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Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation

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Crimes against Nature reveals the hidden history behind three of the nation's first parklands: the Adirondacks, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon. Focusing on conservation's impact on local inhabitants, Karl Jacoby traces the effect of criminalizing such traditional practices as hunting, fishing, foraging, and timber cutting in the newly created parks. Jacoby reassesses the nature of these "crimes" and provides a rich portrait of rural people and their relationship with the natural world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

324 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2001

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Karl Jacoby

19 books23 followers

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Displaying 1 - 24 of 24 reviews
Profile Image for Adam Wiggins.
250 reviews93 followers
November 29, 2015
In the US, nature conservation became a major force in the late 1800s. The national government started setting aside large reserves of open land, with the intention of preserving the pristine, wild space and the (often endangered) animals that lived there. Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and the Adirondack mountains were some of the first of these nature preserves.

It was a massive shift in public attitude to begin caring about wild spaces as something other than a place to extract resources. And a similarly large shift of government policy from one of holding public land until private individuals could purchase it, to setting aside some of its holdings as natural spaces for posterity. The foresight and dedication of the early conservationists who made these things happen is immensely laudable, and many books document their heroics.

But this book tells the other side of the story.

These "wild spaces" were not empty. Rough and tumble frontiersman had pioneered out into the American west and settled there over the past generation. Thousands of families lived in places like the Adirondacks and what became Yellowstone, and had lived there in peace and comfort for generations. They were lived off the land in every sense: food from fishing, hunting, and farming; wood to build their homes and fuel their fires from the surrounding forests; clothing from the hides of game they hunted.

One day, the president of the United States draws an arbitrary box on a map and says "this is a nature preserve." He's never been without a thousand miles of the place, nor has anyone else in the administration enacting the command. And overnight, everyone who lives within those lines has now been relabeled: poachers, thieves, squatters.

The Grand Canyon is perhaps an even more telling case: tribes of Native Americans (then "Indians") who had lived there for close to a thousand years are declared trespassers and (slowly) driven away.

At the time there is no Forestry service. Local police proving insufficient to enforce the new prohibitions on hunting and tree-felling, so the US Army is brought in.

The stories told here have no heroes and no villains. There is no clear moral lesson. Instead, it's messy, just as societal transitions of this sort always are. Change can and must happen; but in the process some people (and even whole cultures) are punished or destroyed. The lives they have led and the things they care about are slowly marginalized and eventually banished altogether by the vast machinery of social transition.


It's a niche topic, but I found this book an excellent read since it so well balanced dry academic topics with human stories. It's well-written, includes lots of photos, and goes into plenty of detail but isn't terribly long.

I liked that almost all of the sources cited were directly from historical record: official government reports, magazine articles from the era, and personal accounts written by people that lived and participated in the events covered by the book. Too often it seems that popularly-accessible history books draw all their sources from other, recently-written histories; meaning multiple layers of interpretation from the actual events.
Profile Image for Dan Allosso.
Author 8 books23 followers
August 27, 2015
I liked this so much that I use the chapter on the Adirondacks in my undergrad class. My students are usually surprised to discover the Progressive impulse toward conservation had a dark side. They're somewhat less surprised to learn that the elite men who championed conservation had personal interests in the wilderness as a sort of private reserve for members of their own class. One of the things I liked about the book was that it led me to ask a lot of questions about how places like the Adirondacks are managed (and owned) today.

In addition to the upstate New York forest, Jacoby covers Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. Perhaps because I was born on the border of the park, the first section on the Adirondack State Park was most interesting to me. Jacoby highlights what he calls the “hidden history of American Conservation," by which he means the consolidation of state power, the systematic denigration of the ways rural people used the land (Jacoby calls this “degradation discourse”), and the elimination of local customs regarding commons; replacing them with top-down state and national laws designating “wilderness” areas. Jacoby suggests the Progressive idea of wilderness was “not some primeval character of nature but rather an artifact of modernity.” (198)

