Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Laura Alice Watt's "The Paradox of Preservation"

Laura Alice Watt is Professor of Environmental History and Policy at Sonoma State University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore, and reported the following:
Page 99 in The Paradox of Preservation is the first in Chapter 4, titled “Landscapes as (Potential) Wilderness.” Because of the title page formatting, it contains minimal text—only a paragraph or so, describing how inhabited, managed, and modified the southern end of the Point Reyes peninsula, located about an hour north of San Francisco, had been since Anglo settlement in the 1850s (not to mention impacts from Spanish/Mexican and Native American residents in prior decades and centuries, respectively). Yet in 1976, most of this area was formally declared to be federally designated wilderness.

Despite its brevity, this page highlights a theme throughout the book of shifting definitions—of what “counts” as historic, what “counts” as wild—and how our expectations for parks shape what we see, and how we interpret what we see, in those landscapes. Once a place that for over 150 years supported numerous working dairies and beef ranches, as well as other crops, military outposts, and paved roads, is identified as wilderness, our perception and understanding of it changes; suddenly historic ranches no longer seem to “belong” here, and traces of human uses (other than tourism) become problems to remove or fix, rather than indications of residents’ relationship with the places they live and work. Once it is managed as wilderness, it gradually becomes one.

Page 99 further reflects the larger reality of the book’s title: that preservation paradoxically changes that which is preserved, just as pickling fresh cucumbers changes them into something very different. Yet these changes often remain invisible to visitors, taking for granted that what they see in a preserved landscape is “how it has always been.” They also frequently remain invisible to park staff, whose management decisions further reshape the place to meet our expectations of what a park “should be.” And if the object of preservation is a working agricultural landscape, this process can gradually disconnect the residents from their own homes, bringing their presence into question and sacrificing their needs to the illusion of untouched nature and pristine wilderness. By making this process more visible, this book aims to help make conservation efforts more inclusive of people in protected landscapes—arguing there is no need for a zero-sum game of sustainable agriculture versus wilderness in parks; there is room, and an essential role, for both.
Learn more about The Paradox of Preservation at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue