Monday, April 24, 2006

I read the anthropology blogs so you don't have to

Via Fieldnotes, a nice piece by Terry Glavin covering the unfolding environmental crisis in British columbia. Especially interesting in this article is its emphasis on the effect of the lodgepole pine crisis on BC's native people as well as an unusually nuanced approach to tracing the source of the problem. Glavin, quoting botanist Richard Hebda, finds the source of the problem in the 140 year history of poor forest management that resulted from a drastic reduction in the native population during a smallpox epidemic.

When I lived in Northern California and spent a lot of time doing archaeology in the Sierras, I remember that one of the biggest problems in forest management was the thick, flammable understory in most of the public forests, a result of 20th century fire supression efforts. That understory transformed potentially beneficial small fires - needed for the germination of certain seeds - into devastating infernos.

Closer to home, the end of indiginous controlled burning practices nearly brought an end to the once-vast serpentine grassland which once stretched between central Maryland and New Jersey.

While humans changing and even destroying their habitats is nothing new (the destruction of the serpentine grasslands began nearly 400 years ago), the lodgepole pine crisis points to the ways that historical actions can compound contemporary problems. This is, as I feel I am forever pointing out, why disciplines that study the past are way more important to contemporary society than most folks give them credit for.

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