The Battle for Yellowstone: Morality and the Sacred Roots of Environmental Conflict

The Battle for Yellowstone: Morality and the Sacred Roots of Environmental Conflict

by Justin Farrell


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ISBN-13: 9780691176307
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 02/28/2017
Series: Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology , #71
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 1,079,123
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Justin Farrell is assistant professor of sociology in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University.

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The Battle for Yellowstone

Morality and the Sacred Roots of Environmental Conflict

By Justin Farrell


Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-16434-2


Believing in Yellowstone: The Moralization of Nature and the Creation of America's Eden

As the ice on the Yellowstone Plateau began to melt from thousands of years of deep glaciation, new life emerged, and humans followed the retreating ice in search of animal and plant sustenance. Archaeologists, paleontologists, and historians trace the melting ice and the existence of human life in Yellowstone back at least 11,000 years (Cannon, 1993; Haines, 1977). Yet most popular knowledge, and our most powerful American myths about the brave "discovery" of Yellowstone by white Euro-American mountain men, reach back a short 200 years, only 1.2 percent of the span of time that humans have been known to inhabit the region. During these 200 years—as more groups came to inhabit the Yellowstone area—its natural resources took on new meaning. Deep moral and spiritual disagreements formed then are the bedrock upon which contemporary conflict in the area takes place.

This chapter recounts America's early relationship with Yellowstone. How did the meaning of Yellowstone change from the time it was "discovered" and made a national park? More specifically, how, over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was Yellowstone sacralized and moralized? In sociology, this relates more generally to how aspects of social life that are thought to be about instrumental or material preferences become invested with moral and religious meaning (Zelizer, 2010). Similarly, work in psychology has theorized the processes of "moralization," whereby utilitarian preferences are converted into values (Rozin, 1999; Rozin and Singh, 1999). For example, the act of smoking in American society underwent a process of moralization beginning in the late 1960s. What was once a behavioral preference, a mere taste or personal choice, is now a morally laden act, something viewed by many as disgusting and wrong. When a practice such as smoking—or in this case, the use of Yellowstone—becomes moralized, it is more likely to receive "attention from governments and institutions, to encourage supportive scientific research, to license censure [and] to recruit the emotion of disgust" (Rozin, 1999, p. 218). This process of institutionalization through science, law, and public sentiment legitimizes a new moral order about aspects of life that were before thought to be about material preferences or mere taste.

What does this mean for the historical development of Yellowstone, and the recent rise of conflict? In this chapter I make the historical argument that the use of natural resources in Yellowstone underwent a process of "moralization," whereby instrumental and material relationships with nature were invested with moral and spiritual meaning. This process had important institutional effects on politics in the area (e.g., more government attention, scientific research, censuring, public sentiment, emotional disgust). As a sort of scaffolding for explaining this process of moralization, I document the emergence and interaction of three "moral visions" of Yellowstone. By moral vision I mean a bundle of practices, beliefs, and feelings groups (and individuals) use to discern right and wrong, good and bad, desirable and undesirable, just and unjust about the natural environment. Using these three ideal types to structure my historical and analytical framework, I begin with the early days in the Yellowstone area as my starting point for this moralization process. New ideas began to emerge in the Yellowstone area and throughout the nation about the meaning of nature, its economic and noneconomic value, and how humans ought to relate to it. This moral upheaval was paired with large-scale social and economic change in the United States that created a context of opportunity to institutionalize these new moral visions into daily life. I focus on these historical contingencies throughout, drawing on larger developments in American life, as well as local developments in Yellowstone itself.

Before jumping into the story of moralization in the area, a brief introduction to the utilitarian, spiritual, and biocentric moral visions will be useful. I define the utilitarian moral vision as a bundle of practices, beliefs, and feelings oriented toward the physical transformation of nature for useful purposes. The utilitarian vision is not simply a crass materialism, amoral greed, or purely economic approach to nature. It moralizes nature by defining what it is good for (e.g., resources, practical use), but it also moralizes the work one does in nature, as well as the workers themselves. Making utilitarian use of the land not only provided material gain, but it satisfied deeper narratives about the self-made man, manifest destiny, rugged individual will, inevitable progress, and the traditional (Protestant) valuation of hard work. Land is seen as a resource for consumption, but that does not negate the deeper relationships with the land that go far beyond economic dependence. There are deeper affective bonds rooted in physical interaction and interpersonal, community, and cultural experiences in particular spaces that transcend economic valuation and inform what it means to live a "good" life and be a "good" person.

