Pursuing a regional approach to history puts twenty-first-century historians in the strange position of unconsciously echoing their nineteenth-century predecessors, though with differing goals. When historian Frederick Jackson Turner pronounced the Mid-Atlantic region “typically American,” he was of course intent upon divining an elusive national character, not currently a goal of historians. But Turner’s frontier thesis emphasized geography and region in a way that would still be recognizable to environmental historians today. For example, Turner’s observations concerning the Mid-Atlantic region hinged upon the physical geography of place, property ownership, and use of land. He noted that the Mid-Atlantic was a doorway for emigrants from all of Europe, who “entered by New York harbor” and were then intermixed; that the residents were “rooted in material prosperity” based on the land; and that the region, “with no barriers to shut out its frontiers from its settled regions, and with a system of connecting waterways,” was uniquely situated as a mechanism for the admixture of peoples. In this way, the Mid-Atlantic served [End Page 409] as a microcosm of Turner’s conception of the frontier as a churning machine that intermingled people from regions and nations to create an essentially American temperament.1
Putting aside the intent behind Turner’s “typically American” label, it is still possible to apply that judgment to the environmental history of the Mid-Atlantic. The region possesses the most significant concentration of urban centers in the nation, a long history of extractive industry, the legacies of early water-powered industrialization, and the remnants of some of the worst pollution disasters in American history. Along with those built environments, the region contains extensive forests with a long history of human management, complex river systems and bays, diverse colonial and pre-Columbian pasts, agricultural systems both past and current, and biological complexity in fields, forests, rivers, mountains, and shores. This diversity does not make the region unique—but it does mean that almost all of the major themes of environmental history appear in the places roughly bounded by the Atlantic, the 36th parallel, the western edge of the Appalachians, and the northern reaches of the Adirondacks.
The environmental matters covered in this article have long been under discussion by scholars, but the emergence of the Marcellus shale issue has served to refocus attention on these topics, some of which had seemed to slip at least slightly from the attention of the field of environmental history. I am particularly interested in two intertwined approaches: environmental history that details the politics, policy, and popular consciousness that shape decisionmaking; and environmental history that explores the impacts of those decisions on nature and landscapes. I refer to these approaches as the history of modern environmental politics and the history of human impact on place. The distinction here lies in what the scholar initially sets out to study: (a) a political process, philosophy, or force by which environmental decisions are made, or (b) a place, landscape, topic, or species that may be transformed by those decisions. Despite this attempt at differentiation, much of the environmental history of the region remains intertwined: no matter the locale, tugging at any thread in the weave of environmental issues eventually pulls on the entire mess. Whether by examining politicians, activists, legislatures, cities, markets, corporations, landscapes, forests, or fish, the histories examined in this essay demonstrate that studying environmental topics in the Mid-Atlantic region involves a bewildering welter of forces and effects, no matter the label. [End Page 410]
Histories of Modern Environmental Politics
Multiple works published in the last decade have focused on individual politicians or historical actors with connections to the Mid-Atlantic, with the goal of explaining their connections to larger issues in environmental politics. Char Miller produced an early example of this with his work on Gifford Pinchot, arguing that the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service “was at the fore-front of those seeking international agreements to check environmental devastation.” From an outdoorsy rest cure in the Saranac Lake region of upstate New York to...