Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Whose environment?

Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom, depicts the turmoil within an upwardly mobile family. The family is educated, they live in a newly gentrified area, and as things spiral within, and on the outside the family still maintains their respectable middle class façade. This family has no relation to rural America, except in the context of the work that Walter, the father, performs. Walter works for a foundation that wants to protect a warbler in the rural, mountainous areas of West Virginia. In seeking to create the natural preserve to protect this creature, Walter must purchase the land from the men and women inhabiting the area and repurpose it for coalfields that will eventually become the preserve. The link to preservation and social responsibility is somewhat tenuous in the context of the novel, but the interesting question the situation brings up is what impact environmental protection has upon rural America?

On one hand, federal assistance enables farm and ranches susceptible to such environmental conversion to be protected, even under the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) regulations. For example, one regulation (FRPP) protects those areas that have been converted to non-agricultural uses and those individuals whose livelihoods rest on ranching and farming. In fact, the FRPP provides assistance to ensure that rural stability and development of the area still exists, even if the area has been converted to a preserve or has become urbanized.

While such regulations can be an important means of ensuring that these individuals maintain their livelihood, on the other hand, it is important to consider the environment when we make concessions for individuals who have staked their lives on the land. One contentious example includes Bill Clinton’s Grand Staircase-Escalante Memorial land designation. In 1998, Clinton designated 1.7 million acres of Utah land as federal wilderness area. By doing so, Clinton ensured environmental protection of an area that many environmental groups had sought to preserve. Yet, at the same time, certain plots of this same land had been assigned as Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands to be managed to produce funds for the state school system in this rural area. Many locals and critics claimed that this land could no longer be developed for the sake of Glendale’s schools or businesses. Glendale, Utah – where the Monument is located – has a population of 355 as of the 2000 census.

Clearly, these two issues strike much contention between rural communities and environmental groups. Such a balance, however, may be difficult to strike because of the two different frameworks that the groups come from. Rural communities may see taking such lands in the context of their lives – in the present – thus taking their livelihood has the effect of immediacy. Environmental groups tend to see the world in a more broad sense, perhaps, where they look to the future and tend to forget the immediate impact that such federal actions may have. While federal regulations seek to sustain rural communities in the wake of urbanization and preservation, the tendency may be to emphasize the growth, development, and protection, rather than those individuals that these grandiose words actually affect.


RH said...

Your post really got me thinking about how difficult it can be to strike a balance between maintaining an area's rural character vs. the need to promote economic development. They often seem like mutually exclusive concepts. When strip malls and sprawl overtake a rural area, something is lost, but it brings a lot of jobs too. It must be hard to decide which is preferable sometimes.

lauren said...

It is tricky to balance the economic livelihood of rural communities with the environmental preservation that is being sought. This post also made me think about the movements that are going on in some cities (I am thinking Berkeley in particular) to identify, draw attention to, and maintain the environment as it existed before the roads and buildings were built. Many Berkeley street corners are labeled with the creeks that run beneath them.

Jon di Cristina said...

The balance between environmental interests and economic interests is fascinating. It must vary a lot in different types of rural communities. If you live in a place like the Sierras, preservation is probably in line with your economic interests (i.e., from tourism). It's probably very different, though, if you live in a place like the Great Basin.