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New National Parks Feature Humans In Their Natural Habitats

Instead of pristine lands containing only animals, new efforts at preservation acknowledge that humans have been interacting with these ecosystems for generations—and enlists those humans to help keep them safe.

Wilderness and humans don’t mix. Or so we thought. After centuries creating national parks, as well as millions of "conversation refugees" displaced by them, the world has learned a few things. The great expanses of Africa’s Serengeti, California’s coastal redwoods and the grasslands of our Great Plains are intensely managed human landscapes. Wilderness, they’re saying, is not a pristine state to preserve, but the fluid intersection between ecology and human society.

That connection is finally being acknowledged in a new class of park. "Cultural landscapes" are appearing as protected areas with resident human populations, as well as formal declarations by agencies such as UNSECO, the UN’s education and culture agency. Bucking centuries of dogma about how to protect wilderness, these new parks are more like homes, lived in and protected by their human inhabitants, as a way to protect the ecology and culture, says Julia Watson, an Australian landscape architect and lecturer at Harvard who spoke recently about her work with Steven Lansing at the 2012 PopTech Conference in Camden, Maine.

"It’s always a more successful level of protection because everything about protection is integrated into the lifestyle and worldview of the people who live there," she says. Our inviolate attitude towards parks in the West has been defined by a scientific approach with little room for culture, as well as environmental devastation wrought by centuries of economic growth following the Industrial Revolution. The 1964 U.S. Wilderness Act makes this explicit by defining wilderness as a place "where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

Yet biodiversity often exists because of cultural diversity, claims Watson, something confirmed by WWF on a global scale in a 2000 study. So a group of pioneering anthropologists, architects, and conservationists has turned this idea into one of the most ambitious cultural landscapes so far: the rice farming regions of the Indonesian island of Bali, declared a new cultural site by UNESCO this year.

Instead of buildings, "gateways" will lead to 75 square miles of rice paddies and villages, a living landscape run, managed, and inhabited by the Balinese themselves. At the heart of this landscape is the subak, a 1,300-year-old cooperative water management, an intricate collection of rice terraces and water temples fed by network of canals and small dams. The system reflects the ecology of the region, as well as the Balinese philosophical concept of Tri Hita Karana, the overlapping realms of the spirit, the human world, and nature.

Bali’s attempt to preserve its culture, and the ecology, may be a turning point in swapping living landscapes for the parks and museums that have served as answers to conservation in the past. The world is still full of places where human understanding of complex ecosystems is embedded in culture, folklore, and enduring ecological management systems—from the Masai’s African rangelands to the native potato cultivation of Peru. Watson says we can’t preserve one without the other.