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Parks Rank?

National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.-Wallace Stegner, 1983

National parks don’t crack the top ten of America’s best ideas.Alan Spears, NPCA

With proposals to hike the admission price to the most popular parks, we are getting a number of turns off of the Stegner quote (like the New York Times’s “Parks of the 1 Percent”). So maybe it would be good to think about this a bit.

Stegner’s over the top characterization of national parks has always seemed a reach (does it really beat out “all men are created equal”? free public schools?), but Spears’s deliberately provocative counter kind of misses the mark too. Spears says there are lots of other better ideas and then cites the 13th and 14th amendments, Civil Rights Act and some other legislative milestones.  But those were not the ideas–those were repair jobs on the imperfectly executed big idea put forth in the Declaration of Independence. So maybe his downgrading of the parks as a big idea was too severe.

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Take me back to Ahwahnee…

A curious op-ed in the New York Times on Yosemite.  Curious because it points in one direction for a long time before suddenly screeching to a stop and pointing in another. Leveraging off of the controversy over Confederate monuments and the renaming of some park facilities necessary during a court battle, Daniel Duane recounts the sad history of Native Americans in California in general and in the valley in particular. Readers can anticipate the point: we should abandon the Euro-Americanisms in the park and revert to names the Ahwahneechee used. And indeed he reaches this point only to ask the descendants and relatives of these people what should be done.  Their recommendation: get federal recognition for the tribe and cut back on visitation. “Renaming, [Bill Leonard, a descendent of Tenaya] said, ‘is not going to make us feel any better or more important — the reality is, most of us could care less what they call things.'” You get the feeling Duane was asked by some reader or editor to ask these people about their views (much as interviews with descendants of slaves and Confederate generals have appeared) and was given an answer kind of at odds with the thrust of the piece, which he dutifully tacked on.

Anyways, the summary of injustices is fair (Duane fortunately relies on a couple of pretty appropriate references) and something more Americans should be aware of. But he kind of lets the Park Service off the hook, hiding their role behind more generic labels of “park officials” and the “federal government.” Pre-1906 management of the valley by the state allowed the Ahwahneechee to stay in the valley, and while demands for inappropriate “Indian” shows and their menial position in Yosemite Park contrasts with what should have been their place as owners and proprietors of the valley, they were at least considered to be legitimate residents of the place. Federal management systematically marginalized and removed Native Americans; that management was, after 1916, the Park Service. There is something disturbing to most Americans to realize that one of the most highly thought-of groups of public servants did in fact behave in such a manner. And it is distressing to many who call the national parks “America’s Greatest Idea” to recognize that it was prefaced on the exclusion of the peoples who had been there first.

Duane also takes a hesitant slap at John Muir, and here GG asks a bit of forgiveness for delving a bit deeper.   Read More…

Utility of Fantasy

Secretary of State Tillerson was quoted this weekend as saying “Racism is evil — it is antithetical to America’s values, it is antithetical to the American idea.” From this, a naive listener might think that racism has been opposed throughout American history, which is of course fantasy. Racism has lived within America for a long time and has been embraced at times (as in the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry in WWII, not to mention slavery and Jim Crow laws) as formal government policy. We like to think we are better than that, and so we think that our good ancestors of course embraced our modern vision of “the American idea.” This all got GG mulling about a far more pedestrian fantasy.

You see, we Americans (well, mainly non-Native Americans) have this fantasy of the empty wilderness continent. The idea that there was Nature, untouched and primeval, that Euro-Americans encountered on invading the New World. Now this is utter and complete balderdash on several levels.  First is the obvious presence of Native Americans in the many millions on the continent; although some rationalize away their impact as somehow treading so lightly on the land that they made no changes, this is absurd.  These peoples were apex predators, and many groups farmed or managed “wild” lands through burning, harvesting, planting and so on such that their absence from many landscapes led to vast changes in ecosystems. There was no “wilderness” for them.

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Golden Rules (book review)

GG has finished reading Mark Kanazawa’a Golden Rules: The Origins of California Water Law in the Gold Rush. It is not light reading (reader should beware that this is part of the University of Chicago’s “Markets and Government in Economic History” series).  In a sense, this book seeks to explain through economic theory how water law (and, to a lesser degree, mining law) evolved as the Gold Rush progressed. In some places this provides real insight, and in others it felt like forcing a straitjacket onto history, but the evidence presented is quite interesting.

Basically there are three main datasets mined here: descriptions of mining activity in the Alta Californian, mining camp rules, and California legal cases. As an economic historian, Kanazawa is clearly hoping for some quantitative data to sink his teeth into, and so the intent is to see trends over the whole of the goldfields.  As such, he is hoping that the record in the Alta Californian and in the available mining camp codes are not biased by the newspaper’s editorial slant or the fragmented record of the early mining camps.

With these in hand and the writer’s interest in economic history, the text generally explores a number of particular cases that suggest general trends, substantiates these with an overview summary analysis of the evidence, and then interprets this in terms of economic theory. For the general reader, the economic arguments can seem to wander into unfamiliar terminology rather too quickly, but the remainder of the book is very accessible. Given that the water rights that emerged from California have come to dominate the West, this is an important work if you want to understand resource law in the West.

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Fire Away!

Time again for “Not Quite In Time–the NY Times again steps on a bar of soap when looking westward”.  Today’s installment concerns an article on fire in the forests of the west and in particular California.  This would be a fine article…were it written about 1975 or so. Reading it today feels like, well, hearing from a cousin that there is now this great amusement park in Orlando called Disneyworld….

