In 1960 the National Park Service (NPS) managed just one National Seashore or Lakeshore. By 1980 the number had grown to over a dozen. The new park units differed from most other sites administered by the NPS. Not only were they close to population centers, they also had diverse patterns of land use and ownership. Many were working landscapes, home to agriculture, businesses, and other industry. Park Service leadership had limited experience overseeing these types of places. NPS had long relied on a model that prized federal government ownership. As the number of new parks increased, the agency had a decision to make. Would it embrace a more collaborative approach, or would it continue to pursue a top-down, visitor-centric model, one which, all too often, failed to recognize residents and landowners as essential partners in cultural and natural resource stewardship? Laura Alice Watt’s The Paradox of Preservation addresses this question through a case study of the Point Reyes National Seashore in California. Watt’s text is essential reading for scholars seeking to understand the trajectory of conservation and historic preservation practice in the twentieth-century United States. It explains how Point Reyes was transformed from a working landscape of mostly privately owned lands into a protected area almost exclusively under government control. Where once dairy and cattle ranches dominated, now wilderness areas home to Tule elk took hold. Seashore supporters had promised a different type of park, one that could evolve over time with mixed ownership patterns; instead, the opposite came to be true—federal title of most properties on the peninsula. Watt begins by asking readers to consider the meaning behind terms such as “landscape” and “preservation,” emphasizing that the decision to protect a particular site is fraught with political, social, and economic ramifications. Far from being neutral, parks are charged spaces, where the values of those seeking to preserve a landscape frequently collide with the beliefs and livelihoods of other individuals and communities with ties to a particular place. Designated by Congress in 1962, Point Reyes National Seashore ignited controversy well before President John F. Kennedy signed its authorizing legislation into law. Officials from the Department of the Interior and the NPS asserted that development of the proposed National Seashore was imminent, a charge that longtime residents and landowners disputed. Indeed, they countered, it was federal interest that was driving up land sales. Furthermore, the NPS failed to engage local stakeholders adequately, setting an unfortunate pattern that would continue, Watt argues, for decades to come. Significantly, the final Point Reyes bill lacked the same sort of joint local-federal zoning that had defined the landmark 1961 Cape Cod National Seashore legislation. The omission proved critical. The NPS would be the dominant force in decision making within Seashore boundaries, alienating those who had lived in and shaped the landscape over generations. Watt emphasizes how preservation can disconnect residents from working landscapes. For most of American conservation history, preserving a place has meant freezing it in time, obscuring human history or only leaving a few small and selective traces visible. In the case of Point Reyes, NPS often chose to pursue just such an approach. Cattle and dairy ranchers had been assured they could continue to manage the land as they had for generations, yet their practices, which had so shaped the Seashore, now came into conflict with NPS norms. An oyster farm with a long history also ignited controversy, leading to a bitter legal and political showdown. Cooperation and trust proved elusive, especially given the peripatetic nature of many Park Service employees. The story of Point Reyes National Seashore is, in many ways, a cautionary tale. Preservation, as Watt emphasizes, is never a disinterested act. In the American context, it has struggled to be applied to working landscapes, creating frustration for both federal land managers and residents. Historians interested in building on Watt’s important insights might consider a transnational comparative lens, looking at NPS efforts alongside those in other countries that have perhaps been more successful. Future researchers could also delve into the Park Service itself, exploring the internal debates that occurred over how to manage places like Point Reyes. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 1, 2018
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