A Place to Play: Outdoor Recreation and Environmental Conflict in the Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century United States

AHA Session 160
Saturday, January 4, 2014: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Columbia Hall 5 (Washington Hilton)
Andrew W. Kahrl, Marquette University
Andrew W. Kahrl, Marquette University

Session Abstract

With the rise of environmental movements over the last century, some of the most intense and impactful debates in the United States have focused on the ways Americans use the natural environment.  A major factor in the growth of environmental advocacy has been the deep connection Americans have formed with nature through their leisure-time pursuits.  Yet although parks, preserves, and wildlife refuges may appear to have a less destructive impact on the environment than, say, factory farms and manufacturing plants, the process of planning a recreational landscape raises vexing questions about proper land management techniques and appropriate uses of the land.  Thus, as reshaping the natural environment for recreational purposes has become a higher priority in the United States, it has also become a greater source of conflict.

            This panel explores a number of significant environmental disputes from the 1920s through the present.  The debates examined by the panelists bring to light the significance of social class, race, competing ideas about resource use, and the distinction between state-directed land management and private control, in discussions of the proper ways to promote outdoor play.  Also playing a critical role in the narratives told here is natural agency—that is, the ways in which the physical environment, wildlife, and natural changes have set the parameters of debate and have played a role in shaping outcomes.

            Gregory Dehler kicks off the panel with his study of the discord that divided sports hunters and conservationists who embraced different interpretations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.  Here, as in the other papers, unexpected rifts and unlikely alliances complicate the story of environmental advocacy in U.S. history, and demonstrate how divisive debates over outdoor recreation can be.  Strange bedfellows also appear in Jonathan Anzalone’s paper on the development of state-run ski centers in New York’s Adirondack Park.  The state’s struggle in managing modern winter-sports facilities in the park left administrators vulnerable to attacks from both business groups and wilderness advocates.  As Jen Corrinne Brown demonstrates in her paper on fishing in the tailwaters of Montana’s Bighorn River, racial differences and class divisions in a dispute that involved white anglers on one side, and the Crow Tribe on the other, add further complexities to the history of environmental conflict.  The question of ownership—who controls the land and dictates its uses—looms large in this story, as it does in Sarah Stanford-McIntyre’s concluding presentation.  Her paper on the Valles Caldera National Trust brings the history of conflict over the recreational environment into the twenty-first century, with an examination of the pitfalls inherent in a public/private land management scheme.  In this story, as in the others on this panel, debate stems from the question: how should the land be used?  Judging by the many different answers given to this seemingly simple question, finding and creating places for play was not all fun and games.

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