More at http://www.environmentalhistory.us/ja...
Profile Image for Cam's Corner.
124 reviews4 followers
April 17, 2022
Most works of conservation history have praised educated elite conservationists as the early bodyguards and protectors of the environment and its resources. “Selfless” individuals like Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot and John Muir are at the forefront when it comes to these histories. Karl Jacoby’s Crime Against Nature, however, spotlights groups directly affected by conservationists. Free of scholarly jargon, Jacoby addresses and debunks myths about the peoples who inhabited Adirondack Park, Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon Forest Preserve/National Park. One of the biggest misconceptions about these rural working-class Americans and Native Americans is that they were wasteful and destructive individuals who harmed the very land they lived on. Despite the fact that this was untrue, conservationists and the federal government did everything in their power to flip the script and remake traditional life sustaining activities into “illegal acts: hunting or fishing [became] redefined as poaching, foraging as trespassing, the setting of fires as arson, and the cutting of trees as timber theft” (2).
Although they despised the government’s encroachment on their land, rural working-class white Americans sometimes used the government to their advantage. For example, some local foresters hired by the Forest Commission in the Adirondack would protect friends and neighbors from immediate prosecution. Instead, they would “issue a warning, giving the lawbreaker an opportunity to mend his or her ways and thus avoid arrest” (36). Likewise, other groups used the military to regulate illegal poaching. For example, the residents of Henry’s Lake, Idaho (who resided about 17 miles from the West Yellowstone entrance) used the army to “b[reak] up the [poacher’s] distribution network [and] arrest some of the taxidermists to whom the gang sold heads to” (133).
Jacoby’s book is successful in highlighting this underappreciated, bottom-up history but falls short on extending other historical questions regarding race. It would’ve been interesting if Jacoby had added discussions on other discriminatory practices against other racial groups. While it is true that these conservationist groups wanted to create parks, they advertised these spaces for primarily white tourists. It would’ve been appreciated if Jacoby acknowledged that efforts were made to exclude and segregate people of color. For example, Dorceta Taylor’s The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection refers to a discriminatory incident in which Sister Dominica wrote a letter to the director of the National Park Service. Within this letter, she describes her experience when she took a group of Black schoolchildren to the George Washington Birthplace National Monument in 1933. The group was forced to eat about a mile away from the Monument. The response was pathetic to say the least: “Not more than one percent of our visitors are colored and it does not seem justifiable to maintain a special picnic group for them… we do not go out of our way to encourage them to come here” (375). The mention of John Muir and his racism against Native Americans would’ve also helped bolster Jacoby’s argument that conservationists cared little for the people they’ve dispossessed. For example, Taylor points out how Muir described Indigenous people as “dark-eyed, dark-hair, half-happy savages” (360) and that their disruptive presence on the frontier interrupts the common belief of a clean, untouched wilderness.
Despite these setbacks, Jacoby has created an excellent book that can be used as an introduction to environmental history to both undergraduate and graduate students alike.
Profile Image for Margaret Sankey.
Author 8 books199 followers
March 31, 2012
While the official history of the national parks is one of conservation for all, the ugly underside is that the establishment of nature reserves severely dislocated traditional communities and installed restrictive limits on land use and hunting, provoking violent and long-term resistance from the people who lived in the region. Jacoby digs into the records to find angry Adirondack settlers resentful of the wealthy estates that choked off their access to logging and pelts and replaced those incomes with service jobs for tourism, Nez Perce incursions into Yellowstone in the 1877 War disrupting visitors and buffalo poachers eluding rangers and the dispossessing of the Havasupai from the Grand Canyon (this instance being particularly harsh because game wardens, who turned a blind eye to some white poaching in other parks out of some sense of solidarity entirely cracked down on native peoples). You can also see the threads of research that Jacoby will pick up and pull on to write the outstanding Shadows at Dawn.
Author 3 books9 followers
December 30, 2010
This was a terrific book; it was well written and well researched, and the case studies chosen provided an excellent set of views of how various people and the state have interacted in regard to the environment. It fit extremely well with my crime & justice focused US history survey, and the students who opted to read the book for their assignment all had great things to say about it. I'd definitely use it again.
Profile Image for Nicholas Vela.
376 reviews45 followers
June 11, 2020
Karl Jacoby’s monograph Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation offers us a radically different view of the “hidden history” behind the story of conservation, and the ways in which conservation created crime. Jacoby’s historic significance comes then in switching our view of history from conservation as a solely progressive movement to one that created crime out of everyday activities, and in many ways, from the perspective of those forced into a position of being lawbreakers.
Jacoby unfolds his story by looking at three areas: The Adirondacks, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon. Each of these areas was characterized by both a massive push for conservation and a massive push for the control of Nature. One of the more interesting aspects Jacoby covers is the issue of public versus private lands. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Adirondacks, where people had settled on land without paying the fees to obtain titles. As a result, these homesteaders found themselves at times classified as squatters after the onset of conservation. Similarly, in the Yellowstone region, the classification of Indians and White men into a single category of Poacher was a result of the onset of Yellowstone becoming a National Park. Here, however, the idea of poaching resulted from patterns of Indian settlement in the Yellowstone region. Fort Yellowstone itself has a chapter devoted to its role in the policing of Yellowstone National Park. Finally, the section on the Grand Canyon discusses the ways in which the theories of conservation worked against the protection of people. Tying back to the Adirondacks, the forest service’s argument that people would invariably alter the environment was once again put to use, much to the disadvantage of the Havasupai people, whose foraging practices within a desert climate was soon reclassified as thievery and, in some cases, poaching.
Jacoby’s work allows us to see these criminal acts not as an intentional “evil” compared to the good of conservation, but as the criminalization of local acts and the morality of people who were reclassified as such by the creation of protected areas. It allows for a clearer understanding of the ways in which Conservation while creating areas for the future enjoyment of others, created legal problems for others, and allowed for the rise of Crimes against Nature.
Profile Image for Shrike58.
528 reviews6 followers
July 15, 2021
This turned out to be a moderately interesting monograph about the social conflicts that resulted when the Adirondacks, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon became protected reserves, and the relevant authorities found themselves with the issue of having created a new class of criminals; the local folks who just so happened to think they had a right to subsistence via their traditional life-ways. That is to say hunting, fishing and collecting firewood. For the most part, Jacoby writes about all the parties with some sympathy, though the Havasupai Tribe probably have the saddest story. If I mark this monograph down for anything it's that it's rather older than I thought it was; old enough that the reissue that I read has an afterword by Jacoby dealing with some of the interpretative arguments his book has generated over the years. I'm wondering if there was something a little more contemporary looking at the issues raised.
Profile Image for Jenny.
79 reviews1 follower
August 22, 2017
An excellent read, is not the typical conservation history book you might think, instead it reveals the dark, violent and tragic side of American conservation history that were often ignored. What happened to the rural communities and Native Americans were too "politically inconvenient" to be brought up because it will make you second-guess the modern conservation is nothing but good. This book prompts readers to rethink the reason for conservation efforts, and to what extent should human sacrifice for "creating/ preserving the wilderness".
Profile Image for Laura.
90 reviews
December 28, 2016
Fascinating book on an aspect of natural park history you don't hear much about! The author does a great job of considering the various perspectives of people involved in the parks - the locals who often had to move or lose land rights when the parks were established, the park rangers, the ecologists trying to figure out the best way to preserve this land. Fun and engaging to read - and thought-provoking!
Profile Image for Nicky.
407 reviews3 followers
October 25, 2017
This was awesome and definitely representative of the kind of environmental history work I want to produce one day.