OK, so what is the beef? First, this is a retread of an argument that has gone on for at least 40 years over fire suppression in western forests. Prior to the great Yellowstone fires of 1988, the Park Service in particular had decided that fire suppression was bad and the Forest Service was leaning in that direction.  But when blazes on the margin of Yellowstone blew up and some blamed the Park’s “let it burn” policy, that policy was quickly dumped. Nothing had changed on the science side; this was entirely a change driven by public perception.  Heaven only knows how many stories in High Country News covered the various efforts to deal with the twin goals of forest health and protection of communities that discussed this issue with more depth and insight.

But here’s the thing.  In that 40 or 50 years since the science was pretty clear that fire suppression was a problem has come a second recognition, one this Times article utterly missed:

Scientists are still trying to figure out how regularly forests burned in what is now the United States in the centuries before European settlement, but reams of evidence suggest the acreage that burned was more than is allowed to burn today — possibly 20 million or 30 million acres in a typical year. Today, closer to four million or five million acres burn every year.

Scientists say that returning forests to a more natural condition would require allowing 10 million or 15 million acres to burn every year, at least.

“More natural condition”? The thing we know really well at this point is that fire before European settlement was in fact frequently managed by Native Americans, who used it as a tool to control their landscape. That the reporter goes to the Sierra Nevada, where this practice is very well documented, and utterly overlooks this aspect of the problem is troubling.  Because the fires natives set were not the massive conflagrations that we are seeing now; they were more like the management fires set within, say, Sequoia or Yosemite national parks to try and reduce the fuel load without a catastrophic fire. So when the reporter in essence is claiming that big, huge fires were both natural and the pre-Columbian norm, he is creating a fantasy.

This makes it seem like the biologists arguing for these big fires are themselves ignorant of this past behavior (it seems this is unlikely to be a fair evaluation of their knowledge, though you do wonder a bit). Hopefully this is an incorrect impression, but if it is not, then there needs to be some education of the biological community about this.

Here’s the deal: “Pre-Columbian” or “before European settlement” is NOT the same as “natural”. Arguably we know little or nothing about fire in a human-free landscape as no ecosystem in the U.S. has been free of humans since the end of the last Ice Age. There was some work in the lodgepole forest of Yellowstone suggesting that big fires have been the norm there for many centuries, and there is a decent argument to be made that this does not reflect human activity.  But in the Sierra, there is evidence of Indian-created fires from the foothills to treeline.

You’d like to think we could at least advance arguments about land management to somewhere near the current science.  This article makes it seem that widespread recognition of a problem that was really roughly 40 years ago has only just occurred. Can we please move the setting on the time machine to 2017?

Geohero or geochump?

A comment at a meeting GG was at got him to thinking about the popular view of scientists.  The comment was that scientists in the 19th century were heroes for Americans because they helped open up the West, while in the 20th century they were more thorns in the sides of growth.  Of course, this is so oversimplified it collapses quickly: John Wesley Powell, a hero for his explorations of the Colorado River, was viewed with great disdain when he closed claims for public lands. And post-WWII America fell in love with science in many ways. But still, when are scientists lauded and when are they scorned? An interesting pair of cases in the late 1860s and 1870s may shed light on this.

In both cases a scientist running a geological survey became aware of claims of major mineral finds within the area of his survey.  In both cases, the scientist claimed that these finds were incorrect. In both cases, the finds were not economic. Yet in one case, the scientist in question, Clarence King, was lauded, became first director of the USGS, and was viewed as one of the best and brightest America had to offer.  The other, Josiah Whitney, lost his survey and spent years grousing about the outcome. Why the difference?

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Book v Paper

Earth scientists today write papers.  Historians write books (well, they write papers, too, but it seems like that is kind of the installment plan for a book). Having completed a book, GG finds it a little frustrating in an odd way.

Professional papers are, in a way, a conversation. You get enough stuff together to say “Hey, this looks interesting.” Somebody else might then have some other observations and say “No, look, the story is different.”  And you are paying attention because that first paper was just the beginning of a research project.  So your next paper might have your new observations and an attempt to come to grips with those other observations that came up in the interim.  And so on.

A book, on the other hand, is kind of the last word. Unless you are writing a popular first-year textbook, publishers are not terribly interested in revised editions of books. And authors aren’t all that thrilled with the prospect of revisiting the whole of a book. In a way, this means that the kinds of conversation and continual revisiting of issues on a topic doesn’t happen. So there really should be a mindset in writing a book that, well, it is going to be sitting out there a long time without correction.

And so in writing about ongoing research, GG left the door open about what might come down the pike, knowing full well the give-and-take of geoscience research.

But it kind of hurts when you, as a book author, realize there was an oversight.  And there is nothing to do about it but wince. For GG, it was the discovery recently of a book, Golden Rules by Mark Kanazawa, that made him wince. It was published in 2015, plenty of time for its lessons on the creation of prior appropriation water law to be incorporated in GG’s manuscript chapter on hydraulic mining. And a quick skim (GG is reading now) suggests there were many lessons.

Does it really change the basic picture in The Mountains that Remade America? Probably not, particularly as the chapter in question focused more on the environmental damage of hydraulic mining. But gosh,it would have been better with this in it.

The sad realization is that this is probably the first of many oversights to be recognized. Who knew being finished writing a book could invoke regret? [Well, other than book authors].