Going Wild: War, Weapons and Wildlife Refuge

The May 2000 edition of Backpacker magazine included a special section featuring a “laundry list” of the 40 best-recommended spots in the United States National Wilderness Preservation System. The glossy feature was titled – you guessed it – “No-Man’s Land”.

From: Backpacker Magazine, May 2000.

From: Backpacker Magazine, May 2000.

Signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson exactly half a century ago, on 3 September 1964, the Wilderness Act defined wilderness “as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

The half-centenary of the Act offers a timely opportunity to take Backpacker magazine – or at least this headline – seriously. The clear designation and enclosure of space, and the simultaneous withdrawal of human presence are exactly the parameters we have set out for the identification of no-man’s land.

But the notion of no-man’s land has a longer and more complex relationship to ideas of wilderness and natural preservation. On 29 August 1806, near the confluence of the Platt River with the Mississippi River, the American military explorer William Clark noted in his diary:

“I have observed that in the country between the nations which are at war with each other the greatest numbers of wild animals are to be found.”

Over 60 years later, another army officer, Richard Irving Dodge reported that the country between the Niobrara and White Rivers became the object of violent dispute between the Sioux, Crow and Pawnee Native American tribes. This land, Dodge writes,

“Became a debatable ground into which none but war parties ever penetrated. Hunted more or less by the surrounding tribes, immense number of Buffalo took refuge … where they were comparatively unmolested remaining there summer and winter in security.”

Using these and other examples dating back to the 16th century, Paul Martin and Christine Szuter illuminate a large archive that ties no-man’s lands between warring parties to wildlife preservation. Their work importantly informed other scholars who sought to understand the effects of war and civil strife on wildlife and wildlife habitats.

War-Zone Refuge along the Lewis and Clark 1805-6 route. Source: Martin & Szuter, 1999

War-Zone Refuge along the Lewis and Clark 1805-6 route. Source: Martin & Szuter, 1999

This idea of “war-zone refuge” continues to reverberate in the celebration of contemporary geopolitical frontiers reclaimed by nature. In Chernobyl and the Korean DMZ, the absence of permanent human habitation is seen as a key factor in the resuscitation of natural habitats. During fieldwork we conducted in Cyprus, a Greek-Cypriot activist told us, half joking, “people on this island are just crazy about hunting. They shoot everything. The only place you’ll find wild animals is inside the buffer zone.”

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Yet this relationship between no-man’s lands and spaces of natural preservation is not limited to the frontiers of violent conflict. At times, such “preservation no-man’s lands” are formed in locations far removed from the frontlines.

The Rocky Mountain Arsenal military compound was set up in 1942 by the US Army to manufacture both conventional and unconventional munitions. The Colorado-based facility produced various chemical weapons, rocket fuel and housed a large stockpile of Sarin gas. The Arsenal was later used for Cold-War weapons production and demilitarization. Military production was halted by the end of the 1960s, but the plant was leased to private corporations for the manufacturing of pesticides, which continued until the site’s closure in 1982.

Rocky Mountain Arsenal, 1960

Rocky Mountain Arsenal, 1960

After its closure, an investigation found the 19,915 acres (80.59 km²) of the site to be polluted with several pesticides, heavy metals, chemical warfare material and biological warfare agents. Despite being situated in close proximity to the Denver and Commerce City, the pollution of the site prevented any development on its grounds and was declared a hazardous waste site.

The fences that surrounded the site during its operation years and the pollution that followed deterred kept human presence in the site to a minimum. The effects of this absence were discovered in 1986 when a roost of bald eagles, then an endangered species, was discovered on site. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service soon realized that more than 330 species of wildlife inhabit the Arsenal. In 1992, the site was declared a National Wildlife Refuge.

With both abandonment and enclosure playing a role in its production, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal case highlights important facets for the study of no-man’s lands.

First,we are reminded here of the changing forms of violence enacted in and through these sites. The language of the Wilderness Act – “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” – attains a sinister undertone: It offers a reminder of the killing fields between the trenches, a key site of corporeal destruction; it also raises the specter of what Rob Nixon called Slow Violence, the attritional lethality that is too often not seen as violence at all. This takes the form of radioactive aftermaths of war, polluted soils and mutated DNAs (as I note in a previous blog on the work of Cornelia Hesse-Honneger or as Ann Laura Stoler discusses in her introduction to Imperial Debris).

At the same time, we are reminded of the afterlife of no-man’s land, and the way they function as productive spaces, rather than solely sites of material and corporeal destruction. To be clear, this is not a search for happy endings. Rather, it prompts us to consider the ways no-man’s lands remain significant – either through their celebrated ecological functions or through their darker histories as part of an industrial-military complex.


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