Sunday, May 11, 2014

Managing the Mountains

H-Environment recently re-posted their roundtable review of Sara Gregg's Managing the Mountains: Land Use Planning, the New Deal, and the Creation of a Federal Landscape in Appalachia (Yale UP, 2010). There's a lot here on the interaction of cultural-environmental attitudes with property rights, local government, and more.

Jacob Hamblin, for instance, writes in the Introduction that Gregg:
takes us through this tumultuous and complicated history, demonstrating how these areas changed under new land use regimes. Many of them today wear the false appearance of being untouched by humans. In telling the story, Gregg showcases the goals of federal planners and the abilities of locals to influence the outcomes of policy. She focuses in particular on the mountains of Virginia and Vermont, two regions with distinct traditions and histories but with a number of geological and economic similarities. The differences in locals’ abilities to control outcomes were astonishingly sharp. How could it be that some major federal projects were halted by local resistance, as happened in Vermont, while elsewhere the people were virtually ignored, as when Virginians had to move against their will to make way for Shenandoah National Park?
Rather than focus on cultural differences, Gregg explores structural ones that determined how well local people were able to control outcomes. She sees the outstanding factor as the organization of political systems. The small township system of Vermont allowed locals routinely to influence outcomes in regional planning decisions, whereas the large, dispersed areas governed by counties in Virginia gave individuals only a tenuous connection to decision‐making.
Reviewer Geoffrey Buckley writes:
Why were rural Virginians left out of the planning process during these critical years? Was it simply a case of political marginalization? Gregg offers us a valuable clue when she describes how government researchers and others differentiated between Virginia and Vermont when it came to farming strategies: “Whereas in Virginia local observers generally interpreted the self‐sufficient practices of mountain farmers to be a maladjustment to contemporary conditions, many New Englanders portrayed the straitened farm economy as Yankee frugality, a laudable symbol of independence and self‐reliance.” (p. 49) In other words, “practicality,” when exercised by sturdy Vermont farmers was viewed “as an asset,” but in the hills and hollows of Virginia it was taken as a “sign of backwardness.” What are we to make of such a distinction? Perhaps it suggests that while both Vermont and Virginia may be considered part of the Appalachian physiographic province, only Virginia is truly part of “Appalachia,” that socially constructed invention of the late nineteenth century. Why does this matter? In central and southern Appalachia, stereotyping mountain farmers as backward, lazy, and fatalistic has long served the needs of land speculators and industrialists, facilitating the transfer of property rights from small landholders to large corporations. In some sections, the scale of the land transfer has been breathtaking. In the mineral--‐rich central portion of the region, for example, a landmark study conducted by the Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force (ALOTF) in 1984 discovered that three‐quarters of the surface rights and nearly four‐fifths of the mineral rights in an 80‐county of six states – West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama – was controlled by absentee landlords. For residents of Appalachia, relinquishing the rights to one’s land is, as the saying goes, as old as the hills.  

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