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From Sea to Shining Sea: Key Resources in U.S. Environmental History (March 2015): The West

by Larry T. Spencer

The West

There are many aspects to the environmental history of this large region. Major topics include nuclear testing, natural resources, wildlife, and space. William H. Goetzmann, now deceased, was one of the major historians associated with the history of the American West. His early books dealt with the early exploration of the region by the Corps of Topographical Engineers and later by other government bureaus. In the late 1980s, he coauthored with William N. Goetzmann The West of the Imagination, which was a companion book to a PBS series. The expanded and updated edition is beautifully illustrated with 450 paintings, the majority of which are in color.

Nuclear matters are often associated with the West because of the so-called empty spaces in this part of the country. Locations for nuclear testing included the Trinity desert site and the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, Rocky Flats near Denver, Colorado, and the nuclear test flats in Nevada. Len Ackland considers some of these matters in Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West. J. Samuel Walker discusses where to store nuclear wastes in The Road to Yucca Mountain: The Development of Radioactive Waste Policy in the United States. Rebecca Solnit contrasts the controversies in Yosemite (removal of the Native Americans) with the nuclear testing activities in the Great Basin in Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West.

Mining, trees, and hydroelectric power are three major commodities associated with the West. The following books focus on key individuals involved with these commodities. Michael Makley discusses William Sharon in The Infamous King of the Comstock: William Sharon and the Gilded Age in the West. The Comstock Lode also contained silver; in a companion volume, Makley discusses the life of John Mackay in John Mackay: Silver King in the Gilded Age. Although Frederick Weyerhaeuser began his career in the Midwest, his company, the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company, founded in 1900, is thought of mostly as a western company. Judith Healey explores his life in Frederick Weyerhaeuser and the American West.

Easterners complain about the price of power, while residents of Oregon and Washington have cheap power because of the large dams in the Columbia River Basin. Paul Hirt explains the history behind this in The Wired Northwest: The History of Electric Power, 1870s-1970s. Another recent book about the Northwest is William Robbins and Katrine Barber’s Nature’s Northwest: The North Pacific Slope in the Twentieth Century.

The charismatic fauna of the West include the bison and the grizzly bear. There are a number of specific works on bison biology, but Michael Punke in Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West describes the role of the naturalist Grinnell in saving the bison from extinction. Bison also figure prominently in Andrew Isenberg’s tome The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920. Across the Great Divide: Explorations in Collaborative Conservation and the American West, edited by Philip Brick, Donald Snow, and Sarah Van de Wetering, covers other conservation matters.

Space and what occupies that space are important aspects of environmental history. Adam Sowards covers this general topic in United States West Coast: An Environmental History. Land in the American West: Private Claims and the Common Good, edited by William Robbins and James Foster, examines land tenure, while Ellen Wohl determines how humans relate to space in Of Rock and Rivers: Seeking a Sense of Place in the American West. Cities figure prominently in the space they occupy. Cities and Nature in the American West, edited by Char Miller, considers some general features of urban areas, while Hal Rothman examines one specific city in Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Started the Twenty-First Century. Cities and space also come into play in R. Douglas Hurt’s The Big Empty: The Great Plains in the Twentieth Century. Another interesting work, The Culture of Tourism, the Tourism of Culture: Selling the Past to the Present in the American Southwest, edited by Rothman, discusses getting people to come to that space.

With a gross domestic product as large as that of many nations, the state of California is a prominent topic for books on environmental history. Four recent ones are Douglas Sackman’s Orange Empire: California and the Fruits of Eden, Jared Farmer’s Trees in Paradise: A California History, David Helvarg’s The Golden Shore: California’s Love Affair with the Sea, and Andrew Isenberg’s Mining California: An Ecological History. In 1911, Ishi, the last Yahi Indian, came out of the wild at Oroville, California. Anthropologist Alfred Kroeber essentially adopted him, and Ishi lived the remaining six years of his life in Berkeley. Sackman’s Wild Men: Ishi and Kroeber in the Wilderness of Modern America is not so much an anthropological treatise as an examination of what it means to be human in wilderness.

Works Cited