- Managing Changing Prairie Landscapes
Managing Changing Prairie Landscapes is a collection of eleven articles that came out of a 2003 conference held in Regina on management policies affecting northern prairie ecosystems. This is a good collection of research drawn from authors working in the social, agricultural, and environmental sciences. Introductory and concluding commentaries assemble the individual chapters within a broader framework that assesses the ecological footprint of nineteenth- and twentieth-century economic activities on the northern prairies; raises concerns about the sustainability of these activities, particularly in the context of climate change; and considers the past and present character of natural, social, and manufactured capital across the region. The authors evaluate both government and community-based policy initiatives, such as the Frenchman River Biodiversity Project. Individual chapters speak directly to one another, and early context – including an outline of social capital – provides the foundation necessary for subsequent discussion. In these respects the collection is a successful example of what editors Radenbaugh and Sutter identify as trans-disciplinary (as opposed to interdisciplinary) research and writing.
Chapters 4 through 6 variously consider the changing social landscape and economic well-being of prairie communities at the turn of the twenty-first century. These chapters build on recent works in the social sciences, including Roger Epp and Dave Whitson's Writing Off the Rural West (2001), that explore the encounters among rural communities, governments, and globalization.
Readers of this journal will find that the authors and editors of this collection do not adequately historicize their research, even though chapters on energy trends, endemic bugs, sand hills, and desertification [End Page 164] directly address historical change. Contributors repeatedly evoke 'original' and 'undisturbed' prairie landscapes and present the advent of Euro-Canadian settlement on the prairies as the critical but unexplored conjuncture in the environmental history of the region. The main problem is that most of the authors seem unaware of the existing historiography. Classics of prairie agricultural historiography such as Gray's Men against the Desert (1967) or Fowke's The National Policy and the Wheat Economy (1957) are referenced, but more recent literature by Gerhard Ens (1996) or Clinton Evans (2002), for example, is noticeably absent. The research that adopts a historical perspective does so uncritically. In chapter 11, Sauchyn, Kennedy, and Stroich present a 'chronology of definitions [to reveal] the evolution of thinking and changing context' of desertification (137). Although this is an interesting overview, history is presented here as an uncontested record.
One important exception is Andy Hamilton's chapter on endemic bugs, in which the author notes that the 'original extent and character' of the Canadian Great Plains is 'inadequately understood and subject to much more romanticism and overstatement' as compared to the American Great Plains (102). Hamilton's assessment of early sources, including eighteenth- and nineteenth-century maps for information on original vegetation, is an enlightened survey but would benefit from the insights offered by Alwynne Beaudoin regarding settlers' perceptions of prairie environments (Beaudoin 1999). Hamilton's observation that fewer sources exist to assess the historical character of the Great Plains in Canada is only partly correct. Detailed nineteenth-century census records and early-twentieth-century aerial photographs from south of the border, which form the documentary basis of the Great Plains Population and Environment Project (www.icpsr.umich.edu/PLAINS/), are exceptional sources and well-suited to digitization and technical analysis. This wealth of information should not obscure the censuses, surveyors journals, published accounts, and personal records that detail northern prairie environments prior to and alongside Euro-Canadian settlement.
The chapter 'Energy Trends for Saskatchewan Farming, 1931–1991,' by Bob Stirling, offers the most effective historical analysis. Stirling concludes that as non-renewable energy sources replaced animal power and human labour, outputs increased while energy efficiency remained constant or declined (36). Stirling outlines a valuable methodology to compare early and late twentieth-century energy inputs and outputs, but one that demands greater qualification. Stirling notes, but does not account for, changing energy efficiencies in this period that affect the standardized coefficients used to represent...