Miles A. Powell


On his book Vanishing America: Species Extinction, Racial Peril, and the Origins of Conservation

Cover Interview of January 10, 2017

In a nutshell

Vanishing America examines how, between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, American conservationists came to connect wilderness preservation to the maintenance of a rugged white race. In surprising ways, numerous leading environmental reformers drew parallels between nature conservation and race preservation in the form of race science, eugenics, immigration restriction, and population control. For some of these figures, such as prominent eugenicist and wilderness advocate Madison Grant, these fields blurred together in a united campaign to save “the old America.”

This rising association between white America and the nation’s wilds represented a major transition in U.S. environmental and racial thinking. Earlier generations had typically connected wilderness with Native Americans, and had expected both to vanish in the wake of national development. Yet, by the early twentieth century, wild lands were firmly linked to national and racial vigor in the country’s mythic imagination. With wilderness reimagined as a font of white American strength, environmental reform became a far more powerful political force at state and federal levels.

As increasing numbers of white Americans ventured into wild lands in National Parks and Forests to offset the supposedly degenerative effects of urbanization and industrialization, some criticized the enduring presence of Native American peoples there. Groups such as the Blackfeet (Pikuni) Indians in Glacier National Park found themselves barred from subsistence activities they had engaged in for centuries and even millennia. They were, however, permitted to serve as entertainers and guides to enhance the dominant culture’s experience of these rugged places.

These developments helped ensure that U.S. environmental protection, especially outdoor nature preservation, became an overwhelmingly white movement. With many conservationists explicitly connecting their cause to race-based eugenics and immigration restriction, it was easy for the nation’s people of color to feel alienated from the campaign. Attendance figures at parks and membership rates for environmental organizations suggest that this estrangement has endured to some extent through the present. This poses challenges to environmentalists as they seek to broaden support for their movement.