IAN TYRELL. Crisis of a Wasteful Nation: Empire and Conservation in Theodore Roosevelt’s America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015. Pp. 386. $40.00. Hardback. ISBN: 9780226197760.
LOUIS WARREN. The Hunter’s Game: Poachers and Conservationists in Twentieth-Century America, 1-70. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. Pp. 250. $26.00. Paperback. ISBN: 9780300080865.
The monographs chosen for this week address topics related to the history of the Progressive Era conservation movement, from roughly the 1880s to the 1920s. Excerpts from Louis Warren’s refurbished dissertation, The Hunter’s Game, use the theme of wildlife to explore the transmogrification of areas known as “local commons” on the US frontier into “public commons” that are managed by state and national authorities. In doing so, he follows the lead of his dissertation supervisor, William Cronon, by foregrounding the myriad cultural conflicts that infused contestations over land use in specific case studies. By contrast, Ian Tyrrell’s latest book, Crisis of a Wasteful Nation, offers a revisionist interpretation of the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Era’s most prominent political advocate in the US. Tyrrell explores the global dimensions of Roosevelt’s domestic conservation policies by linking them to projects in other nation-states as well as American imperial expansion. In doing so, he attempts to rescue the American “state” from its poor reputation as an “impersonal, bureaucratic, and oppressive entity,” (249).
In selected chapters of The Hunter’s Game, Warren unpacks individual conflicts that occurred in rural, American localities like northwestern Wyoming and western Pennsylvania when these regions were penetrated by new markets. In doing so, he explores a range of social, political, and economic factors that informed how these conflicts unfolded, and how the U.S. government dealt with them. He demonstrates how “numerous local commons regimes” were at odds, (9); and he how these conflicting ideas of land use manifested themselves in a variety of struggles: between native elk hunters and white posse settlers; Italian-immigrant poachers and Anglo landowners; and rural hill-farmers and urban sport-hunters. In all of these examples, Warren foregrounds the role of state and local authorities in arbitrating immediate conflict and, ultimately, in re-defining ideas of common property during the Progressive Era. He concludes America’s western past is, essentially, the story of “the local commons giving way to the extra local, the community surrendering [its] authority in resource allocation to state or national agents,” (11). The result is that culturally specific assumptions about “proper” land use became enshrined in US conservation policy and law for the good of an abstract public, yet often to the detriment of a real local community.
In analyzing local conflicts in remote areas of the American landscape, Warren investigates what Tyrrell refers to as America’s “inland empire” during the Progressive Era conservation movement. Tyrrell takes a much broader focus in Crisis, seeing conservation as a transnational movement fueled as much by the unique experiences of US imperialism, colonialism, and “environmental diplomacy” as by any domestic affairs. While Warren touched upon how domestic conservation efforts were encouraged by growing fears of a depleted or abused environment, this alarmist Jeremiad of wasted natural resources becomes a central focus in Tyrrell’s work. He demonstrates how a cast of globetrotting elites—like Gifford Pinchot, chief of the Division of Forestry from 1898 to 1910—were informed by two major factors: their international experiences in places like the Philippines, Mexico, and France and by “anxieties over the rise of industrial society,” (135). In sections on natural resources like wood, minerals, crops, energy, water, soil, and coal, Tyrrell paints a picture of the American conservation state being led by its predecessors in the Western World, places like Canada and Sweden, which surpassed America in terms of national park space (24).
Taken together, The Hunter’s Game and Crisis of a Wasteful Nation demonstrate how the policies of the Progressive Era conservation movement protected land for some individuals while simultaneously shoring up the powers of others. In one case, the American nation-state was shoring up domestic and international power by looking both inward and outward. Its leaders were looking inward through domestic conservation initiatives like the creation of the National Parks and the passage of the Antiquities Act of 1906. They were looking outward through international collaboration with their colonial acquisitions and their European contemporaries, countries like Germany, which shared America’s anxiety over a besieged forest landscape. In the other case, local constituencies of land-users looked to the federal government’s internal conservation efforts to shore up their personal powers. They asked the government to legislate against the land rights of those people whom they deemed undesirable. In both scenarios, new regimes of power prevailed in the name of environmental protection. Saving the land for someone’s use often meant taking it away from someone else.
*This post is part of a ongoing series of précis, or short reviews. Each précis is written on the weekly readings for my course, HIS 202H: Claiming Land and Identity: Sovereignty and Environment in Native and Settler Societies, taught by Louis S. Warren.