The spiritual moral vision refers to a bundle of practices, beliefs, and feelings oriented toward nature that emphasize aesthetic beauty, "living" nature, personal experience, and theological obligation. This approach is influenced by religious impulses in 19th-century transcendentalist thought that emphasized emotion, intuition, aesthetics, wildness, and immanent divinity. It represents attempts by thinkers like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir to (re)sacralize nature in response to materialist and consumerist pressures of American life. This vision is also a reaction against the tendency in Western culture that renders the divine as "transcending" the world, separating the divine from a disenchanted nature. But this moral vision finds goodness in this world, because the earth is not "a dead, inert mass" but "has a spirit" (Nash, 1989, p. 37). The romantic wilderness ideals of Thoreau and Muir play a large role in the GYE, especially because of symbolism of Yellowstone as America's "Eden." But this moral vision also taps into more everyday experiences such as kinship with animals, gardening, going on walks, or feeding birds. Thus, to live the good life is to be in communion with nature, and a good person is one who not only experiences this community but, according to Muir, also values and protects its least "practical" members because even "poor creatures, loved only by their Maker" are "beautiful in the eyes of God and deserve our love and protection" (Muir quoted in Nash 1989, p. 39). Many people situate these ethical obligations within religious frameworks, as recent work on the relationship between religion and ecology has shown. Of course, one does not need to be traditionally religious or participate in a religious congregation to exhibit characteristics of the spiritual moral vision.

The biocentric moral vision describes a bundle of practices, beliefs, and feelings oriented toward the inherent health of biotic communities and the moral obligation to the interdependence of all members of such communities. This approach is heavily indebted to scientific observation and measurement, especially evolutionary theory, ecology, and conservation biology. Thus, this moral vision is ostensibly the most "rational," but it too has deeper moral and cultural commitments. The fundamental moral commitment of this vision is that healthy ecosystems are intrinsically (and extrinsically) better than unhealthy ecosystems, and that humans should not place themselves above other members of the biotic community. These deeply held moral commitments were heavily influenced by scientific research in ecology that revealed the interdependence of all species in a larger web of life. Aldo Leopold describes the moral dimensions of this vision best in his famous land ethic, stating that "a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise" (1986, p. 262; emphasis added). According to the technical expertise of the natural sciences, a healthy ecosystem functions best when there is equality among its members. Equality implies intrinsic rights of all biotic members, not just the most powerful (e.g., humans). Because the GYE is one of the last large intact ecosystems in the world, many of the intractable debates in the GYE are about equality and the rights of nonhuman animals in the ecosystem versus human rights, such as buffalo, elk, and wolves. Table 1 lays out these moral visions in considerably more theoretical, historical, and illustrative detail.

How does the moralization of nature, demonstrated by the interaction of these broad moral visions, relate to social conflict? Historically speaking, the emergence of the spiritual and biocentric moral visions developed in response to the long-held utilitarian ideals and practices of early Americans. Up until the emergence of these alternative visions, conflict was largely motivated by clashing economic interests (e.g., among trappers, traders, and railroaders) or clashes with indigenous Indian residents who were perceived as threatening the development of the tourism industry. The chapter begins by tracing the origins, manifestations, and consequences of the utilitarian worldview in the Yellowstone area. With the "discovery" of Yellowstone by Euro-Americans, it became a target for resource extraction by fur-trading companies, railroad conglomerates, and politicians who viewed areas like Yellowstone as a "wonderland" of natural resources. The formation of Yellowstone as a national park was heavily influenced by a complex utilitarianism that was a peculiar mixture of a deep ethical-utilitarian relationship with the land and crass attempts at material gain. Yet at the same time, Yellowstone was the product of a fledgling spiritual vision of nature in the United States that challenged the quasi-religious quest of limitless progress and unbridled American individualism. But the spiritual alternative to the utilitarian ethic could only go so far toward protecting Yellowstone in a political, economic, and legal context in which appeals to intrinsic value or spiritual experience held very little authority. The biocentric vision, with its scientific evidence, would provide a much-needed moral yardstick about the impacts of human activity in the GYE.

To demonstrate the effects of this process of moralization, the chapter concludes with an analysis of how these moral visions were actually institutionalized into American culture and politics. The moralization of smoking led not only to feelings of disgust and condemnation about the immorality of such a practice, but it led to the passing of new laws that prohibit smoking in public places. Similarly, the moralization of nature, assisted by changing socioeconomic conditions after World War II, led to the institutionalization of spiritual and biocentric visions into new laws and policies. Most notably, as I explain, Yellowstone National Park would come to be part of a "Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem"—a biological community that science showed expanded far beyond the borders of the park to include private land in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. These events brought utilitarian resource extraction culture into closer proximity with the competing interest of Americans who valued and used Yellowstone for its spiritual resources, and they led to endeavors to protect it from biological disruption—thus creating the conditions for eventual intractable contemporary conflict that would soon follow.

Early Utilitarian Use and the Formation of Yellowstone National Park


For 11,000 years the Yellowstone area was a "busy place at times, what with all the hunters, gatherers, fishers, miners, and assorted travelers who came and went over the millennia before white people came along and tacked a couple of centuries of 'history' onto the story" (Schullery, 2004, p. 9). What kind of "land ethic" did early humans in Yellowstone practice? As hunter-gatherers, early Yellowstone residents made aggressive use of natural resources by establishing strategic migration patterns through the area so as to be in the right place at the right seasonal time for hunting mammals and gathering plants. The harsh winters on the Yellowstone plateau prevented early groups from living in the area year round. As the seasons changed they crisscrossed the area, carving well-worn trails, clearing brush and forests for campsites, excavating obsidian for weapons, and herding and hunting animals. Popular ideas about indigenous peoples, especially more recent American Indians, are imbued with romantic ideals about living off the land in simple ways, while exerting little to no influence on local ecological processes. Yet recent work has demonstrated that early humans in Yellowstone aggressively managed natural resources, using their own forms of technology and altering landscapes and animal populations that later Euro-American explorers would interpret as untouched and purely "natural" (Kay, 1994; Pyne, 1982; Spence, 2000; Wagner et al., 1995). Indeed, the management of natural resources by native peoples would not compare to the severity and scope of ecological disruption introduced by European-Americans, but the notion that Yellowstone has always been a pure Eden of untrammeled wilderness is more a product of anachronistic imagining than historical reality.

