Where Land and Water Meet: A Western
Nancy Langston, University of Washington Press, 2003
230 pp.; $26.95 (cloth)
2005: In a field full of cautionary tales about humanity's
uncanny ability to bring about totally unintentional environmental
circumstances, Nancy Langston's scholarship is unique. In her first
book, Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares (1996), a sympathetic
yet critical examination of forest management in Oregon's Blue Mountain
National Forest, Langston moved beyond the tragic stock-narrative
of environmental history by sketching a program of practical management
solutions to the often disastrous interactions between humans and
the non-human world. Work to account for complexity, Langston urged
her readers. Her latest book, Where Land and Water Meet: A Western
Landscape Transformed, is in many ways the second chapter in
a larger project. Langston, an environmental historian and professor
of forest ecology and management at the University of Wisconsin
has produced a careful cultural, social, and natural history of
human management of wetlands in eastern Oregon, specifically the
riparian areas of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The book
is also a lesson in what Langston calls "pragmatic adaptive
management." To the theme of complexity, Langston adds conflict
as a necessary component of sustainable natural resource management.
Birders and sportsmen familiar with great basin wildlife know Malheur's
marshes quite well; egrets, ducks, Canadian geese, herons, and trout,
are but a few of the animals that depend on the refuge's riparian
marshlands during the year. Langston traces the history of this
landscape from the arrival of the first white settlers near the
end of the 19th century to the present day, identifying two overlapping
eras of land management: cattle ranching and federal wildlife management.
In both eras, Malheur residents tried to engineer the wetlands to
produce different empires. Ranchers shaped the land to create imperial
cattle concerns. Henry Miller, of Miller and Lux, set up an operation
in the basin, while Peter French and Hugh Glenn used the marshes
and surrounding area for their P Ranch. These ranchers turned their
visions of cattle empires into reality by manipulating the wetlands
and the flow of water across them to create more and more property
for cattle grazing.
Ironically, the story of federal refuge management is not terribly
different. Refuge officials, like ranchers, were equally single-minded
in their manipulation of the environment. Once the federal government
wrested control of Malheur Lake and the Donner and Blitzen River
from ranchers, creating the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, managers
tried to create an "empire of ducks," a vision based on
their romantic notions of the cattle empires of the "old West."
Refuge managers used complex science to engineer the wetlands into
"better" marshes capable of "producing" more
of what the marshes were famous for, ducks and trout. The result,
no surprise to environmental historians, was a weird hybrid landscape,
part human, part natural. Beavers were trapped out, their dams replaced
with concrete. Riverbank willows were eradicated, planted, and eradicated
again. Predators were systematically eliminated and then reintroduced.
Throughout the story, Langston provides a nuanced account of the
cultural context in which the people of Malheur operated, drawing
a direct line between their perceptions of the land and their actions.
At the heart of this story are the power relations between competing
social groups looking to control the wetlands and dictate land-use
policy. In the late 19th century and the early 20th, ranchers had
the upper hand, controlling the vast majority of property in the
basin. By the 1930s, after an intense struggle between cattle barons
and refuge managers, the balance of power shifted, and the federal
government was increasingly able to shape land-use at Malheur. Both
groups tried to eliminate each other's influence in the basin, yet
at no point was the power held by either ranchers or refuge managers
very secure. Throughout Malheur's history, ranchers and managers
had to gain popular support for their policies. Small farmers in
the basin, urban bird-watchers in Portland, and sportsman throughout
the mountain West felt as if they had a stake in Malheur as well.
Both ranchers and wildlife managers tailored their message to these
groups, seeking to build coalitions that might tip the balance of
power one way or the other.
This power struggle provides the story with dramatic tension, but
it also provides Langston's argument with necessary analytical tension.
Where Land and Water Meet shows how sustainable management
was only possible when no one single social group monopolized the
landscape and its use. "For generations," writes Langston,
"first ranchers and then refuge managers were able to gather
enough power so that they did not need to acknowledge viewpoints
other than their own" (p. 9). The solution to such narrow-minded
management practices and their resultant disastrous landscapes,
Langston maintains, is conflict. The story of Malheur teaches us
that "both environmental lawsuits and environmental change
forced open a door through which new stories, new perspectives,
and new assumptions could enter" (p. 9). Conflict is the key
to successful management policies. "For many people conflict
is a dirty word," Langston writes, "yet conflicts among
different users of Malheur Lake Basin eventually improved refuge
management [and] disrupted the hold of narrow orthodoxies on resource
management" (p. 9). Only by allowing for conflict, for the
messy social reality of multiple users, perspectives, and voices,
can we hope to manage the equally messy world of multiple biological,
climatic, and geological forces.
Similar to Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares, Where
Land and Water Meet ends with a fascinating historical essay
and management methodology statement on how restoration ecologists,
wildlife managers, ranchers, sportsmen, local residents, and recreational
tourists might try to work together to manage and account for the
complexity of riparian areas or any other landscape. The last chapter,
"Pragmatic Adaptive Management," is not so much a conclusion,
but a complex suggestion on how management should incorporate conflict
and complexity. Langston draws on the philosophical foundations
of American pragmatism to argue for a "democratic process that
creates a structure for useful conflict" (p. 161). In short,
Langston makes conflict and multiple perspectives necessary for
good management. Only by putting locals, such as ranchers and small
farmers, and non-locals, such as government scientists and environmental
activists, on an equal footing can management succeed.
As a teaching tool for both undergraduate and graduate students,
this book reads wonderfully. Similarly, Where Land and Water
Meet will be easily digestible for those outside of the academy.
It is full of enlightening stories as well as careful and accessible
analysis. Where Land and Water Meet is elegantly concise
at 169 pages, and its six chapters are divided into discussions
of discrete historical episodes or thematic discussions which run
from about two to 15 pages apiece.
For all of the book's strengths, its coverage could have been broader.
Ranchers and federal managers dominate Langston's history of Malheur
because they were the ones that actually determined land-use policies.
Homesteaders, small farmers, and sportsman, for instance, play a
much more marginal role in her analysis because they never secured
control over that process. Yet the reader is left wondering if these
more marginal groups were more than just a constituency to be won
over. Langston argues that ranchers and refuge managers tailored
their rhetoric to appeal to these groups but took little of it from
them. In this story, those in power held the power of cultural production.
The narrative could have withstood further discussion of the role
played by other users. It would not have altered Langston's larger
argument, but it would have provided a more nuanced telling of how
different Oregonians contributed to the creation of the rhetoric
of nature so crucial to the fights over Malheur.
Where Land and Water Meet is a sophisticated yet accessible
analysis of the intersection of nature and culture. More importantly,
however, it moves beyond simple criticisms of the problems inherent
in wildlife and natural resource management and advances a nuanced
program for those invested in land management, outdoor recreation,
farming, ranching, and the environment.
Ryan J. Carey, Department of History, University of Texas at