Monday, December 25, 2017

The redwood wars

The latest American Historical Review has a review by Neil Maher of Darren Speece's Defending Giants: The Redwood Wars and the Transformation of American Environmental Politics (U. Washington Press, 2017). Some excerpts:
Speece begins with the conflict’s prehistory, describing the rise in the region during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of a “corporatist” logging industry that was permitted, with encouragement from the California Board of Forestry, to self-regulate cutting practices on privately owned land. Redwood preservation during this period most often involved elite groups, such as San Francisco’s Bohemian Club, purchasing groves from timber companies. The next four chapters, which jump to the late twentieth century and the “Redwood Wars” themselves, follow local activists and their two-pronged strategy—involving lawsuits and direct action campaigns—that all but halted old-growth logging on the North Coast and, in doing so, weakened the corporatist reign over redwoods. The legal stalemate that resulted, Speece concludes, fostered “the Deal” orchestrated by President Bill Clinton, which not only protected the old-growth redwoods of the North Coast’s Headwaters Forest but also laid the groundwork for additional protection of endangered landscapes nationwide.
Defending Giants is about more than environmentalists, however, and in order to give voice to the lumber executives, loggers, and lawyers who also serve as foot soldiers in this conflict, Speece embraces a diverse set of historical methodologies. To understand the grassroots beneath his tall trees, he scours local newspapers, digs into unprocessed archival material from North Coast environmental groups, and, perhaps most importantly, conducts dozens of oral interviews with activists, timber workers, lumber company managers, and forest policy bureaucrats. Speece also skillfully navigates a torrent of legal cases initiated by environmentalists to halt redwood logging, and tracks a wide range of timber policy proposals through the hallways of capitols in both Sacramento and Washington, D.C. Finally, he carefully balances his narrative by analyzing the annual reports of the Pacific Lumber Company, which owned these redwood forests, of its successor, the Maxxam Corporation, and of several other timber businesses from the Pacific Northwest. The result, which successfully blends social, political, legal, and business history, will interest more than environmental historians. 
Speece’s social and legal history, in particular, support his two main arguments. The first is that modern environmentalism, which has often been portrayed as a white, middle-class movement concerned primarily with preserving nature, is in fact much more diverse in both its composition and concerns. “Some were homesteaders, some were shop owners, some were lawyers, some were teachers, some were loggers” (7), Speece explains of the redwood activists, yet most believed that logging had an important role to play within the North Coast’s economy and culture. “Their history thus demonstrates the necessity of studying environmentalism as a movement with multiple priorities, goals, strategies, and origins,” he writes (7). The second argument of Defending Giants is that the legal logjam that resulted from the Redwood Wars transformed environmental politics nationally by expanding the power of the executive branch—in this case during Bill Clinton’s presidency—to regulate natural resource extraction on privately owned land. “The final deal” negotiated by President Clinton between activists and timber companies on the North Coast, Speece concludes, “helped transform the way land conflicts were handled, not only in Redwood Country but on all private land across the nation” (249). 
Readers will be thoroughly convinced by Speece’s claim that the Redwood Wars illustrate a deeper understanding of the modern environmental movement. The working-class locals, women, and even loggers who fought to preserve not only the North Coast’s ecology but also its economy and culture clearly indicate a more diverse and ideologically complex movement, one that both fed into and reflected the contemporaneous environmental justice movement. These same readers, though, may question Speece’s second argument, that the Redwood Wars themselves transformed national environmental politics. There is no doubt that “the Deal” orchestrated by Clinton augmented executive power to regulate privately owned land while also paving the way for similar preservation efforts, based on implementation of the Endangered Species Act (1973), across the nation. But Speece’s claim that Clinton’s executive interventions during the Redwood Wars were transformative precisely because they “were designed to create compromise” and involved “collaborative tools” seems overstated (262). At least since the early twentieth century presidents have, in the name of compromise and collaboration, preserved and conserved landscapes: Teddy Roosevelt promoted the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park as a means of providing both water for San Francisco residents and recreational opportunities for tourists, and Franklin Roosevelt endorsed a similar compromise when his New Deal purchased sub-marginal farmland and transformed it into parks.

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