A Conservation Conversation with Mark Fiege and the Environments & Societies Colloquium

As the Environments & Societies Colloquium began its programming for the spring quarter, it has continued to draw not only a core group of dedicated graduate students and faculty, but also a diverse number of visitors to each meeting. Among familiar faces from history, English, and comparative literature departments are attendees from across and beyond the university, affirming the colloquium’s importance to a cross-disciplinary exchange around environmental issues.

The invited speaker and guest for the first E&S meeting of the spring quarter on April 8 was Mark Fiege, a historian on leave from Colorado State University in spring 2015 to serve as the Stegner Chair at Montana State University.

The piece that Fiege shared, “Elegant Conservation: Recovering Community, Connectivity, and Continuity in a Time of Unprecedented Uncertainty,” is part of a work in progress that he is writing with his collaborator, Ben Bobowski, the Chief of Resource Stewardship at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

Fiege argues for the vital importance of what he calls “elegant” conservation in contrast to “command-and-control” conservation techniques, focusing on key figures from the history of conservation in the United States. The former would take into account humans and non-humans, as well as try to come up with the simplest, long-term solutions, while the latter prefers brute force and immediate resolution such as the use of pesticides or the culling of predators.

One of Fiege’s examples of elegant conservation techniques comes from the era of the New Deal, when Robert Marshall, forester and wilderness activist, offers “federal government expertise and aid while respecting Navajo autonomy and the tribe’s prerogative to make its own decisions. Fiege also connects American implementation of command-and-control conservation to its history as a fledgling country attempting to “suppress insurrections and impose order on its far-flung landscapes and borders.”

Stacy Roberts, a doctoral candidate in history, spoke as the graduate student commentator, and Diana Davis, associate professor in history, spoke as the faculty commentator. Both questioned Fiege’s use of the word “elegant” to describe the kind of conservation for which he is advocating. Both argued that the ability to “see the world whole,” as Fiege writes, is a valuable and essential facet of wilderness management, but questioned what “elegant” conservation techniques would actually look like in practice.

“Conservation is a deeply political process,” Davis reminded the audience. Accordingly, one of the topics of discussion was the contexts in which Fiege would share work like this outside of the university. When the audience has included activists in the conservation movement and National Park Service employees, there is greater tension and a sense of high stakes in the room than when the audience is entirely academics. Louis Warren, the W. Turrentine Jackson Professor of Western U.S. History and director of Environments & Societies, expressed interest in how the term “elegant,” like the terms “green” and “sustainable” before it, might become inappropriately used because of its vague definition. Fiege’s opponents, Warren jokingly observed, will come out with their own book titled The Elegant Bulldozer.

All jokes aside, however, the bulldozer does begin to look like an ideal and useful counterpoint to the “elegance” of the conservation methods Fiege highlights in moments of American history.

The fascinating discussions provoked by the Environments & Societies Colloquium will continue when Gerry Canavan comes to campus to discuss his piece “Science Fiction and Utopia in the Anthropocene” on April 29.

– Katja Jylkka, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in English