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Regulating Eden: The Nature of Order in North American Parks

By Joe Hermer

Review By James Murton

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 142-143 Summer-Autumn 2004  | p. 312-3

IN “YELLOWSTONE AT 125,” the new preface to his classic National Parks: The American Experience (1997), Alfred Runte despairs that Yellowstone’s function as a “sanctuary” has been shattered by “a million cars and the drone of a hundred thousand snowmobiles” (xii). Joe Hermer might agree. But while scholars such as Runte assessed parks for how well they lived up to the high ideal of nature preservation, Hermer’s Regulating Eden assesses, as do other recent works such as Alan MacEachern’s Natural Selections: National Parks in Atlantic Canada (2001), the nature and existence of the ideal. Hermer argues that parks are less about ecology than about creating a pleasing experience of nature, a Disneyland wilderness containing all the thrills with none of the risks. Further, he suggests that the extensive regulatory framework necessary to bring this representation of nature into being threatens both the environment and society at large. 

Regulating Eden rests on a theoretically informed reading of the various documents that create the state of “emparkment” – parks legislation and regulations, staff handbooks, pamphlets, promotional material, maps, and signs. Parks, Hermer argues, impose a heavy-handed system of moral order in the name of preventing environmental damage and preserving the peace and harmony visitors look for in nature. In doing so, parks suggest that regulation of one’s individual moral behaviour – being respectful of both human and non-human neighbours – is enough to solve environmental problems. 

Regulating Eden is most effective in its careful delineation of the way regulations create the experience of park-going. The typical meandering park trail, Hermer shows in a fascinating discussion, is designed to detailed guidelines. Its wood-chip surface hides the extent to which it has been used, thus suggesting that such use is consistent with nature preservation. It appears aimless and so natural, while bringing users to selected sites where carefully placed signs explain what they are seeing. Its apparent aimless-ness suggests the possibility of getting lost, so adding an element of risk and thus a sense ôf the wild. Yet the trail, like the park, is actually encrusted with regulations designed to minimize risk to nature and to other users. Signs and park rangers order users to stay on the trail and dictate where users are to go and how they are to behave once off the trail. This strategy of controlled risk, for Hermer, is central to emparkment. In making this argument, Hermer draws on primary sources from 37 US states and eight Canadian provinces and territories, as well as Parks Canada. Oddly, the US National Park Service, guardian of such places as Yellowstone and Yosemite, gets only minimal attention. The book is notable for the effective use of images as evidence. 

However, somewhat like the park trail, Hermer’s book is not particularly easy to get through. The opening chapter’s literature review is impressive, but ultimately somewhat dizzying, in its scope. The book is heavily laden with theory, which too often clogs up the prose. For instance, Hermer consistently refers to park signage as “official graffiti,” but never explains the explanatory power of the term over the word “sign.” Use of evidence is also, at times, problematic, Hermer seemingly drawing more from his evidence than it can support. For example, noting that parks establish boundaries between different use-specific areas, he argues that these boundaries “construct park visitors as transient subjects that pass through the ostensibly wild landscape of the park that is represented as being permanent” (61). While it is clear how designating certain areas as, say, marshland, can give the environment a spurious sense of permanence, it was not clear to me how it necessarily makes park visitors into transient subjects. 

Hermer’s most interesting and most important conclusion also demonstrates the shortcomings of his reliance on textual readings for evidence. Hermer notes that parks, as sites of nature preservation, are popularly understood as examples of society at its most selfless. As bearers of this Utopian image, they are potentially dangerous for society at large, legitimizing both parks’ heavy-handed moral order and their equation of moral order with environmental protection. This is exciting stuff, suggesting that the study of parks is important even for those who might have little to no interest in parks or environmental issues. Yet without proof that visitors really are carrying these messages out of the parks with them, a directly opposed argument is equally plausible – that, as shining jewels, parks have little to tell us about the sordid complexities of everyday life. 

Though other scholars have pointed out how social concerns shape parks, Hermer’s relentless peeling away of the layers of park regulation exposes the quite astounding extent to which parks depend on careful ordering of humanity and nature in order to create a desired experience of freedom and individual communion with the wild. For scholars interested in questions of parks, wilderness, or the relationship between the environment and society, Hermer raises important issues and concerns, while his analysis raises stimulating new possibilities for further research and study.