restricted access 3. Of Environments and Landscapes
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3 Of Environments and Landscapes It would be hard to imagine a worse place for an oil spill. Ecologist John Wiens describing the Exxon Valdez spill Kosciusko Island, Southeast Alaska, August 2004 In the summer of 2004, I traveled to Kosciusko Island located off the shore of Prince of Wales Island in Alaska, in the traditional territories of the Heinya kwaan and Takjik’aan kwaan Tlingit people (see Map 2). I was invited to join the Kosciusko Island Rock Art Project, sponsored by Tongass National Forest and part of a newly envisioned Heritage Expedition—a way to undertake cultural resource fieldwork and draw on ecotourism support.1 Tongass had been described to me as one of Alaska’s wildest landscapes, and I was excited to have an opportunity to visit the region. On my flight to the island, my mood shifted from excitement to despair as I watched the thick canopy of temperate rain forest give way to vast timber clear-cuts and entire mountaintops denuded of trees.2 Driving over Prince of Wales Island was equally disturbing: heavy rains had washed soils down slopes, and mile upon mile of slash piles and heavy undergrowth dominated most views. I could not help wondering how such seemingly destructive logging practices affected the health of these vital forest systems, the watershed and the soils, as well as the habitats of forest-dependent animals. When I shared my concerns with others on the trip, including a member of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, I was taken aback when she enthusiastically supported logging on the island.3 From my naive perspective, I had mistakenly equated Native peoples’ interests with conservation approaches. My understanding of Tongass National Forest now encompasses a broader view, one that sees it as both a social and a contested landscape. The forest includes a complicated patchwork of federal, state, Native, and private lands. Stakeholders include land-management agencies, industry representatives, Alaska Native groups, scientists, locals, and environmental NGOs, each with a different approach to conservation, connections to place, and ideas of what Of Environments and Landscapes / 43 constitutes environmental impacts. Natural resource policy expert Martin Nie (2006:386) has described Tongass as “perhaps the most controversial national forest in the country.” Although stakeholders today have collaborated to assess climate-change vulnerability and define its social, ecological, and economic costs, at the time of our project, forest managers, private industry actors, and legislators were engaged in protracted debates over forest management initiatives and practices and timber quotas (see, e.g., Beier et al. 2009; Durbin 2005).4 Yet, our project existed in isolation of these larger contexts.5 But if you consider federal legislation passed in 2014 now provides seventy thousand acres of the forest to Sealaska to log, including a large area of Kosciusko Island, then the project takes on a different hue. Some have even charged Sealaska with circumventing environmental laws and regulations and masking unsustainable logging practices within terms of Indigenous rights to resources (Dombrowski 2002). Map 2. Alaska with principal field sites, map by Bill Nelson. 44 / Critical Theory and the Anthropology of Heritage Landscapes Whatever the case, it is important to position heritage landscapes within a wider frame. Viewing the project in this way would require understanding the histories of individuals, institutions, and agencies adapting to changes in the political, cultural , and economic landscape as well as how competing interests from industry, tourism, public land needs, and a regional boom-and-bust economy intersect. Ignoring the forest politics comes at a cost. Over the course of my fieldwork in Kosciusko, I came to realize that our engagement with heritage landscapes (i.e., management, interpretation, conservation) requires more than an inventory, description , or analysis of its cultural or natural resources. It requires attending to the complicated (and often occluded) histories and contemporary frictions and tensions. If we know that forests (or landscapes) are “deeply cultural and political” (Braun 2002:8), then how do we position them within a wider frame, with an acute attentivenesstotheirsociopoliticalentanglementsandhistoricalantecedents?This chapter explores this question, looking specifically at contexts related to heritage landscapes intersecting with human-caused disasters and climate-change/sustainability initiatives. Drawing from two research projects—the cultural landscapes of the central Gulf of Alaska and the Altai Mountains of Mongolia—I situate these sites within their broader sociopolitical contexts to show how heritage landscapes are central to and mediate contemporary debates on sustainable development, climate change, resource depletion, and disasters. As I argue here, how heritage landscapes are interpreted have consequences...