In This Is Our Land, Cody Ferguson challenges the association of modern environmentalism with white, middle-class liberalism. Seeking to elevate it above the culture wars that have defined American politics for the last half century, he argues that many influential late-twentieth-century environmental organizations were citizens’ groups that drew upon traditional American values and expanded the democratic sphere to include ordinary people. Motivated by a desire to protect property and livelihoods, to involve the public in making and interpreting new legislation, and to obtain citizen oversight in regulatory enforcement, Ferguson’s environmentalists built coalitions across economic, cultural, and political lines in ways that set them apart from earlier environmental reformers.
Ferguson’s work is divided into three case studies, each of which examines a different organization and facet of this movement and its shared democratic ethos. Each case study spans two chapters that detail formative years and organizational evolution in response to changing circumstances. Ferguson’s first case study focuses on the Northern Plains Resource Council (NPRC), which was formed in Montana in the early 1970s by conservative ranchers and liberal environmentalists seeking to protect the region from strip mining. [End Page 121] Ferguson’s account shows how diverse stakeholders were able to unite to challenge energy and environmental policies at the local, state, and federal levels.
Ferguson’s second case study follows the Southwest Environmental Service (SES) as it was formed in Arizona during the mid-1970s and adapted to the political climate of the 1980s. Although SES was funded by grants and driven by a board of educated professionals, Ferguson argues that its involvement of citizens in public planning and its female-friendly hiring practices aided in democratizing public life and aligned it with other grassroots organizations. It also reflected a diversification of tactics as industry sought to circumvent the landmark environmental legislation of the 1970s and environmental organizations responded by adding scientific, economic, and legal expertise to their toolbox. By building a bridge between experts, policymakers, and affected people, SES was able to develop land trusts to preserve open space and force recalcitrant copper smelters to comply with new air-quality standards.
Ferguson’s third case study, which might be of especial interest to Kentucky readers, examines Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM), an organization formed in the early 1970s to protect communities in northeastern Tennessee from strip mining. Drawing heavily on Chad Montrie’s To Save the Land and People (2003), Ferguson situates SOCM within a broader Appalachian resistance movement that empowered people through research, organizational networking, and complex committee structures, which allowed geographically diverse participation. Like the NPRC and SES, SOCM, too, built upon past successes to develop a broader environmental agenda, which included resisting mega-landfills during the 1990s.
Ferguson elegantly weaves together the histories of citizens’ environmental organizations from across the country. Moving seamlessly between regions and policy levels, This Is Our Land mirrors the experiences of the organizers in Ferguson’s case studies as they sought to build collective power by elevating local concerns onto national and global stages. Conspicuously absent from Ferguson’s account, [End Page 122] however, are case studies involving communities of color. While he acknowledges their importance in the environmental justice movement and briefly mentions the involvement of African Americans in SOCM, nonwhite leaders do not have a strong voice within his work. Although this might be a function of his chosen geography, the omission raises questions about the extent to which modern environmentalism actually transcends racial divides. Despite this, Ferguson’s work provides an accessible introductory guide for those seeking to understand the role of modern grassroots environmentalism in American democracy.
EILEEN HAGERMAN is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Maine with a concentration in environmental history. Her dissertation research focuses on the back-to-the-land, sustainable agriculture, and food democracy movements of the 1970s and 1980s. Her article on strip mining in western Kentucky will appear in the Spring 2017 issue...