Thus, in trying to understand the land ethic of native peoples in Yellowstone, we would do well to move beyond romantic ideals about pure harmony, or untrammeled "nature," that assume no ecological disruption, and pursue a richer, more complicated blending of two ethics we tend to keep at a distance: utilitarian and spiritual. These were blended for Yellowstone's first residents because the utilitarian use of the area's resources held profound spiritual meaning. The spewing geysers, hot springs, bubbling mudpots, and other geothermal wonders were a source of sacred power, providing medicine and healing for the Blackfeet, Crow, Sioux, Nez Perce, Bannock, and Shoshone tribes, among others. Like the flora and fauna, these wonders were spiritually meaningful but were also practically useful. Because these groups held in common the spiritual power of these sacred resources, the Yellowstone area was viewed as neutral ground, thus there was very little intergroup conflict between tribes (Weixelman, 1992). In contrast to future generations, where the battle lines of protracted conflict would be drawn between a utilitarian versus a spiritual value of Yellowstone, the early tribes could not separate these values, thus Yellowstone was not a point of sacred dissension, but quite the opposite.


For those first human populations who inhabited the Yellowstone area for 11,000 years, the prospect of Yellowstone being "discovered" would make little sense. Indeed, the Yellowstone area was never lost and certainly did not need to be discovered. Nevertheless, to the rest of the world it was "discovered" shortly after 1806 when the Lewis and Clark expedition passed just north of the area. One member of the party, John Colter, returned to the area to expand the Missouri Fur Trading Company's business opportunities. Colter is the first documented white person to have visited Yellowstone, where over the course of the next few years he sought out fur-trading opportunities with local tribes.

The roots of the Yellowstone old-west were planted with the arrival of Colter, and the thousands of fur-trapping "mountain men" who would soon follow. The Yellowstone area, and its treacherous geothermal features, would soon acquire a reputation in the American East as a sort of dangerous "hell" that was as exciting as it was frightening. Later writers would refer to Yellowstone as "Colter's Hell." These early attitudes about Yellowstone reflected prevailing American sentiments about wilderness, stirring up feelings of fear and isolation.


Excerpted from The Battle for Yellowstone by Justin Farrell. Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix
List of Tables xiii
Acknowledgments xv
Introduction: Bringing Moral Culture into the Fray 1
Introducing the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem 5
Toward a Theory of Morality and Environment 8
Human Believers, Narrative Structure, and Enacting Moral Orders 12
Theoretical Contributions 17
A Roadmap 29
1.Believing in Yellowstone: The Moralization of Nature and the Creation of America's Eden 34
Early Utilitarian Use and the Formation of Yellowstone National Park 40
A Spiritual Moral Vision 52
A Biocentric Moral Vision 56
Social Change and the "Greater" Yellowstone Ecosystem 60
Conclusion 65
2.The New (Wild) West: Social Upheaval, Moral Devaluation, and the Rise of Conflict 66
The Old West, and Roots of the New 70
The Rise of the New-West 75
The Moral Effects of New-West Change 89
Environmental Conflict 96
Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem Stakeholder Arena 100
The Rise of Conflict, 1870–2012 108
Conclusion 118
3.Buffalo Crusaders: The Sacred Struggle for America's LastWild and Pure Herd 119
Overview of the Issue 122
The Buffalo Field Campaign 125
The Moral Logic of a Movement: Purity, Wildness, Virtue 132
Successes of Moral-Spiritual Protest 146
Concluding Puzzle: Religious and Moral "Muting" 159
Conclusion 166
4.Between Good and Evil: The Science, Culture, and Polarization of Wolf Conflict 168
Uncovering the Anti-Wolf Moral Order 172
Rugged American Individualism 174
Human Dominionism 180
Simple and Sacred Heritage 188
Uncovering the Pro-Wolf Moral Order 196
Features of the Pro-Wolf Moral Order 198
The Primary Role of Morality and Spirituality 203
Multiple Meanings: Co-Occurrence of Spirituality and Rationality 208
Conclusion 213
5.Drilling Our Soul: Moral Boundary Work in an Unlikely Old-West Fight against Fracking 217
A State of Mining 221
Drilling in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem 225
Considering Alternative Explanations 233
"Too Special to Drill": Place Attachment and Drawing Moral Boundaries 238
Three Profiles of Old-West Environmentalists 243
Moral Boundary Work and the Meaning of Activism 252
Conclusion 256
Conclusion 258
Appendix: Methodological Notes 263
Bibliography 271
Index 283

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