Jacoby does an excellent job in creating these case studies for readers to really see and understand this earlier form of rural gentrification that the early conservation movement brought on. This book is not anti-environmental; it calls into question questionable practices and gives a voice to the near voiceless like any great bottom-up history should.
Profile Image for Sara.
158 reviews6 followers
December 30, 2021
This is a great book for exploding the myth that ideas and rules around conservation are static, and it does a great job of recovering stories of the people and nations that were erased from the land in order to establish and police supposedly wild and natural spaces. I enjoyed the deep dive into the evolution of conservation ideas, practices, and laws through the social, political, and economic interactions of conservationists, white settlers, native peoples, and bureaucratic administrators.

Profile Image for Kayla Grattan.
4 reviews
January 22, 2023
The book I wish I read when learning about the praised conservation movement while studying it in college. Like most American history, I learned about the turn of the 20th century conservation movement through a very specific lens - with figures like Roosevelt, Pinchot, and Muir on pedestals. This book explored the darker side, highlighting classism, colonialism, racism and American rugged individualism. An insightful read that I will not forget.
Profile Image for Samuel.
430 reviews
March 28, 2015
In general, the conservation movement in the United States tends to be told as a relatively clean narrative of humans reaching a consensus that some "nature" should be preserved or unused or otherwise regulated. Similar international conservationist movements tend to reveal more of a struggle between governments and poor people who have claims to the land. In this book, Karl Jacoby writes about how the American story of conservation was riddled with controversy over land use by the government and its people (another push-back against a particular aspect of "American exceptionalism"). Squatters, poachers, timber thieves, and other criminals were a major obstacle to conservationists attempt at controlling nature in national parks and forests. Three geographically bounded locales are examined with their accompanying court cases, rural newspapers, and personal accounts: NY’s Adirondacks (post-Civil War era), Yellowstone National Park in northwestern WY (1870s-1910s), and Arizona’s Grand Canyon (mid-twentieth century).

