- Viewpoint: Landscape DisputedWhat Environmental History Can Show Us
Probably most marriages of long duration like mine have an ongoing dialogue that pervades the years of shared life. My enduring argument with my husband (and colleague at Montana State University), Mark Fiege, stems from our mutual fascination with landscapes and our decades of researching in, recreating on, and teaching about public lands. Sometimes heated but more often thought-provoking, the conversation has proven useful in stimulating our scholarship and clarifying concepts to our students. Deeply read in the field, Mark is an environmental historian who holds the conviction that nature plays a crucial role in all historical developments. In his writings, he places the nonhuman first: the material, biogeophysical world is an agent in history that conscribes and directs human actions, often with unpredictable outcomes.1 Mark and I share a common outlook centered on materiality; we both have MAs in public history, experience working in historic preservation, and PhD fields in vernacular architectural history (under Tom Carter). Whereas Mark pursued environmental history, I became an academic public historian working on many cultural resource projects with students in national parks. Here is where our argument arises. When I undertake a cultural landscape study for the national parks, a codified National Park Service (NPS) cultural resource activity, I argue that I am indeed doing environmental history. Mark says no. Cultural landscape study privileges “culture” even when the methodology includes features of the natural world. Too much emphasis remains on the human-made, the architecture, and the mindsets in explaining the history of place.2
On my side of the argument, I point out that the National Park Service has long conducted cultural landscape analyses. When created in 1916, the agency assumed management of sublimely beautiful natural places but also sites occupied by humans, sometimes for millennia. Its charge— to conserve “the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to . . . leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations”— recognized the value of cultural attributes.3 Administrative policy, however, favored natural preservation, and the agency’s organization into divisions of natural resources and cultural resources created a distinction between the natural and the artificial. To restore the natural, the service frequently removed human traces such as buildings from its lands. In the 1930s, the separation between nature and culture became more difficult to maintain. Civil War battlefields inherited from the War Department under Executive Order 6166, for instance, required constant negotiations with a dynamic nature encroaching on the “historic scene.” Though overall still focused on nature preservation, the NPS began to wrestle with the significance of its cultural landscapes.4
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Park Service stepped forward as a leader in cultural landscapes.5 The historic preservation surge that had culminated in the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act and National Register of Historic Places largely overlooked landscapes, [End Page 5] neglecting to include them as an eligible property type. Reflecting a mindset that separated the natural and human-made, the early movement focused on architecture, neighborhoods, and districts. As the preservation field broadened, understanding the built environment without considering its natural setting became increasingly untenable. Landscape architects in particular rejected this narrowness, and some moved to create the Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation in 1978. A year later, the NPS hired landscape architect Robert Z. Melnick to create a model for assessing and protecting landscapes, especially vernacular landscapes that were more difficult to evaluate. In 1984, Melnick’s final report, Cultural Landscapes: Rural Historic Districts in the National Park System, became the agency’s guiding document. Meanwhile, in 1981 the NPS officially included cultural landscapes as one of its resource types. Codified into policy, identification and treatments of cultural landscapes assumed an increasingly important place in NPS cultural resource management. Through the 1990s and 2000s, NPS specialists issued a stream of bulletins, management documents, standardizations, studies, and individual park cultural landscape reports. The National Park Service is now the center for cultural landscape studies and protection, and the rest of the preservation apparatus is moving to catch up.6
Thus, in Mark’s and my debate, I am...