- Nature's Return: An Environmental History of Congaree National Park by Mark Kinzer
Located southeast of Columbia, South Carolina, Congaree National Park has never attracted the visitor numbers associated with larger, more recognizable parks such as Yellowstone or Yosemite. Likewise, historians have overlooked the park, despite its role in preserving the largest remaining stand of old-growth floodplain forest on the East Coast. The first monograph on Congaree National Park, Nature's Return: An Environmental History of Congaree National Park, provides a welcome addition to the historiography of national parks and American environmental history.
Moving chronologically, author Mark Kinzer traces the history of human impact on the area now known as Congaree National Park. The Native American presence was light and seasonal, Kinzer notes, with the most intensive activity coming during the Mississippian era and in the form of firing the forests to remove underbrush and drive game. Colonial Americans raised livestock and cut cordwood during the eighteenth century; they also grew indigo, corn, cotton, and rice. As Kinzer argues, however, plantation agriculture was never intensive because of the precarious nature of planting crops in a floodplain. Relying heavily on estate sales, deeds, plats, and ledger books, Kinzer demonstrates that Congaree plantations served primarily as auxiliary enterprises for Lowcountry elites interested in supplying their more lucrative lands near the coast. Two planters, James Adams Sr. and William Weston III, attempted to reclaim the swamp but failed, leaving only some old dikes as a legacy.
Kinzer devotes the last two of his eight chapters to the impact of industrial logging on the park. Though some South Carolinians (most notably James A. Peterkin) conducted small-scale timber operations along the Congaree River during the late nineteenth century, heavy logging came with Francis Beidler's arrival in the 1890s. A wealthy lumber magnate from Chicago, Beidler formed the Santee River Cypress Company with partner B. F. Ferguson to harvest old-growth bald cypress on the Santee and Congaree Rivers. Having halted its operation after World War I, the Beidler family began logging its Congaree lands again in the late 1960s. This move sparked a grassroots movement to save the Congaree forest. Surprisingly, Kinzer devotes minimal attention to this movement, which led to the creation of Congaree Swamp National Monument in 1976, redesignated Congaree National Park in 2003.
Kinzer's failure to include the post-1960s history of the park is perhaps the one weakness of this otherwise well-researched and detailed study of Congaree National Park's human and environmental past. General readers may find the meticulous attention to land use and property transactions tedious, but Kinzer makes clear that this material is not simply academic. The National Park Service Organic Act tasked the National Park Service (NPS) with preserving nature "unimpaired," but how can this goal be best accomplished in a park that has a [End Page 137] history of human impact? Moreover, how can the NPS determine whether historic disturbances were the result of human or natural forces? These are the questions that inform Nature 's Return. And for this reason, Kinzer balances archival research with tree-ring and soil studies, forestry reports, and personal observations to provide answers. The evidence is not always clear, Kinzer admits, but he argues that natural disturbance has contributed more to the Congaree's forest composition than has human disturbance, and visitors looking for a "window onto the past" are likely to find one, even if "it is one with a number of wavy and clouded panes" (p. 192).