, drawing attention to species extinctions and asserting colonial controls over both natural resources and indigenous peoples’ occupation. Then came the 1930s when parks spread to many places in the colonial and other non-western world, perhaps under the impact of colonial and other nationalist stirrings and revolutions, perhaps due also to the effects of the Great Depression in shifting priorities over development, or perhaps increasing scientific and even proto-ecological interests. Finally, a key decade was the 1970s when the machinery of contemporary international conservation was being assembled. The impact of globalisation through these waves of economic and international communications change could provide ways of exploring further the globalisation of nature protection. It is significant that India’s tiger and biosphere reserves established in the 1970s and 1980s, studied by Michael Lewis, came at a time when so-called new globalisation spurred debates over international conservation, and this was the same period in which the proliferation of international and transnational non-government organisations became marked. However, ‘effective global governance of protected areas’ (p 236) remains lacking in many developing countries, not just India, and ‘nation’ still provides the most important regulatory arena. The noted authority on national parks, Jane Carruthers, usefully adds an epilogue dealing with the trajectory and present position of the national park concept in this era of new globalisation.

A final question concerns the boundaries between the different types of spatial protection. Though the editors understand the problem of definition and address it in the introduction, its implications for comparisons of park diffusion can be complex indeed. In some respects the original Australian national park was quite similar to some of the state parks established in the eastern United States. The failure, for a long time, to declare national parks in the American East was largely a product of the concentration of federal government public lands in the American west. The Australian pioneering example reflected in part desires for urban ‘safety valves’ through sites for popular recreation, just as the impulse for state parks in places such as the Adirondacks of upstate New York did. Thus comparisons can be fruitfully made across the different categories of ‘park’.

With an intellectual coherence often missing in the revised proceedings of conferences, Civilizing Nature is a path-breaking work in its field of comparative national park history. Both editors and contributors must be commended on the outcome. It is also a valuable contribution to environmental history more broadly and a useful addition to the study of twentieth-century global history.


[1] Ian Tyrrell is an Emeritus Professor of History at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. He is the author of True Gardens of the Gods: Californian-Australian Environmental Reform, 1860-1930 (University of California Press, 1999), among many other works. He is currently writing a new book on conservation and empire in Theodore Roosevelt’s America.

[2] Roderick Nash, ‘The American invention of national parks’, American Quarterly, 22 (Autumn, 1970), pp 726-35.

[3] Frederick E. Hoxie, ‘Retrieving the Red Continent: Settler colonialism and the history of American Indians in the U.S.,’ Ethnic and Racial Studies, 31.6 (September 2008), pp 1153-1167.

[4] Nash Castro, The Land of Pele: A Historical Sketch of Hawaii National Park Hawaii Natural History Association, Hilo, 1953.

[5] Tom Mels, Wild Landscapes: The Cultural Nature of Swedish National Parks Lund University Press, Lund, 1999.