In some ways, however, this narrative may romanticize folk ways of land use too much. What would the alternative be? No regulation? It seems that regulation of "public" lands is necessary, but this book suggests that it should more honestly be termed "government lands." The land does not really belong to all public persons; there are regulations that prohibit people from using it certain ways. Conservation was not (and will never be) a universally positive strategy and experience. Human users of the land are diverse in their needs, beliefs, and expectations.
Profile Image for Empanadani.
155 reviews1 follower
February 4, 2016
karl jacoby writing and analysis is so captivating. each time i open his books, i get the sense of clearness and simplicity. he takes all of the actors and lays them out through a finely interwoven analysis of the contingent and structural; of course, there is no good guy-bad guy narrative. this book is especially important to me because I 19m going into conservation and understanding the historical context of my future work is important to me.
he focuses on three cases (Adirondacks, Yellowstone, and grand canyon) and the dynamics between the conservation movement and the residents. the conservation movement represents the patriarchal state coming to protect nature based on the myth that humans and nature are separate beings, to protect the pure wildness of the area. the laws created turned residents into criminals and their activities into crimes. in the case of the Havasupai, conservation was a colonial project; and in Yellowstone, it was a militarized project. it shifted communities from subsistence to wage-labor. conservation was a part of the State expansion, but it also asks the question that if national parks had not spread, would the communities have been enough to keep back the tide of capitalism whether within their own communities or from outside companies/sources.
5 reviews
August 17, 2010
The nationalism of nature at the demise of Native American populations who used the land to survive -- hunt, forage, grow food. Militarization of Yellow Stone made little headway to remove squatters and poachers who took advantage of these lands at the expense of others.

His points in the epilogue are particularly important to remember
1. that nature was and has been nationalized, under a set of rules to protect them against the 'backwoodsman' the 'Indian' and to keep good game huntin' land.
2. The nationalization of nature replaced informal rules set by the 'backwoodsmen' and Indians with structured, rigid ones set by bureaucracy.
3. That legislating nature meant not to bring equilibrium but to transform it - creating new boundaries, ecosystems
4. 'Wildnerness as an artifact of modernity'
Profile Image for Kathryn.
112 reviews4 followers
January 24, 2016
Lots more white dudes, but they're non-elites this time! I actually really liked this book, and it did make more of an effort to be inclusive than many other books about conservation. The early Yellowstone game wardens' diaries were fascinating. There's also a detailed description of Adirondack life right at the beginning of tourism there and locals' efforts to conserve game in the face of sport hunters. It's a nice counter-narrative to all the stories about how sport hunters were the real conservationists. Not that they haven't done a lot of really great work, but it does give the impression of an effective conservation path we could have taken-- one that would probably have been more socially just.
Profile Image for Sacha.
193 reviews
November 19, 2014
A look at the other side of the conservation movement. This book takes a more balanced look at the conservation of the Adirondacks, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon (all near and dear to my heart). It explains the side of the locals, Indians and Euro-Americans, and some of what they felt and understood as suddenly their home was taken over by the upper class law makers.
A must read for anyone who loves these places.
Profile Image for Laurel Braitman.
Author 5 books68 followers
October 20, 2007
This is an excellent story of the 'hidden' history of our national parks and protected areas. It is a portrait of the ways in which we have, in the hope of protecting nature (itself a complicated and sometimes arrogant notion), created new ways of punishing those people who would like to do the same.
Profile Image for Isaac Timm.
545 reviews8 followers
December 21, 2012
A very interesting historic look at a movement that has be polarized and simplified by the whole political spectrum. It's a sweeping view of class, land use, industrial expansion, and conservation in the west that should be read by every environmental historian. Not to mention those who create land-use policy.
Profile Image for Tatiana.
32 reviews2 followers
January 27, 2008
The dark underbelly of environmentalism. This book made me question the pride I have felt in the history of the environmental movement. One of the best translations of academic work into book form. It's highly readable, well done, and an excellent addition to the "peoples history" canon.
Profile Image for Kyla.
31 reviews
December 4, 2008
an interesting look at how locals dealt with their land suddenly becoming national park and how park officials dealth with trespassers and poachers. This book looks at the Adirondacks, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon.
Profile Image for Megan.
36 reviews5 followers
September 22, 2009
I had to read this book for school and it actually was pretty interesting. It discusses the creation of Adirondacks State Park, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon and how it affected the different people living in those areas.
Profile Image for Erica.
25 reviews
December 7, 2012
Great book if you are interested in historical readings. This book gives you a perspective of seeing it from someone who was there to experience things. Also, it gave you a better understanding and you were able to place yourself in that period of time.
Profile Image for Jamie.
6 reviews
December 21, 2013
I read this for an environmental history class, but it was really well written and the stories were informative as well as interesting. Not bad for a text book.
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