BLOG | Connecting the “First” National Park to Conservation’s Current Militarization: What Might we Learn?

What can the world's 'first' National Park tell us about the current militarization of conservation? Francis Masse on Yellowstone Park, its military history, and how not to 'do' biodiversity conservation.

Blog by Francis Masse, BIOSEC Post-Doctoral Researcher.

For the past 7 years I have been conducting research in and around protected areas in Mozambique and South Africa. As is well understood, protected areas, such as national parks, are an imported model of conservation often traced back to 1872 and the designation of the world’s “first” national park, Yellowstone National Park in the United States.  When I finished writing my dissertation in November, I decided to deepen my knowledge of the iconic park that has served as an inspiration and even a guiding model of how to ‘do’ conservation in Sub-Saharan Africa and beyond.

The protected area model is commonly referred to as Fortress Conservation,[i] and for much of its early history Yellowstone was referred to as Fort Yellowstone[ii]. Beyond simply being an interesting and curious fact, the Park and Fort Yellowstone are often synonymous for a specific reason; namely that in 1886 under the command of Captain Moses Harris, the military (1st US Cavalry) and the War Department replaced the Parks’ civilian administration and established a military base that eventually became known as Fort Yellowstone. The military went on to govern and administer the park for the following 32 years.

Image: Fort Yellowstone in the 1890s (courtesy of US National Park Service Photo Archive)

My casual reading about Yellowstone and the early days of the national park model thus brought me squarely back to the more recent militarization of conservation, or green militarization, which has occupied my research. With the focus on the current militarization of conservation, we tend to forget that the use of the military in conservation and protected areas has a long history. I am guilty of this too. This detour into history, however, is a productive one, as not only does it demonstrate that the problems, drawbacks, and critiques of the use of military to enforce conservation laws and protected areas have a similarly long history, but also that such concerns still resonate with those that we see in the current conjuncture.

Hence, while the conservation sector has long looked to Yellowstone for inspiration and lessons on how to ‘do’ conservation, the Park also offers valuable lessons on the use of the military for conservation law enforcement.

The Military and Yellowstone

The military was responsible for some positive developments in Yellowstone such as the building of infrastructure and its logistical and administrative expertise.[iii] But, the military was also responsible for anti-poaching and enforcing conservation laws within the park. This was the primary motivation for bringing the army in, as evidenced by the legislation authorizing and mandating military control of the Park:

“The Secretary of War, upon the request of the Secretary of the Interior, is hereby authorized and directed to make the necessary details of troops to prevent trespassers or intruders from entering the park for the purpose of destroying the game or objects of curiosity therein, or for any other purpose prohibited by law, and to remove such persons from the park if found therein…”[iv]

Image: Guard Mount at Fort Yellowstone (courtesy of US National Park Service Photo Archive)

Jacoby[v] explains in great depth how the military patrolled the perimeter and interior of the park, set up camps, and established informant networks in local communities for the purpose of preventing illegal hunting, arresting poachers, and enforcing related legislation. This is precisely what I and others have found is happening in Southern Africa, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa where the poaching of elephant, rhino, and other species has intensified.[vi]

However, the military was also concerned with non-conservation issues related to the socio-political insecurities of the time. For example, the military was used to ward off the rebel group of Nez Perces and to control the Native Americans. This parallels the introduction of military into protected areas in Latin America and Central Africa for non-conservation purposes[vii] and how the militarization of conservation is always embedded within broader security logics and rationales.

Image: South African National Defense Forces stationed in Kruger National Park along the South Africa-Mozambique border (Source: Francis Massé, taken in 2015)


Might we learn from Yellowstone’s Militarization?

Beyond these parallels, we can also see similar drawbacks of using the military for such purposes and thus similar critiques of conservation’s militarization. Indeed, for those familiar with literature on contemporary green militarization, these critiques will ring familiar. Let me sketch these out here, many of which come from Jacoby’s detailed archival work on the history of the Park.

  1. Despite bringing in the military to quell illegal hunting, especially of large mammals like buffalo and bison, the military did not succeed in this objective. Illegal hunting and entry into the Park continued. Local hunters were able to use their knowledge of the surrounding area to outsmart the troops who were unfamiliar with the local geography and ecology.
  2. The hard enforcement tactics of the military turned local people against the park and the institution of conservation and Yellowstone as a protected area. Certain groups engaged in “revenge” poaching as act of resistance or defiance against the military and its tactics.
  3. Informant networks to combat illegal hunting resulted in local people being retaliated against and becoming victims of violence. Moreover, local groups had their own informant networks and were able to productively counter the military’s, as people were more loyal to their kin and neighbours than an external quasi-occupying force.
  4. The military was not adequately equipped to function in a conservation environment and ensure that the broader conservation and ecological integrity of the park was effectively managed.

Image: Mounted US Army Patrolman (courtesy of US National Park Service Photo Archive)

Mainstream conservation has long turned to Yellowstone as a source of inspiration and lessons on how to “do” biodiversity conservation. Let us not pick and choose what lessons are learned from the Park. Indeed, while occurring in a different context, Yellowstone and its history also offer valuable insight into the shortfalls of turning to the military and military-like institutions for the enforcement of conservation laws and the integrity of protected areas.

There is also a scholarly value in the story of Yellowstone. On the surface, my pleasure reading immediately put my PhD and future research into a much broader historical and geographical context. What is happening in Mozambique and South Africa from the establishment of protected areas to their current militarization has roots elsewhere in time and space. The ideas and practices of today do not exist in a geographical or temporal vacuum, nor do they emerge from one. They travel and shift, changing and being influenced by socio-political and political-ecological contexts. How do, and have, practices and ways of doing conservation law enforcement travelled across time and space? How do we account for this in our analyses of the present, and what might this offer? These are some of the questions I will grapple with as I move forward with my research as part of the BIOSEC project.


[i] Brockington, D. (2002). Fortress conservation: the preservation of the Mkomazi Game Reserve, Tanzania: Indiana University Press.

[ii] Watry, E. A., & Whittlesey, L. H. (2012). Fort Yellowstone. Arcadia Publishing.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Military Assistance Authorized for Protecting the Park–Sundry Civil Bill for 1883–March, 3, 1883.

[v] Jacoby, K. (2014). Crimes against nature: Squatters, poachers, thieves, and the hidden history of American conservation. Univ of California Press.

[vi] Büscher, B. (Forthcoming). From Biopower to Ontopower? Violent Responses to Wildlife Crime and the New Geographies of Conservation. Conservation and Society.; Duffy, R. (2014). Waging a war to save biodiversity: the rise of militarized conservation. International Affairs, 90(4), 819-834.;Lunstrum, E. (2014). Green Militarization: Anti-Poaching Efforts and the Spatial Contours of Kruger National Park. Annals of the Association of American Geographers,  104(4), 816-832.; Massé, F., Lunstrum, E., & Holterman, D. (2017). Linking green militarization and critical military studies. Critical Military Studies.; Verweijen, J., & Marijnen, E. (2016). The counterinsurgency/conservation nexus: guerrilla livelihoods and the dynamics of conflict and violence in the Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 1-21.

[vii] Ybarra, M. (2012). Taming the jungle, saving the Maya Forest: sedimented counterinsurgency practices in contemporary Guatemalan conservation. Journal of Peasant Studies, 39(2), 479-502. doi:10.1080/03066150.2012.666974