Endangered Species and Contested Lands

AlagonaFor most people, saving a critter from extinction is a laudable goal with a fairly straightforward action-item: don’t kill the animal. The 1973 the Endangered Species Act in the United States set forth guidelines for compiling lists of such species, such as the California condor. In practice, however, the law did not just establish a list of do-not-kills. Instead, it implied a commitment to understanding how species thrived, and to setting aside areas to provide an appropriate ecological home. Although few put it in such terms back in 1973, the federal law was also about habitat protection.

In American society, preventing genetic obliteration was one thing, but restricting land use required an entirely different level of commitment, and it opened a political can of worms. Was it enough that the condor, for example, did not die out completely and was still able to reproduce in captivity? Or should there have been large areas of land where the bird could nest, mate, and carry on?

In the state of California, where a growing human population and intensive agriculture produced one of the world’s leading economies in the twentieth century, these questions were always contested. California was home to at least one famous failure to preserve a species. The iconic animal there was, and remains, the grizzly bear. It still exists as an image on the state flag and serves as a mascot at universities and high schools—yet it was extinct in California by 1930.

In After the Grizzly, Peter S. Alagona tells the story of endangered species in California through the lens of habitat, to highlight how much the “politics of place” shaped the fates of key species—the condor, the desert tortoise, the kit fox, and the delta smelt. Each has its own ecological relationships and unique histories. And yet Alagona’s narrative tells a similar tale in each—that the struggles over preserving rare and endangered species have centered more on cordoning off huge tracts of land as protected natural areas, in the name of habitat, than on saving a particular animal. Alagona sees the “protected areas paradigm” as a product of ecological science, environmental law, and resource management. The book tracks the development of this approach and evaluates whether it achieved its goals in California.

I asked Laura A. Watt, an associate professor at Sonoma State University, to join this roundtable because of her expertise in preservation and parks, including the efforts to integrate environmental history interpretations at Joshua Tree National Park. Like Alagona, Watt has explored how the idea of preservation “does not deal well with change.” She and her collaborators have shown how the Endangered Species Act was similar to other kinds of preservation stories. For example, the Act evolved in a similar trajectory to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Just as the ESA’s remit extended to entire ecosystems, the NHPA has turned out to be concerned with “preserving dynamic systems of place and community.”[1]

Our second commentator is Philip Garone, an associate professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus. He has a deep interest in the ecological dilemmas of central California. His book, The Fall and Rise of the Wetlands of California’s Great Central Valley, will be the subject of a future roundtable. The story he tells is one of near-destruction of wetlands because of irrigation projects. Unlike many stories of decline in environmental history, Garone has outlined the recovery efforts by a coalition of conservationists, duck hunters, and scientists, and he crafts a narrative of the political tensions in a giant agribusiness.[2]

Finally, Sean Kheraj is an assistant professor at York University, specializing in environmental history and Canadian history. Kheraj brings essential perspective on similar issues from outside California. His recent book, Inventing Stanley Park, won the Canadian Historical Association’s 2014 Clio Prize for outstanding work in British Columbia History. It explores the creation of a major urban park in Vancouver, while engaging with broader issues, such as the eviction of humans, expectations of “wildness,” and changes to ecosystems over time.   His work highlights how dynamic ecosystems should be more fully embraced as part of our historical record.[3]

Before turning to the first set of comments, I would like to pause here and thank all the roundtable participants for taking part. In addition, I would like to remind readers that as an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, around the world, free of charge. Please circulate.

Roundtables page: https://networks.h-net.org/node/19397/pages/20803/roundtable-reviews

The full roundtable on After the Grizzly is here: https://networks.h-net.org/peter-s-alagona-after-grizzly-endangered-species-and-politics-place-california-roundtable-review-vol

Please circulate and enjoy!

[1] Laura A. Watt, Leigh Raymond, and Meryl L. Eschen, “On Preserving Ecological and Cultural Landscapes,” Environmental History 9:4 (2004), 620-647; Laura A. Watt, “Re-Imagining Joshua Tree: Applying Environmental History to National Park Interpretation,” Journal of the West 50:3 (2011), 15-20.

[2] Philip Garone, The Fall and Rise of the Wetlands of California’s Great Central Valley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).

[3] Sean Kheraj, Inventing Stanley Park: An Environmental History (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013).


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