Understanding “place”

Social identity and the future of Montana

Today’s New York Times reports on an effort currently underway by a non-profit organization to create a 3-million acre reserve in the grasslands of Montana.  The American Prairie Reserve is buying ranches that are for sale and slowly stitching together a landscape in which bison can roam freely and in which ecological conditions akin to those present 200 years ago can flourish.

This project is admirable in its scope and goals.  Bison, as the largest native herbivore in North America since the time of the post-Pleistocene mass extinction, were powerful ecological engineers, and their loss — brought about primarily by overhunting — has had widespread consequences on the biological integrity of this continent’s prairies.  Coupled with subsequent land-use changes that have largely involved ranching, with its associated fencing and cattle, the loss of bison herds is one of the biggest wildlife transformations anywhere in North America.

Which makes the work of the American Prairie Reserve one of the biggest wildlife conservation stories today.

What I find interesting about this story, however, is not what they are trying to achieve.  Rather it is the social environment within which they are trying to achieve it.  This story does not involve government intervention, eminent domain, or an Eastern Establishment driving up property values.  Fair-market value is paid to willing sellers who are approached after they put their ranches up for sale.

Yet as reported by the New York Times, this conservation effort faces opposition from some ranchers in the area because … it does not conform to their vision of how the land ought to be used: cattle ranching.

This reminds me of similar conflicts that emerged in New England in the 1990s over logging and timber lands.  All such stories about the “legitimate” uses for large landscapes seems to involve similar questions.

Are there limits to private property rights that would allow neighbors to say to someone, “You cannot sell your land to this other person because they aren’t going to use it the way I think they should”?  It is easy to understand why one would not want to allow a new neighbor to build something that was destructive or dangerous on their land, but should rancher be able to say that a conservation group should not own land because they are practicing conservation?  Or a snowmobiler be able to say that a new landowner cannot post their land against snowmobiling?

On what basis can those who believe in a particular cultural narrative of place claim that their narrative is the most important?  It’s understandable that ranchers who want to continue ranching should expect to be able to continue ranching on their land.  But what gives ranching primacy over other cultural narratives, such as those held by Native Americans who lived there before the ranchers?

And what constitutes the “place” being considered?  An individual ranch?  A single valley? A 20-million acre prairie?  As spatial scale increases, so too does the opportunity for and challenges of diverse cultural narratives to come together —  woven together either collaboratively or in conflict.

This really isn’t just a story about Montana or ranching or bison.  It’s a story about landscape-scale conservation planning everywhere and the role of social identity in shaping the cultural narrative that is used to describe a place.  How we learn — or don’t learn — to unpackage those issues will determine how successful conservation will be in the 21st century and beyond.

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