Land Protection: Conservation as the War We Wage Against Ourselves

By: Eliza Van Dyk, Uplift Organizer


My first memory of the land is a sunburnt mesa. Blue sky and orange dirt. The sky is visible from horizon to horizon, vibrant and unimpeded. I look up and see a brush stroke of thin, milky blue clouds that swirl in unison with the orange underneath me. The texture of the dirt is dynamic, producing reverberations of grit between my toes and softness underneath my arches. Every grain is its own hue, small pieces of glass that are translucent when held to the sun. I dip my hands into a mound to pick up a rock and the dirt that collects under my fingers is no longer orange. It’s dark when encased in nail. It’s amazing how the colors change. I drop the rock and see movement in the corner of my eye. And then I am running, my feet crackling against the earth that flames in the afternoon sun.

“Maana, put on your shoes!”

My Hopi nanny is chasing me, but I’m chasing horny toads and I think I can run faster.

“Maana!” She says more sternly, and I stop.

Maana is the word for little girl in Hopi. When my nanny uses it sternly, I know I’m close to trouble. At 4 years old, I spend more time with her than my parents, and quite frankly, I’m more afraid of her. She is my second mother but I listen to her better than my first. We spent many summer days like this. A three way chase. She always worked and I always played. This didn’t change much as I grew up.

I grew up in Tuba City, Arizona, on the Hopi and Dine’ Nations. Being the bahana or biligáana (white) child of two doctors, I always had the privilege of play. While I spent my after school hours chasing horny toads, my Hopi and Dine’ classmates often went to their homes--sometimes hours away--and worked with their families on the land. We all grew up under the same blue sky in the same orange dirt, but the interactions we had with the land were so different. As our initial perceptions of the land formed, we also formed our own identities.

By the time I was 5, I was already acutely aware of the different land identities and relationships in Tuba City. They were different granules of sand coming together to paint the mesa orange. Without noticing the presence of each granule, the mesa would lose its vibrance. This was my first perception of land, a world of complexity in a single mesa; it was not just a place, but a community of people. But the world doesn’t end at drop of a mesa. Through different landscapes and at different times, we are all forming our own relationships with the land and with each other.


After I graduated high school, I wanted to do work to “protect” the land and these land relationships. I worked in a United States government conservation program, six months of my life living, breathing, and working with the land in a fleet of khaki-dressed Americorps volunteers. We worked the majority of our season in the Wukoki Pueblo Ruin outside of Flagstaff, Arizona and on the trails of the Grand Canyon. During this time, I realized that the land identities that I had acquainted myself with as a child were not being considered, and they certainly weren’t being protected.

At the time, I was told that that trails minimized the impact of humans on the earth while still allowing people to connect with beautiful places. Now, I have a hard time seeing the work we did as protecting the land but rather protecting the National Park industry’s profits from tourism. We may have concentrated the impact of tourists in a natural space to a trail, but what did digging drains do to protect the identity of the land and its relationships? We worked in sacred places to many Indigenous peoples across the Colorado plateau, and yet we never talked about these land relationships. Without the considerations of identity, cultural continuity and land-relationship building, who were we really protecting the land for?  

The conservation movement falls short because it is not centered around or even informed by indigenous perspectives and land-relationships. It fails to develop land-interaction protocols with the consideration of the indigenous peoples who have been interacting with the land since time immemorial. Historically, conservation decisions have been made with little consultation with and even less consent from Indigenous peoples.

This injustice is articulated well by Kyle Powys Whyte when they note, “One can’t claim to be an ally if one’s agenda is to prevent his or her own future dystopias through actions that also preserve today’s Indigenous dystopias. Yet how many environmentalists do just this?” In the Grand Canyon, the opening of a National Park, under the rhetoric of land protection, prevented many Indigenous peoples from accessing sacred places. The park has supported tourism before land and peoples time after time. Take the Grand Canyon Escalade proposal, for instance.

Art by Jerrel Singer, @jerrelsinger on Instagram

Art by Jerrel Singer, @jerrelsinger on Instagram

The conservation movement weaves itself into a wartime rhetoric: “Protect the Land.” From whom are we protecting the land? Ourselves? Rather than needing to protect land, we should focus on defeating the systems of oppression that inspire us to ask for protection in the first place: Colonialism and Capitalism. Following this wartime rhetoric, our system of land governance has developed under a stagnant concept of the land in which the conservation movement is the “defender” of the land, and the land is a victim. This victimized land narrative allows us to defend colonial practices that only exploit peoples and the land. Is the continued designation of land without the consent of Indigenous peoples not a reiteration of colonialism? Colonial practices that have been supported by the conservation movement include the designation of land as commodity, the publication and exploitation of sacred sites without the acknowledgement of their sacredness, and the creation of a power structure that gives government entities land-jurisdiction over and before indigenous peoples. In the protection of land, the conservation movement has also protected systems of oppression.

Furthermore, conservation’s wartime rhetoric reflects the combative strategies the United State’s government often takes against social-environmental movements. The same rhetoric of “protection” is employed against peoples in the militarization against real land-relationship advocacy movements. Think about the militarization at Standing Rock.

The conservation movement, in the designation of land for  protection  does little to address the designation of land for sacrifice. While the national park system is collection of conservation “success” stories, there is more land left for sacrifice. Take Yucca Mountain for instance, a site sacred to the Shoshone and Paiute peoples designated as an energy sacrifice zone. Land is vulnerable as soon as there is a hiccup in conservation protocols. In many cases, “energy sacrifice land” is encroaching onto what has been “protected.” Canyon Mine stands just six miles from the Grand Canyon National Park. Chaco Culture National Historic Park is one of the only areas of land in New Mexico not leased for oil and gas. The protection of land through policy is not permanent, and often, land sacrifice prevails. Oil and Gas leasing opened almost immediately on the land reduced from Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. That will always be the price of conservation. Until land policy addresses energy injustice and the legacy of colonialism, some land will be protected, and more land will be sacrificed.

Land defense is not the answer if defense is the acknowledgement that offense is inevitable and undefeatable. Conservation is not the enemy, but conservation is not enough, it is stagnant, and we can do so much better. The land speaks differently to us all. Our identities and lived experiences contribute to land-relationships that do not support the partitioning of land as an entity separate from peoples. It's time to stop turning to a stagnant, non representative system that wants to protect and defend the land like it's war time, when land protection is a battlefield upon which we only wage war against ourselves. The future is not about land protection rhetoric that also begets land sacrifice. It’s about defeating offensive, oppressive systems. It’s about relationships, recognizing those that have existed since time immemorial, and acknowledging that Indigenous land-relationships should be the basis of land decision and Indigenous peoples should be the ones making these decisions.




Whyte, Kyle Powys. “White Allies, Let's Be Honest About Decolonization.” YES! Magazine, 3

Apr. 2018,